The Romantic Revival in Early China and Taiwan: Hsu Chih-Mo's Poetics of Liberty

The Chinese poet Hsu Chih-Mo (1897-1931), known as the Chinese Shelley, brought Romantic ideas from Britain to modern China. His conviction of liberty was manifested in his literary works, alongside his pursuit of true love and social change. This essay employs the concept of “Romantic legacies” to revisit Hsu’s Romantic philosophy and Taiwan’s Romantic movements. Firstly, the essay examines Hsu’s Romantic legacies. Influenced by Bertrand Russell, Thomas Hardy and other British intellectuals, Hsu succeeded to Shelley’s Romantic ideas of social justice and love. His journeys to Europe and experience of love helped shape and reshape his Romantic philosophy. Secondly, the essay explores Hsu’s Romantic ideas and Taiwan’s democratization. Hsu’s literary works, regaining significance in the spirit of the Fourth May movement, facilitated Taiwanese youngsters’ understanding of the significance of independent minds. Hsu’s poetics of liberty was introduced to Taiwan and gained popularity, in particular, during the period of campus ballads. In brief, the Shelleyan skylark flew from Britain, via modern China, to Taiwan and continues singing its songs of idealism.

The Romantic Revival in Early China and Taiwan: Hsu Chih-Mo’s Poetics of Liberty

Terence H. W. Shih
St. John’s University, Taiwan

1.        Hsu Chih-Mo (1897–1931), originally spelt Hsu Tsemon by Hsu himself and now also spelt Xu Zhimo, is an early twentieth-century poet who was born in the late Ching Dynasty (1616–1912) [1]  and whose Romantic ideas derived particularly from British poets and his visiting studies at Cambridge University in the early twentieth century. Hsu claimed that he was greatly influenced by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The imagery of Shelley’s “skylark” particularly impressed him, as stated in a letter that Hsu wrote in English to Ogden, his British publisher, dated 2 November 1924: “I am a sincere worshipper of your ethereal Bard of the skylark” (qtd. in Liu 152). [2]  Shelley’s name and the “skylark” are frequently mentioned throughout Hsu’s works. In his “Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’” Hsu responds to Shelley’s “The Cloud,” “Ode to the West Wind,” and “To a Skylark” and ponders on the symbol of Shelley’s skylark: “as for his ode to the ‘Skylark’ no one knows whether it is the poet that is singing outside the sky or it is the skylark that is singing inside the lines” (285). Hsu’s biographers have recognized his Romantic legacy and named him “the Chinese Shelley.” [3]  In her memoir, Pearl Buck (1892–1973) singles out Hsu (Xu in her book) and recognises him as “the Chinese Shelley”: “[O]ne handsome and rather distinguished and certainly much beloved young poet was proud to be called ‘the Chinese Shelley’” (qtd. in Spurling 173). [4]  Hsu enlightened his contemporaries by introducing a Romantic ethos into the early period of the republican China. His concept of liberty was manifested in his pursuit of true love and social justice, together with his literary creations. After the withdrawal of the democratic China to Taiwan in 1949, Taiwan’s “campus ballads” flourished, inheriting the words and spirit of Hsu’s Romantic poetry.

2.        Many critics have endeavored to expand Romantic ideas by introducing or connecting such ideas to other periods and regions. “The legacy of Romanticism” has therefore emerged as a key concept in the study of Romanticism. In recent years Michael O’Neill and other critics have explored the legacies of Romanticism in Western literature. [5]  As an emerging field in Romantic studies, however, “the legacy of Romanticism” has yet to be sufficiently expanded worldwide. In terms of Romantic connections between Hsu and Shelley, it was Bertrand Russell, together with other twentieth-century English contemporaries, who was greatly influenced by Shelley and instigated Hsu’s interest in English Romanticism. Like a bard, Shelley’s skylark chanted idealism from early nineteenth-century Britain, via modern China, to Taiwan. Such reception of English Romanticism currently echoes those protests for freedom and individualism in some parts of the world under dictatorship. This essay aims to heighten the significance of English Romanticism in East Asia by demonstrating Hsu’s Romantic legacies in modern China and his Shelleyan liberalism revived, in particular, during the period of Taiwan’s campus ballads.

I. Hsu Chih-Mo’s Romantic Legacy

3.        Hsu Chih-Mo’s early education in the English language, history, politics and economics, and afterwards his visiting studies in England strengthened his enthusiasm for Western philosophy and literature, particularly those of the Romantic era. As a child, Hsu was fully supported by his wealthy father for a complete Western education. In addition to his studies in traditional Chinese culture, which included the canon and calligraphy, the adolescent Hsu learned the English language in the major academic institution of the Ching Dynasty, Jingshih Tongwen Guan (Beijing Tongwen Institute), [6]  which was the predecessor of the Department of English at Peking University. In its late period, the decaying empire, the Ching Dynasty, was invaded by the “Eight-Nation Alliance,” including Russia, Germany, France, the United States, Japan, Austria, Italy, and Britain. This ill-reputed shame forced the imperial court to recognize the significance of understanding the West, including its science, language and culture. Language education was the key point for the royal court in cultivating experts in foreign languages and translations. In such a political context, English training enabled Hsu to go abroad, supported by his father, a successful merchant, first to the United States for a BA degree in history at Clark University, Massachusetts, in 1918 and afterwards for an MA in economics and politics at Columbia University in 1919. [7]  Hsu’s earlier research in history and economics may have been the foundation for his enthusiasm for social reforms in the newly established China. Resonant with Virginia Woolf’s assertion of women’s awakening, [8]  his postgraduate dissertation, entitled The Social Position of Women in China, exhibited his political viewpoint on Chinese women’s social status. Back in China, Hsu further disseminated the Western thought of liberty through his magazine pieces, newspaper articles and public lectures. The liberation of the mind was Hsu’s first concern as a stepping-stone for social reforms. His overseas experience was what majorly instigated the young poet to reassess social customs in China.

