Seeking a dream set in stone

The memorial stone to Cambridge alumnus and Chinese poet Xu Zhimo was placed in the grounds of King’s College in 2008.

IT is amazing how a simple granite stone has become arguably Cambridge’s most coveted attraction to Chinese tourists – and I count myself among them. Personally, it has always been a cherished dream to be able to feel and share the sentiment – even a dollop of it – of a venerated scholar-poet who had left an indelible footprint at world renowned Cambridge University.

I was in Cambridge last month and took the opportunity to visit its famous university. I soon found out that it was not difficult to find the stone located at the edge of Scholar’s Piece next to the bridge that links Scholar’s Piece to the rest of King’s College. However, even though easy to locate, without a second glance, many could have missed or passed it.

British newspaper The Guardian reportedly claimed: “For the thousands of Chinese tourists who travel to Cambridge every year, it is this (the granite stone) rather than the City’s grand 15th Century Chapel, meticulously manicured lawns or historical statues that they have come to see.”

What’s so special about a stone?

For starters, it’s no ordinary stone but one carved with the first two and the last two lines of a poem titled Farewell to Cambridge composed by Chinese poet and writer Xu Zhimo.

Xu was briefly a literature researcher at King’s. Prior to that, he read economics and politics in Beijing, New York and London. He wrote this famous poem after revisiting Cambridge in 1926 at the age of 31. Owing to changing circumstances, some have tweaked the original title of the poem by adding the word ‘again’ to the end of it.

So it became Farewell to Cambridge again.

Xu’s poem not only captured the beauty of Cambridge in quintessential Chinese style but also inspired an image typically English in nature. The poem has become part of China’s national curriculum to exemplify the modern poetry movement in the early 20th Century.

Xu never lived to see his poem incorporated into the curricula of schools in China and taken up by students of Chinese studies all over the world. He died in a plane crash in 1931.

Perhaps, we could take a moment to give Xu’s masterpiece a few profound thoughts and share it with the many tourists to Cambridge so as to recall the fetching moment of our life – how we are moving on, and as the poet elegantly put it, by ‘gently flicking your sleeves’ without bringing away ‘even a wisp of cloud.’

A recitation of Xu’s enduring poem is a fitting homage to the scholar-poet whose immortality is set in a granite stone at Cambridge University:

 

Farewell to Cambridge again

Very quietly I take my leave

As quietly as I came here

Quietly I wave goodbye

To the rosy clouds in the western sky.

 

The golden willows by the riverside

Are young brides in the setting sun

Their reflections on the shimmering waves

Always linger in the depth of my heart.

 

The floating heart growing in the sludge

Sways leisurely under the water

In the gentle waves of Cambridge

I would be a water plant!

 

That pool under the shade of elm trees

Holds not water but the rainbow from the sky

Shattered to pieces among the duckweeds

Is the sediment of a rainbow-like dream?

 

To seek a dream

Just to pole a boat upstream

To where the green grass is more verdant

Or to have the boat fully loaded with starlight

And sing aloud in the splendor of starlight.

 

But I cannot sing aloud

Quietness is my farewell music

Even summer insects heap silence for me

Silent is Cambridge tonight!

 

Very quietly I take my leave

As quietly as I came here

Gently I flick my sleeves

Not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away.

(translator unknown)

 

Numerous translations of the poem are available online but Silas S Brown, a ‘partially-sighted’ computer scientist at Cambridge University, has attempted to make the English translation in rhyming heptameters. Here is his take for the verses on the stone and he said it ‘carries a rhyme in English’:

Quietly now I leave the Cam

As mute as I arrived

Waving sleeve so slight, lest sky

Of cloud speck be deprived

Xu, widely recognised for promoting China’s affinity with Cambridge University, was honoured at the University’s Annual Festival last year, themed Xu Zhimo Poetry and Art Festival, which brought some of the world’s most famous poets and artists to King’s College.

Alan Macfarlane, chairman of Cambridge Rivers Project and professor at Cambridge University, has described the poem as impactful because Xu condensed several different kinds of love into a few lines:

“Love associated with the beautiful willow and water landscape which he had experienced as a child in Haining (an eastern China county) and then found again when very homesick after a long absence in Cambridge.

“Love for the newly found world of Romantic British poetry which converted him to becoming a poet, and love for Lin Huiyin (one of Xu’s lovers) who was strongly associated with Cambridge.

“All this love is combined with aching loss – saying goodbye – to a place he loved, to memories of early love and to his own childhood, hopes and dreams.”

Notably, with the Sarawak Chief Minister’s recent visit to Cambridge University and announcement that the State would formulate a plan to collaborate with the University in areas considered beneficial to the State’s development, I am certainly looking forward to the unveiling of the plan.

Datuk Amar Abang Johari and his delegation visited the Business School, a training company called Cambridge Spark and a computer laboratory, and were also briefed on the Cambridge Accessible Tests, an online English Language learning and assessment system developed by the University.

Cambridge – whether you are in search of love, reminiscing your love stories, chasing a dream, looking for another stone with engraved couplet by the novelist Jin Yong, seeking collaboration or merely expecting to bump into Stephen Hawking by the river – is unforgettable.

And for Sarawakians, we could perhaps hope for more than a stone to identify with the celebration of our new Chief Minister’s 100th day in office on the coming Saturday (April 22).

Indeed, Easter is a time of hope.

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