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A tale of two poets

A little-known colony on Shanghai's Yan'an Road M. was the setting of a life-long friendship between celebrated Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore and Xu Zhimo, a voice of China's "New Wave" poetry. Bivash Mukherjee explores the literary lane.

At first glance, the 913 Yan'an Road M. may appear just another ordinary block of 19th-century shikumen (stone-gate) houses, but a stroll through the neighborhood can unearth a treasure trove of Shanghai's rich literary history.

Siming Village, as it is named, stands in the shadow of Yan'an Road Expressway ?? bang opposite the iconic Shanghai Exhibition Center.

Its row of houses, dating back to 1908, is highlighted by its red-brick exterior walls and rooftops that bear the emblem of its developer, the Siming Bank.

As I cut across the village late one evening, a commemorative inscription on the wall in English had me transfixed: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), and in Chinese: Indian poet, litterateur.

The Indian Nobel laureate's name was among a host of names of Chinese literary and historical figures inscribed on the wall. It didn't take me long to realize that the shortcut I was taking to reach the main thoroughfare had a tinge of history attached to its name. It was to kick start an amazing literary journey for me.

It turns out that during two of his three trips to China, this Asia's first Nobel Prize-winning writer had stayed in this neighborhood as a guest of a young Chinese poet Xu Zhimo, who was hugely influenced by Tagore.

The neighborhood itself is unique. Each floor in the compound was equipped with independent water and gas pipes, with flush toilets in the bathrooms - a rarity at the time when most people shared water taps in public areas, cooked on coal stoves and used chamber pots at home.

Besides literary figures, the village was also home to other celebrated names such as Zhou Jianren, the younger brother of Lu Xun, and Hu Die, or Butterfly Hu, a feted actress who played the leading role in China's first talkie movie. The entrance to the complex was in fact guarded by tough-looking turbaned Indian Sikhs.

Poet Xu and his wife Lu Xiaoman, both persons of letters, lived at No. 923 in a shikumen house on what was then known as Fuxi Road. The couple's bedroom was on the second floor and the hall served as a reception room for guests.

Xu's study was on the third floor.

Unfortunately, that historical treasure no longer exists. It was demolished to make way for the elevated highway. Only a few houses survived the bulldozers, and the entrance to the lane and the plaque on the wall are the only traces here of literary figures who once lived here.

Colorful life

Xu lived quite a colorful life. Born in Xiashi, Zhejiang Province, in 1895, he finished his early education at Peking University and traveled to the United States for further studies. In 1920, he attended Cambridge University where he was influenced by English romantic poets John Keats and Percy Shelley, and writers Thomas Hardy and Bertrand Russell among others.

It was also in England that he discovered Tagore; he would seek common ground with other Asian writers later on. He returned to China in 1922 and introduced "New Wave" modern poetry that fused Western elements of romance into classical Chinese poetry.

That was also a time of turbulence in China and it was only natural that writers and poets got entangled with it, without being party to it. Xu's dominant themes of love, beauty, energy and contempt for conventional morality did not go down well with a section of the intelligentsia. Obviously, a nation in turmoil had no place for indulgent devotees of romance and spirituality.

Xu, however, found solace in Tagore's call for a spiritual Asia and his dominant theme of "the crescent moon, adolescent heart and the quintessence of Nature."

In the book "A Thousand Miles of Dreams," writer Sasha Su-Ling Welland recounts how Xu "worshipped Tagore and his use of natural imagery as spiritual expression."

"In the year before Tagore's historic trip to China, Xu and some of his literary circle of friends formed a casual dinner and discussion salon named after Tagore's book of prose poems 'The Crescent Moon.' Each member paid five yuan a month that allowed him to eat, drink, read, meet friends for discussion, or join in entertainments like billiards and musical concerts at the club.

"Xu was to pen down some of his thoughts in his poem, "No. 7 Stone Tiger Lane," which opens with the line, "There are times when our little courtyard ripples with infinite tenderness."

The book also details Tagore's arrival in fine detail.

"After a delay due to illness, Tagore finally arrived at the Shanghai dock on April 1924. As the tall, gaunt man with a full, white beard and flowing, white hair descended the gang plank, Xu waited at the water's edge to greet his hero. He traveled with Tagore to Nanjing (Jiangsu Province), Ji'nan (Shandong Province) and Beijing and translated for him at public lectures."

Tagore, then in his early 60s, drew crowds wherever he went, and his visit was covered extensively by local newspapers, namely Shun Pao.

After Tagore's seven-week trip to China in 1924, he stopped in Shanghai again in March 1929 as he sought to strengthen the cultural bonds between the two Asian neighbors. It was then that he stayed at Xu's place at Siming Village.

Xu and his wife Lu specially prepared an Indian-style bedroom for Tagore's convenience, but he preferred to live in a room with red curtains, where he stayed for three days.

Later Lu, who was going through a difficult phase in her marriage with Xu, wrote a piece titled "Tagore in My House," in which she said: "Though he didn't stay for long, our (Lu and Xu's) love enhanced because of him."

Tagore signed off the trip with a poem scribbled in Xu's personal notebook:

"The mountain wishes that it could be a little bird,

to be relieved of the burden of silence."

The Indian poet was to make another trip, his third and last, on his way back in June the same year. He again put up at Xu's house.

A note posted on the Jing'an District Government Website says Tagore donated a painting with a poem inscribed in the Bengali language and a purplish-red Indian robe as a souvenir to the couple before departing Shanghai.

While that particular house no longer exists, some of Tagore's quotations translated in Chinese are inscribed on the community walls of the neighborhood in beautiful calligraphy:

"Trees are the longing of the earth,

As they look skywards on their toes"

A little further down the lane, there is another:

"The world talks to me with its pictures

And I reply with the music from my soul"

Rich, talented, romantic, exposed to progressive ideas, Xu was a mini-version of Tagore. Xu's death at the young age of 36 in 1931 in a plane crash - he had published accounts earlier of his love for "Flying" - cut short a brilliant poetic talent that perhaps briefly slowed the development of modern Chinese poetry.

Recent reports have said the district government planned to restore some of the structures at Siming Village to commemorate Xu. That would be a perfect tribute.

If only the red-brick walls could talk, it would have myriad stories to tell.

(Xu Qin contributed to the article.)


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