4.        Russell’s philosophy was what mainly facilitated Hsu’s enthusiasm for English Romanticism. Impressed by Russell’s fame, Hsu gave up an admission offer from Columbia University for doctoral research, and instead, without his father’s approval, Hsu sought supervision from Russell in England, as stated in Hsu’s Chinese prose entitled “All the Cambridge I Know”: “As for studies, I came to Britain to follow Russell” (36). [9]  Unfortunately, Hsu did not have a chance to work with Russell. Upon his arrival in London in 1920, Hsu was told that Russell was away in China. Russell’s post as professor was suspended by Cambridge University as a result of his anti-war advocacy during the First World War. Nevertheless, Hsu’s understanding of Romantic literature and ideas was increasingly reinforced during his life in Britain, where he was accepted as a special student at London School of Economics in 1920 and later at Cambridge in 1921. Hsu might have been familiar with Russell’s philosophy during his studies in the United States, although there is no other written evidence in Hsu’s works. That possibility would explain Hsu’s eagerness to go to Britain to follow Russell.

5.        Shelley’s philosophy may also have been passed on, via Russell’s works, to the young Hsu. In fact, Shelley had left a deep impression on Russell, as evidenced in the following quotation:

Shelley was a wonderful discovery. . . . I couldn’t understand how grown-up people, who admired Shakespeare and Milton could fail to care about Shelley. I got a passionate love of him—more than for any one I knew. (Qtd. in Leithauser 34)
While Shelley’s socialism and atheism were unconventional, these radical ideas spread widely and influenced later European intellectuals, including Russell, Karl Marx and George Bernard Shaw. [10]  Despite his ambivalence towards the Romantic movement, Russell affirmed that Shelley was an unconventional Romantic particularly in the realm of the human mind (Leithauser 32). Influenced by Shelley’s atheism, Russell continued to challenge Christianity and the legitimacy of religion in his early lecture “Why I Am Not a Christian: An Examination of the God-Idea.” Echoing Shelley’s atheistic philosophy, Russell eventually rejects religion and endorses science for a better world, as stated in the lecture: “Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. . . . Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations” (596). [11]  He thinks that fear comes from “human ignorance.” Russell’s Shelleyan perspectives indeed echo Hsu’s inclination for atheism, science and materialism. Hsu particularly elaborates on these philosophical ideas in his prose essays, including “Words” (“Hua”) and “The Death of My Grandmother.” Hsu clearly expresses his “body-mind” philosophy in “The Death of My Grandmother”:
Scientists say that the consciousness and aspiration merely work with the nervous system. . . . [T]he body is for the sake of function, and [the consciousness] becomes void without the body. [The concept of] the soul is a big lie told by religionists. Once the human body dies, everything is gone. (137–38)

6.         Beyond Russell’s influences on Hsu’s philosophy, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (1862–1932) [12]  and Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) are the two British intellectuals and writers who particularly shared their Romantic ideas with Hsu and somewhat strengthened his understanding of Shelley’s philosophy. Hsu met Dickinson in his early days in London and arranged to see Hardy during his second journey from China to England. These two Englishmen enlightened the young poet in the realm of English literature, including Shelley’s poems. In his “All the Cambridge I Know,” Hsu mentions his first encounter with and later befriending of Dickinson, who was then a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge: “I had fooled around at LSE, London, for half a year. Feeling no way out and thinking of another way [for visiting studies], [in 1921] I met Mr Dickinson, . . . a noted author whom I earlier admired due to two of his pamphlets—‘Letters from John Chinaman’ and ‘A Modern Symposium’” (36–37). Dickinson’s understanding of Shelley’s philosophy and poetry is revealed in his edition of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Shelley’s philosophy of liberty against political oppression in Prometheus Unbound strengthened Dickinson’s pacifism, which was an anti-war belief held by the Dickinson circle, inclusive of Russell, during World War I. The circle’s pacifism echoes Hsu’s humanitarianism exhibited particularly during his journey, via Russia, to Europe. In his “Notes on a Journey to Europe,”  [13]  dated 29 May 1925, Hsu sympathizes with people’s poverty in Siberia after the 1917 October Revolution, or the Red Revolution (177–80).

