Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden

Yao Minji
The Xu Zhimo Memorial Garden isn't the only Chinese garden around the world to celebrate man and nature, and bridge East-West cultures.
Yao Minji
Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden

Xu Zhimo

"Quietly, quietly, I am leaving

Just as quietly as I came.

Gently, I wave goodbye

To the clouds in the Western sky."

– Xu Zhimo (1897-1931)

Modern Chinese poet Xu Zhimo, who studied at King's College, Cambridge, in 1921, fell in love with English romantic poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats.

His best-known poem, "A Second Farewell to Cambridge," captures his feelings about a city he came to cherish.

Cambridge reciprocated the fondness by establishing a memorial Chinese garden in his honor. It opened in 2018.

Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden
Yue Zhengyang

An artist's rendition of the Xu Zhimo Memorial Garden in Cambridge

Architect Yue Zhengyang, a Shanghai native who worked on the garden, still remembers the day when a Chinese family of three steered their boat to shore on the River Cam to get a closer look at the unfinished garden she was working on.

They were excited to see the garden devoted to a beloved national poet, she said.

Xu lived in a time when many Chinese intellectuals tried to promote vernacular Chinese language. Poetry, with its centuries-old traditions in China, was said to be the most difficult genre to effect that transformation.

Xu, who studied and worked in Shanghai for many years and studied in the US before going to Britain, was among the most successful to modernize the format of ancient poetry.

Xu is a household name in China. His poems are included in school textbooks, and his quest for romantic love dismissed the ancient tradition of arranged marriages. "April Rhapsody," a 2000 TV series based on the poet's love affairs, drew phenomenal ratings.

Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden
Jeff Tse, Xu's great grandson

A marble memorial stone engraved with verses of Xu Zhimo's famous poem "A Second Farewell to Cambridge" at the entrance of the Xu Zhimo Memorial Garden at King's College Cambridge.

A memorial stone erected in King's College in 2008 inscribed the most famous lines in "A Second Farewell to Cambridge" in Chinese.

The Xu Zhimo Memorial Garden was a rarity when it opened at Cambridge in 2018. Designed by Steven Coghill, senior horticulturist at the garden, it was unusual for the campus to construct a permanent garden honoring a 20th-century foreign poet.

At first glance, it doesn't look a typical Chinese-style garden of allegorical ponds, stones, water and pavilions.

Yue, who traveled to Cambridge multiple times to work in the garden, called it a garden of "both a seamless integration with and distinctive feature of Cambridge University's landscape."

Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden
Jeff Tse, Xu's great grandson

Crescent Moon bench and pots, Xu founded the literary society Crescent Moon in 1923.

A century after Xu attended the college, Yue detailed the design and construction of the garden in a new bilingual book entitled "The Xu Zhimo Garden in King's College, Cambridge."

"From medieval times in Europe, gardens were designed to serve as an escape from the trivialities and anxieties of the world," Tony S. Hsu, Xu grandson, wrote in the preface. "In China, scholars and the creative class adored such artfully designed green expanses. They were called scholar gardens. To honor Xu's love of nature, Coghill envisioned a garden that would combine the broader English terrain with authentic Chinese landscape design in an entirely novel way."

Yue told Shanghai Daily that a small pavilion originally planned in one draft of the design was later scrapped to maintain the integrity of the surrounding historical landscape.

Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden
Ti Gong

Architect Yue Zhengyang details the design of the garden in a new bilingual book entitled "The Xu Zhimo Garden in King's College, Cambridge."

"Chinese-style gardens are exquisite and compact, with many scenic spots and a range of architectural spaces such as pavilions and bridges," she said. "By comparison, British gardens are usually more rough, unresolved, evocative of the past, and often integrated with unmodified surrounding natural landscapes."

The Chinese elements are more seamlessly integrated through the plants, Xu's verses in both Chinese and English inscribed on a poetry path, and allegorical symbols that echo classical Chinese gardens.

Plants such as eastern redbud, yulan magnolia and wintersweet are mainly from Xu's native Zhejiang Province, which were brought to the UK during the late Victorian era.

Sandstone slabs on the poetry path are carved with verse from "A Second Farewell to Cambridge" in both Chinese calligraphy and English lettering. The calligraphy was written by four renowned Chinese, including Nobel Literature Prize winner Mo Yan.

Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden
Ti Gong

The garden's planting plan

"Chinese gardens are saturated with allegorical meanings, and the circular garden is deeply symbolic," Yue said. "Circles are always associated with life in the hopes that a person's life journey comes full circle. The circular path in the middle of the garden suggests that Xu's life was not a straight line, but rather a journey built on his roots in China and his experiences in the West."

Following the circular path, visitors experience some of the elements of a traditional Chinese garden, where scenic spots are hidden at first and gradually exposed.

Xu's experience with different cultures strikes a chord with Yue, who was born in Shanghai, studied in the US and traveled extensively in the UK.

"I am often dumbfounded by his extensive knowledge and unique vision," she said. "Like him, many young Chinese artists and creative people, including me, are eager to embrace the best of Chinese and Western worlds and create works with new voices that move people's hearts."

She added, "We live in a world filled with conflicts, and such a unique garden might provide some sense of peaceful resolution. Xu's innocent and open temperament allowed him to embrace diverse cultures. Although this peaceful garden was built by later generations to commemorate him, it is actually a remedy for our time prescribed by the poet.

Or put another way, as long as we "do not completely forget nature, our memories of the natural world will help heal us in the years to come," she said.

Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden
Ti Gong

Architect Yue Zhengyang (right) working with King's College gardener Alan Evans in the garden.

East meets West: Chinese gardens abroad

The quintessential Chinese garden in its varied forms reveals a landscaped symphony of rocks, plants, pavilions, water and bridges orchestrated to vibrate with mystic symbolism.

Classical Chinese gardens overseas are often integrated with local architecture and the natural environment, serving as a bridge for international cultural exchanges. By 2019, there were more than 60 full-scale Chinese-style gardens abroad.

Yao Minji and Yue Zhengyang look at a few of the most notable.

Astor Court in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden

The Astor Court, a recreation of a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)-style Chinese garden court, opened to the public in 1980.

Common techniques in Chinese garden designs are "view-borrowing" – using surrounding natural scenes to create an illusion of a much bigger garden – and "view-framing" – using walls, corridors or water to create different spaces so that every step leads to a different view.

The Astor Court is an interior garden on the second floor, with no surrounding scenes to "borrow" from, so "view-framing" was extensively used to create a variety of areas that suggest space extending beyond the 460.2-square-meter court.

For example, a circular "moon gate" leads to a covered zigzag walkway running along a wall, with windows elaborately latticed.

Qian Yuan at Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany

Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden
Ruhr University

Located within the botanical garden of Ruhr University, the space opened to the public in 1990. It was designed by Professor Zhang Zhenshan from Tongji University.

It is named after Chinese poet Tao Qian (AD 365-427), better known as Tao Yuanming, who spent much of his life in rural seclusion, reading, drinking and writing.

Tao's most notable essay "Account of the Peach Blossom Spring" tells the story of a fisherman who stumbles upon beautiful, tranquil village hidden behind a cave amidst peach blossoms.

No matter how many times he returns, he cannot find the village again.

Zhang's design recreates the poet's romantic pursuit of a simple life in tandem with nature.

Zhang wanted to use rocks near the botanic garden and was impressed with the strict German environmental laws required to do that.

Lansu Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon, USA

Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden
Lansu Chinese Garden

Opened in 2000, the garden is a collaboration between sister cities Portland and Suzhou, a Chinese city famous for its classical gardens.

The name is taken from the sounds of both cities, lan from Portland and su from Suzhou. Lan also means "orchid" in Chinese and su means "awakening." The combination of the two gives the garden the poetic translation Garden of Awakening Orchids.

Hidden inside the walls and surrounded by skyscrapers, the garden is not far from Portland's Chinatown.

The design creates five distinct scenic spaces, many filled with original, even rare, plants from China.

Liu Fang Yuan, Los Angeles, USA

Chinese poet's fond farewell enshrined in a Cambridge garden
Huntington Library, Art Museums and Botanical Gardens

Opened in 2008, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance is a major part of the exhibition of Chinese art and culture at the Huntington Library, Art Museums and Botanical Gardens.

It was constructed and expanded over more than 20 years, with the latest expansion finished in 2020.

It was designed to pay homage to the natural local environment. The Lake of Reflected Fragrance shimmers in a natural basin where water once collected after seasonal rains. The Court of Assembled Worthies is raised above ground level to protect the roots of native California live oaks.

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