7.        Hardy is another influential man of letters who led Hsu to further explore Romantic ideas. In his essay entitled “An Afternoon of Visiting Hardy,” Hsu describes “the impressive magic of the arts” in Romantic poets, such as Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth, and his perusal of Hardy’s works (155). In 1922 the meeting between the young Hsu (aged 25) and the elderly Hardy (aged 82), although less than an hour, was arranged by Hsu’s first English friend, Dickinson: “Thanks to Mr Dickinson’s assistance in England last July, I surprisingly met this old hero” (155). Similar to Russell’s and Dickinson’s enthusiasm for Shelley, Hardy’s interest in Shelley was recognised in Hsu’s article: “On the wall were hung Hardy’s portrait . . . and Shelley’s portrait on the other side. I seem to remember a thick edition of Shelley laid on the bookshelf. . . . I was wondering why on earth the old fellow loved Shelley so much. These two are not kindred spirits at all” (157). Hsu admired both Hardy and Shelley, but he found these two English writers expressing their thoughts very differently up until his later reflection on their philosophies. In his “Appendix 2: Hardy’s Pessimism,” Hsu employs the concept of “fixed mindset” to reassess the general public’s claim of “Hardy as a pessimist”: “Hardy never wrote Jude [Jude the Obscure] to prove his pessimism, simply as Shelley [n]ever consciously advocated ‘Romanticism’ or ‘naturalism.’ We may well listen to his own defence” (166). While his lines still suggest that Hardy and Shelley are “not kindred spirits at all,” Hsu worships Shelley and Hardy equally. For Hsu, Shelley and Hardy are heroes without a “fixed mindset,” which Hsu regards as “a foe of the arts, as well as an obstacle to thought” (166). In “Appendix 2: Sketches on Hardy’s Works,” Hsu particularly demonstrates Hardy’s literary revolts against the Victorian culture (163). Hardy wrote a poem entitled “Shelley’s Skylark” to honour Shelley as an influential poet whose idealism inspired him: “For it [the skylark] inspired a bard to win / Ecstatic heights in thought and rhyme” (23–24). Among Hardy critics, Roland A. Dueksen earlier acknowledged same viewpoints in the “social and religious beliefs” of Hardy and Shelley (161). Harold Bloom also finds strong similarities between the two poets: “Hardy’s Shelley is very close to the most central of Shelleys, the visionary skeptic. . . . for they both told truths” (22). In his elegy for Hardy, entitled “Hardy,” Hsu writes that Hardy’s critical words towards idealism are like “hot spice to the mouth” (12) but “[h]e loves genuineness [and] mercy” (26).

8.        Aside from the British writers’ influences on the young poet, Hsu’s European journeys nourished him in developing a Romantic mind. Hsu travelled from the Continent back to China, from the grave to the bay, and mentally from science to the arts. His love for the world was not formed from a single thread. In his “Chekhov’s Graveyard,” Hsu writes about experiencing a tremendous circle of great men and women and recognizing the lively mind in meditation, “not being enslaved by sentiments” (184). In addition to visiting the graves of Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, [14]  Voltaire, Rousseau, and other Western intellectuals, Hsu mentions his pleasant two-time visits to Shelley’s and Keats’s graves in Rome (181–82). Hsu paid homage to Shelley and Keats, and Hsu’s admiration is equally evident in his translations of their works, which include Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and Shelley’s “The Skylark.” Their pure idealism had already been discussed in Hsu’s 1924 prose essay “John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’” part of which is Hsu’s own translation of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” In this essay, Hsu particularly mentions his accidental connection to Western literature: “As for me, literature was originally not my expertise, and my limited knowledge of literature was ‘mastered by none’” (286). A number of poets and novelists, as well as their works, are also mentioned in this essay. In addition to Keats, they include Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Shelley, Goethe, Stevenson, Plato, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Baudelaire, and Rousseau. Among these great men of letters, major Romantics are all admired by the young poet.

9.        Among Romantic ideas, Shelley’s concept of love particularly impressed Hsu. Echoing Shelley’s philosophy, Hsu put emphasis upon the necessity of true love and fought against patriarchal authorities. His personal marriage and philosophy of love received harsh criticism from the public. As in Shelley’s case, Hsu’s unorthodox marriages led him to ponder over the autonomy of the mind towards love. The drama in Hsu’s life resulted from his pursuit of not only political, but philosophical liberty. Hsu reluctantly married his first wife, Chang Yiu-Yu, [15]  and later wedded Lu Shiao-Man, an elegant society woman who Hsu met at a club in Beijing after a sorrowful relationship with his alleged beloved Lin Hui-Yin. Hsu’s dynamic partnership may remind the reader of Shelley’s with Harriet Westbrook and later Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and even Jane Williams. Hsu was not merely a Romantic believer but a practitioner, as notorious a husband as Shelley was.

II. Hsu Chih-Mo and Taiwan’s Romantic Movements

10.        Critical discussions of Taiwan’s Romantic movements may come from distinct perspectives, but the concept or term langman (浪漫), literally meaning “romantic” in Chinese, was circulated in Hsu’s times and later introduced to Taiwan especially after 1949. Hsu’s Romantic poetry and later Taiwan’s “campus ballads”—a genre of Taiwanese popular songs—may not have been necessarily connected to Taiwan’s democracy, which emerged in the complicated milieu of Taiwan’s contemporary history. [16]  Nonetheless, the Romantic ideas had caught on particularly since the thoughts of Hsu and other social movement leaders arrived in Taiwan. Hsu’s poetics exerted a seminal influence on the development of Romanticism in Taiwan. His poetry relating to liberty had already been recognized in early China (i.e. modern China prior to communist dominance) and introduced to Taiwan as a genre of “modern poetry” by the government of the Republic of China (1912–), ruled by the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT). [17] 

11.        Hsu, whose literary and social activities remained on the Mainland, exerted posthumous power over the consciousness of Taiwanese people, thus becoming an important figure for bridging the histories of early China and Taiwan. The social movement influenced by Hsu and his contemporaries, called the May Fourth Movement, dates back to 1919, when the First World War had just ended and Chinese student-led protesters went on strike against imperial occupants as well as the Chinese ruling authority for its incompetence. To commemorate this incident, Chinese intellectuals widely employed the term “May Fourth” to advocate social, literary, and political reforms. In effect, the concept of this movement, according to Yu Ying-Shih, can be exchangeable in term with the “New Culture Movement” (1915–19), [18]  which was used by Chinese elites in 1917 to refer to a movement of “literary revolution” during the May Fourth Movement (17). At that time the Western conceptions of science and democracy were introduced to China, personified as Mr. Sai (science) and Mr. De (democracy), to dispel superstition and feudal thought. While inheriting the legacy of the Enlightenment’s rationalism, “the thought of the May Fourth [Movement] alludes explicitly to Romanticism” (H. Chang 35). The intellectuals have noted the complicated nature of the May Fourth, relating it to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, which in a sense upheld the legacy of the former two while reassessing them. [19]  Together with his other academic fellows, Hsu endeavoured to reassess the fixedness of Chinese culture and social codes. Enlightened by Western thought, Hsu particularly advocated vernacular literature, as well as women’s education and social status.

12.        The influence of Hsu-led Romantic movements on Taiwan’s new wave of democracy did not launch until the KMT authority came into power in Taiwan. Despite Hsu’s early death (at the age of 34), his literary works and philosophy of liberty were distributed by his academic fellows who withdrew to Taiwan with the nationalist troops. Hu Shih (1891–1962) was one of the major fellows in this list, acting as one of the leaders during the New Culture Movement. He integrated his study of Western philosophy into his PhD thesis, under John Dewey’s supervision, and then worked as chancellor of Peking University. In fact, it was Hu who invited Hsu to teach poetry part-time at Peking. As a librarian at Peking University, Mao Tze-Dong—later famous as Chair Mao in communist China—was attracted to Hsu and sat on his lecture at the university. The intellectual connections of Chinese celebrities in the nation’s modern history became an emerging power in cultivating the newborn China.

13.        The idealism for social reforms, in the Romantic vein, in fact, transcended ideological boundaries as it was inherited not only by democratic Taiwan but also by communist China. Under the Romantic ethos of liberty and equality, the Chinese communists led passionate youngsters and the economically lower class (mainly farmers) in a bid to establish another republican country—the People’s Republic of China. Very different from Hsu’s non-violent assertions, as seen throughout his work, Communist actions derived from political radicalism and were subject to violence. Romantic thinkers had originally aimed to overturn a malfunctioning society or system, but history has revealed that social upheaval is a necessity after a violent action or revolution. This double-edged sword of Romanticism had been seen earlier in the French Revolution and later in the Mao-led Chinese Cultural Revolution, which caused a great loss of Chinese heritages during its ten years (1966–76). Unlike the non-violent literary movement and pacifism that Shelley, Russell and Hsu supported, the destructive radicalism during the Chinese Culture Revolution repeated the history of France’s socio-political turmoil after the French Revolution and under the Napoleonic regime. [20] 

14.        Hsu’s Romantic spirits, on the other hand, were transmitted from China to Taiwan by his good friend Hu Shih. As a leader of the early Chinese Romanticism, Hu left for Taiwan, together with the KMT troops, and was appointed by the government to “revive” Chinese culture in Taiwan. [21]  Prior to the rule of the Chiang-led government, Taiwan had been detached from Hsu-related Romantic ideas. Revolutionary ideas were however circulated by local political dissidents, among whom was Chiang Wei-Shui (1891–1931). Chiang, who was a physician and poet, is seen as a forerunner of Taiwan’s social movements for democracy and liberty during the Japanese occupation. In regard to the dissemination of English Romanticism in Taiwan, Hsu’s poetical works, along with the spirit of the May Fourth Movement, were spread through the textbooks used in Taiwan’s education system. According to Yeh Shu-Mei, Hsu’s literary works started to be published and disseminated in Taiwan in the mid-1950s but a nearly complete collection of his works [22]  did not appear until 1967, when Hu’s friends edited his complete works with the assistance of his first wife Chang Yiu-Yu (332).

15.        Hsu’s literary works served as a bridge that connected English Romantic ideas to Taiwan’s “campus ballads” and potentially to its democratic movement. The period of ballads roughly fell between the 1970s and the 1990s. In 1977, the Golden Tune Award (Jin Yun Jiang), as a non-profit singing contest, [23]  was first bestowed on talented singers and composers. The Award encouraged a number of amateur composers and singers to present their talent in popular music. Arranged in a separate group for the Award, students were particularly encouraged to attend. The success and popularity of the Award helped the original songs to be widely and frequently circulated on TV, radio and even college campuses. The annual contest came to an end in 1984, but the Award had sparked interest particularly among students to demonstrate their liberal thoughts via songs. Without any contamination by commercial interests, the composers and performers of campus ballads created their own songs to express their feelings and thoughts. Most of them were young intellectuals in higher education who knew well of Hsu’s reputation and works, probably as a result of their involvement in the May Fourth Movement.

16.        With regard to this phenomenon, concerns over Taiwan’s cultural subjectivity have emerged over the past decade or so. Some critics have reassessed the positive influence of campus ballads and asserted that the period of ballads in Taiwan’s early history was simply constructed by Chiang Kai-Shek’s KMT government, namely based on a political ideology without regard to Taiwan’s cultural identity. [24]  For a more nuanced understanding of Taiwan’s cultural identity, threats from the Chinese communism should be taken into consideration. Without Chiang’s so-called “dictatorship,” Taiwan might have been invaded by the communists. Due to an essence of hatred, any bigotry of culture and literature could also lead to a certain extremism. As for a positive influence of campus ballads, these songs strengthened Taiwan’s nationalism and patriotism particularly among young intellectuals. According to Tseng Huei-Jia, the youngsters’ patriotism was overwhelmingly ignited by the anti-Japanese movement of Diaoyu islands (i.e., Senkaku in Japanese), [25]  and later the KMT government’s policies for social and moral purifications facilitated the nationwide popularity of the campus ballads (136–40). Nevertheless, how and who to define the subjectivity of Taiwan’s culture remains debatable from distinct vantage points.

17.        The period of campus ballads is a significant time in the history of Taiwanese culture, offering one way for us to assess Taiwan’s cultural subjectivity. Those songs are categorized according to the following topics: history, melancholy, Chinese poetry, cultural experience, local daily lives, wandering, departure, oblivion, childhood, purity, nature, recollection, affections, encouragement, and pacifism. Among the wide-ranging types of songs created and performed during this period, “Hap” (1976), “Second Farewell to Cambridge” (1977), [26]  and “Struggles for Springtime Between Plum Blossoms and Snow Flakes” (1980) are, in the rank of popularity, the best known songs that derived from Hsu’s representative poems of the same name. [27]  Those lyrical ballads convey the poet’s sentimental love for distant memories. Different from his direct call for reforms of social codes, these poetical works highlight the liberation of the mind. When the political tension between Taiwan and China decreased with the re-opening of strait tourism and communication, Taiwan’s earlier popular songs, campus ballads included, were widely introduced to Mainland China. Taiwan’s campus ballads, alongside the singers, became respected by the fans in the Mainland. Also, Chinese people gained a better understanding of Hsu and Cambridge through their readings of selected works by the poet in their textbooks. Compared with the emphasis on Hsu’s works in Taiwan, research on Hsu’s works did not take off in communist China until the late 1980s and it was even later that Hsu’s works were selected for school textbooks. [28] 

18.        “Second Farewell to Cambridge,” [29]  a complementary poem in the textbook of junior high schools in Taiwan, was popular with young adults during the ballad period. [30]  Hsu’s prose work entitled “All the Cambridge I Know,” written on 15 January 1926, had already been selected for the textbook partly because of the Taiwanese government’s political strategy to disseminate modern Chinese literature. Heightened by the prose and the song, [31]  Cambridge and River Cam left a great impression on the readers. Interestingly, the town of Cambridge and the University up to this day are much more renowned than even London or Oxford to the Taiwanese folks. For them, Hsu, and his adapted song particularly, made Cambridge a place of romantic fame. Hsu’s words describing Cambridge lead his readers to a romantic dreamland where it is picturesque and the lifestyle is carefree. For Hsu himself, Cambridge is also a place that strengthened his connection with Romantic thoughts. A soap opera entitled April Rhapsody, released in Taiwan in 2000, further brought its viewers closer to Hsu and Cambridge. This soap opera tells the stories of Hsu’s romances and his life at Cambridge. Cambridge thus became the equivalent of a romantic town in the popular imagination of Taiwanese and Chinese tourists. The Cambridge authorities concerned learned of the significance of this Chinese poet and therefore delightedly set up a stone plaque in memory of the great poet in 2008, partly to please Chinese visitors. On the stone were engraved Hsu’s famous lines from “Second Farewell to Cambridge.” The stone currently stands at King’s College, where Hsu’s friend Dickinson helped him to be allocated as a special student.

19.        In a sentimental tone exhibited in the poem, Hsu recalls all his memories from his residence at Cambridge. River Cam is the main focus of the poem, where the poet employs imagery of misty clouds, willows, river weeds, punting, and summer insects to reflect on his melancholy, and the poem ends in a sentimental tone: “Silently I was gone, / Just as I silently came. / I dusted off my sleeves, / Taking no piece of clouds” (26–29). His sentimentality towards nature, including clouds, plants, and insects, pervades the entire poem, and those images of nature put to music led the young students in the age of campus ballads to romanticize Britain. In “All the Cambridge I Know,” Hsu further illustrates his love of nature and the liberty of the mind. For Hsu, Cambridge is his spiritual homeland: “After the departure of more than three years, Cambridge, who understands my melancholy and homesickness?” (“All the Cambridge I Know” 48). Hsu’s overseas experiences and thoughts particularly fascinated the young students in the 1970s. [32]  More significantly, the spirit of the May Fourth movement was implicitly revived and further disseminated through the enchanting songs igniting the social consciousness of youngsters. With the enlightenment brought by such liberal ethos, more social movements were launched in the 1980s. Exploring Taiwan’s popular songs and social movements, Tseng argues that, “the 1980s, for Taiwan, is an era with the face of being unbound after the society had been long shackled particularly since the outbreak of 1979’s ‘Formosa Incident’” (178). This incident, also known as the Kaohsiung Incident, is a watershed moment in the history of Taiwan’s democratization. [33] 

20.        The two other famous campus ballads that derive from Hsu’s poems, “Hap” and “Struggles for Springtime Between Plum Blossoms and Snow Flakes,” instigate distinct sentiments. The former depicts a mysterious encounter with a stranger at sea, and the latter a winter landscape that conceals the poet’s remorse for a massacre. During the period of campus ballads, undergraduate students composed soft melodies to illuminate Hsu’s poetics of liberty in nature, love and truth. The word “Hap,” my translation of the original title which in Chinese means “coincidence” or “chance,” can be linked to Hardy’s “Hap.” Due to his admiration for Hardy as well as his works, Hsu expresses a sentimental vein in the poem. Hsu had earlier acknowledged that his “snobbishness of hero worship” (155) in wanting to meet Hardy and other celebrities was the main reason for his “sentimental journey” in Europe: “Last year I came to Europe on a completely ‘sentimental journey;’ . . . I was keen to meet [other heroes and] Britain’s Hardy, but I only met Hardy” (“An Afternoon of Visiting Hardy” 156). After the short meeting, Hsu analysed Hardy’s pessimism and later even wrote an epitaph for the poet, entitled “Hardy.” It begins, “Hardy, pessimistic, inactive, / This time no more complaints, / A shadow is folding his eyes? / Gone, he will no longer show his face” (1–4). Echoing Hardy’s “pessimism,” Hsu expresses a similar sentiment at the opening of the poem “Hap”:

I am a piece of cloud in the sky,
Occasionally, reflected on your ripples.
You need not feel stunned
And even cheerful.
It will be all gone in a moment. (1–5)
The cloud imagery is reminiscent of not only Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and Shelley’s “The Cloud” but also works of Chinese literature where the cloud refers to a carefree mind without any earthly pursuit. Nevertheless, Hsu’s “Hap” suggests uncertainty. In the poem, the narrator is the “cloud” (1) and occasionally experiences a loving relationship with a stranger—a persona of the water, which is revealed in the “ripples” (2). The imagery of ripples suggests the excitement of the stranger who is attracted to the narrator. The narrator, however, reminds the stranger not to “feel stunned [a]nd even cheerful” (3–4). The difference between the sky and the earth suggests the unblessed relationship between the cloud and the water. This dynamic mind, like floating clouds, is also described at the very beginning of Hsu’s prose essay “Self Anatomy”: “I am a dynamic person. The moment my body moves, my thought seems to jump with it” (80).

21.        Hsu’s writing tends to reveal his Romantic mind—that is, the mind ought to remain liberal and independent. In “Hap,” the narrator keeps the mind completely independent of any influence in a tempting relationship. Similar to Shelley’s Romantic thought toward free love, Hsu’s love affairs with women reflect his dynamic philosophy. As told in the last part of the poem, only the very moment matters:

You and I met at sea on a dark night.
You had your own; I had my own—direction.
Fine if you remember; you had better forget
The very moment of mutual ignition. (“Hap” 6–9)
In the sentimental tune of this ballad, the singer Chelsia Chan’s touching voice [34]  successfully instigates the listener’s desire to be true to oneself. The “ignition” (9) is symbolic of the speaker’s affection for the stranger, but the speaker reminds the stranger not to make the occasional encounter disturb the mind, regardless of positive or negative feelings. The autonomous mind echoes Hsu’s poetics of liberty. In other words, this non-political poem conveys Hsu’s philosophy in a bid to seek an independent self. The essence of the autonomous mind, Hsu suggests, applies to his views against political conformity. While he seems to express pessimism and uncertainty throughout the poem, Hsu follows Hardy’s philosophy to demonstrate every aspect of life and, like Hardy, rejects classification as a pessimist. [35]  This autonomy of the mind is resonant with the lamp metaphor for Romanticism in M. H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp. The speaker in the poem is the lamp reminding the stranger not to be a mere reflection or follower, represented by the imagery of the water or mirror, and instead to cultivate an independent mind or identity to illuminate the world. During the age of the campus ballads, the young listeners of this song “Hap” had been encouraged to think and love independently. The song, along with Hsu’s “notorious” romance, to some extent had led the youth to Romantic individualism and liberalism. The women listeners, in particular, sensed what Hsu significantly conveyed his philosophy of free love and how a woman should educate herself to be independent, financially and emotionally.

22.        Echoing this sentimental vein, Hsu’s poem “Struggles for Springtime Between Plum Blossoms and Snow Flakes” contrasts the redness of plum blossoms and the whiteness of snowflakes to etch a poignant moment in the modern history of Taiwan. In the poem Hsu expresses remorse for the dead, particularly an innocent boy of thirteen, sacrificed in a social movement that took place on 18 March 1926. The date was to remember the “318 Massacre.” That Hsu’s poem relates to this incident is evidenced in the subtitle of the poem, “In Memory of 318.” [36]  Social activists, including students and workers, gathered at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, and demanded that the interim Chinese government abolish all unfair treaties mutually signed by the Ching Dynasty and foreign alliances. For Hsu, the red blossoms buried in the white snow represent the deadly scene in which the protestors died in the coldest winter, during the Chinese New Year. This struggle, revealed in the title, illustrates the hot-blooded protest and cold-blooded oppression. At the opening of the poem, the poet only refers to the narrator’s journey to visit the blossom season on a snowy day without any clue of the incident: “One day in the South over Chinese New Year, it snowed very hard. / I travelled to Mt. Ling to find tidings of spring plum blossoms” (1–2). Adapted from the poem, the campus ballad accurately conveys the imagery in Hsu’s lyrical lines by means of the singer’s crystal voice and the melancholy melody. The singer Bao Mei-Sheng’s voice [37]  reminds the listener of the melancholy of the skylark, imagery Shelley employed to disseminate liberty across the land. During her undergraduate studies in history at National Taiwan University, Bao knew well about the massacre and appeared to act as Shelley’s skylark in singing the song of liberty. This song ultimately reflects on the poet’s sympathies with uncertainty in life and the limitation of liberty. The poet’s attempt in the poem does not become tangible until the “boy of thirteen” is revealed at the very end of the poem: “But the plum blossoms are the hot blood of a boy of thirteen” (8).

23.        Hsu Chih-Mo is symbolic of Shelley’s skylark singing Romantic songs throughout early China and Taiwan. In modern times, Hsu was a leading Romantic who had introduced the Western concept of liberty to early China through his poetics. Romantic ideas, politically and literally, enchanted Hsu, and this ethos was widely disseminated throughout China particularly during the May Fourth Movement. Hsu and Shelley sought fundamental change in both society and literature. For them such a change begins and ends in the mind. In the history of Taiwan’s Romanticism, Hsu’s literary works were valued as gentle strength against any authorities that oppressed the human mind. Despite his inclination to the left for socio-political reforms, Hsu’s works were still recognized by early Taiwanese authorities, particularly during the Chiang regime or the period of martial laws in Taiwan. The power of words is soft, as Hsu puts it in his prose entitled “Words.” When Hsu’s Romantic ideas were later passed on to Taiwan’s campus ballads. The pursuit of truth, love, hope and beauty in the students’ hearts inevitably resulted in the growth of liberalism. Even in the twenty-first century, this Romantic spirit continues to carry weight against the political oppression that plagues some countries or regions. The “Jasmine Revolution,” namely the Tunisian Revolution, has taken effect globally, including South Asia and other parts of North Africa. Recently such thought has spread to Taiwan and Hong Kong in student-led social movements for political reforms. Many today would still find strength in Hsu’s call for a fundamental reformation of the mind in the spirit of idealistic “love, liberty and beauty” (A-Gan 227–28). [38]  Hsu’s poetics of liberty succeeds to the Romantic spirit and continues to be chanted by the independent-minded followers.

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[1] It is now spelt “Qing Dynasty” according to the spelling system established by communist China. During Hsu’s times and in previous research of the Dynasty, “Ching” was commonly adopted and the spelling sounds much closer to the original word. This spelling remains widely in use. I therefore adopt the traditional spelling throughout the essay. BACK

[2] For this English letter, its manuscript and the friendship between Hsu and Odgen, see Liu. BACK

[3] In The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, Kang-I Sun Chang and Stephen Owen examine Chinese literature and reaffirm Shelley as one of the most influential poets to Hsu. Also see Spurling, 173–74. BACK

[4] According to Spurling, there were “half a dozen Chinese Shelleys” and Hsu was also called “the Chinese Byron” (174). BACK

[5] See O’Neill. For updates on critical studies of Romantic legacies, also see Sandy and Davies. BACK

[6] Regarding the history of the Tongwen Institute, as well as the foreign language training in the Ching Dynasty, see C. Wang 182. According to Wang, the Tongwen Institute was established in 1862 mainly to cultivate translation specialists and assist foreign affairs (182). BACK

[7] See P. Chang 110. BACK

[8] Woolf’s feminist views might have been received by Hsu through his readings of Russell’s works. Russell knew Woolf well through their intellectual circle, namely the Grantchester Group, which also consisted of E. M. Forster (novelist), Ludwig Wittgenstein (German philosopher), John Keynes (economist), Rupert Brooke (poet), and Augustus John (artist). Russell’s writings covered many areas, including the arts, philosophy, literature, women’s rights, and economy, and unwittingly enlightened his young admirer Hsu Chih-Mo. BACK

[9] Hereafter all quotations from Hsu’s works and other resources written in Chinese are my translations, unless otherwise stated. BACK

[10] See Bevir. BACK

[11] The lecture was delivered on 6 March 1927 to the National Secular Society and published in pamphlet form in the same year. BACK

[12] The first name of Dickinson was misspelt by Hsu as “Galsworthy.” BACK

[13] This prose was written in Florence, Italy. BACK

[14] Mansfield was a famous writer of short stories when Hsu met her in London. Their chat only lasted twenty minutes, but her beauty and elegance impressed the young poet despite her ill condition. He even wrote an elegy in memory of the lovely writer. BACK

[15] Not content with the arranged marriage with Chang, daughter of a wealthy Shanghai-based merchant, in October 1915, Hsu soon left for Shanghai and later Tien-Jin for further studies at the university. BACK

[16] Andrea Martin Fulda examines Taiwan’s “democratization process” up to 1986. BACK

[17] Before the R.O.C. government took over it as a province in 1945, Taiwan had been a Japanese colony yielded by the Ching Dynasty. After their defeat in the Civil Wars with the Chinese communists in 1949, the R.O.C. authorities lost all power in Mainland China and ended up governing Taiwan’s main island and a few neighbouring isles. With the abrupt rise of communist China in the world, alongside the emergence of Taiwanese people’s national identity and Taiwan’s democratization, the name of Taiwan has increasingly replaced the nation’s official name—the Republic of China. Taiwan’s official name has gradually become undermined and the country has been known to the world as Taiwan since 1971. Chiang Kai-Shek, the then President of Taiwan, rejected two Chinese states (the other being the People’s Republic of China) together becoming members of the United Nations. After that, communist China has taken over the legitimate claim as “China.” BACK

[18] For the emergence of the New Culture Movement, see H. Chang 33–34. BACK

[19] In literary studies, the fixed boundaries between the Enlightenment and Romanticism have been recently challenged. See Wallace. BACK

[20] For Mao’s radical Romanticism during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, see H. Chang 54. BACK

[21] In Taiwan, Hu Shih was appointed as head of Academia Sinica, the Republic of China, and established an institute for academic research, which was later named National Science Council and has been recently renamed the Ministry of Science and Technology. BACK

[22] According to Yeh’s investigation, Han Shih-Shan’s edition of Hsu’s complete works is the most complete and up to date (324). BACK

[23] The first contest was supported by the Sony company, its charity foundation, and the Taiwanese government. Later in 1990 and onwards, another music award named Jin Qu Jiang (Golden Melody Awards) continued to heighten the significance of Taiwan’s music. BACK

[24] With the rise of the concept of cultural or national identity, some critics examine how “Chinese” ideology was introduced to Taiwan by means of Chinese literature. Regarding Hsu’s literary works recognised in Taiwan, see Yeh. BACK

[25] The disputes over the islands remain unsolved today. For a detailed up-to-date discussion, see Yeh. BACK

[26] The title “Second Farewell to Cambridge” is from the translation by Denis Twitchett and John K. Fairbank. See Twitchett and Fairbank 458. BACK

[27] “Hap” was composed and performed by the Hong-Kong singer Chelsia Chan (also known as Chan Chau-Ha or Chen Chiu-Hsia) for a romantic movie entitled Chelsia My Love (Chiu-Hsia, 1976). The other two songs were performed by the student singers Fan Guang-Huei and Bao Mei-Sheng, who separately won the second and third prizes at the first Golden Tune Award in 1977. Still a few other poems written by Hsu were composed into songs, including Luo Da-Yo’s “The Song” (“Ge”) and Wang Hai-Ling’s “Joy of Snowflakes?” (“Xue Hua De Kuaile?”). The question mark in the latter song was originally used to interrogate the possibility of reaching “joy.” BACK

[28] For the dissemination of Hsu’s thoughts in China, see Huang 9. BACK

[29] This poem was written on 6 November 1928 and published on 10 December 1928. Prior to this poem, Hsu composed another Chinese poem entitled “Farewell to Cambridge” (“Kangqiao Zaihui Ba”) in memory of his days at Cambridge. BACK

[30] In the earlier years the Taiwanese government selected Hsu’s prose “All the Cambridge I Know” for the textbook of junior high schools, but because of the popularity of the song and poem “Second Farewell to Cambridge,” this poem is currently included in the textbook of senior high schools. BACK

[31] For the original recording, along with Cambridge-related pictures, see Fan. BACK

[32] The campus ballads are still loved particularly by the listeners of that age, which is evidenced by the concerts that have been held in Taiwan in recent years. BACK

[33] The Formosa Incident broke out in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on 10 December 1979. The KMT government originally attempted to close down two major magazines that advocated anti-government ideas and later two local chief politicians, including Yu Deng-Fa, were accused of their inclination to communism. On the International Human Rights Day, dated 10 December, members of the major anti-government magazine entitled Formosa Magazine therefore launched a series of outspoken speeches on democracy and liberty, which unfortunately led to mayhem and later a massive protest around the island. Most of the “chief” members were eventually jailed and, after the withdrawal of the martial law in 1986, they formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), continuing to challenge the authority. The incident is claimed as a crucial event for Taiwan’s democratization, but the contributions of those political dissidents and the DPP to Taiwan remain controversial, owing to their protests full of violence and bloodshed, as well as their failure to transform Taiwan during their being in office (2000–08). BACK

[34] For the song recording of her “Hap,” see Chan. Chan also acts as the singer in the video clip. BACK

[35] See my earlier discussion of Hsu’s interrogation about Hardy’s pessimism. BACK

[36] The subtitle is particularly highlighted in Wang Mei-Chih’s MA thesis, but it is rarely included in most editions of Hsu’s works. See M. Wang. BACK

[37] For the original recording, see Bao. BACK

[38] The source derives from Volume 27 in a series of Chinese New Literature: Criticism of the Masterpieces. Earlier Hu Shih had employed the phrase to comment on Hsu’s poetics. BACK