The Xu Zhimo Poetry and Art Festival

Xu Zhimo
Xu Zhimo

Xu Zhimo - Famous Poet

Xu Zhimo was a famous Chinese poet and writer who studied at King’s College Cambridge in the 1920s. His poem ‘Second Farewell to Cambridge’ is learnt by millions of school-children across China, and his life and work was central to the first great opening up of China to Western artistic and literary influences during the 1920s and 1930s. It is also one reason Cambridge has become a magnet for many Chinese visitors. The first and last lines of the poem have been carved into a granite stone that lies at the back of King’s College, one of Cambridge’s most popular tourist attractions.

Alan Macfarlane (chairman of the Cambridge Rivers Project, University of Cambridge) and Zilan Wang (Xu Zhimo Festival Director) explained that the Xu Zhimo poem has such an impact because, in a few lines, Xu condenses several kinds of love.

“Love associated with the beautiful willow and water landscape which he had expe­rienced as a child in Haining (in Zhejiang province) and then found again, when very homesick after a long absence, in Cambridge. Love for the newly found world of British Romantic 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”

The Annual Xu Zhimo Poetry and Art Festival 2016

Following the resounding success of last years inaugural Xu Zhimo Poetry Festival, The Cambridge Rivers Project in conjunction with the King’s College Development Office, hosted this years annual Xu Zhimo Poetry and Art Festival at King’s College, Cambridge from 11th-17th August.

The organisers created an international gathering that honoured the arts of poetry and painting as vital expressions of human dignity, aspiration, originality and hope.

The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Gardens’. Many of the most beautiful paintings and poems, both in China and Britain, celebrate gardens. The Chinese and British have both attached especial importance to gardens over the centuries and have developed great skills as designers and horticulturalists. Over the last four hundred years Chinese plants and gardens have had a major influence on British gardens, art and ceramics. Furthermore, the garden, like the best poetry in our imaginations, encapsulated all five of the senses - smell, sight, touch, sound and feel. 

Distinguished International Poets and Artists

The festival welcomed famous poets including Nobel Prize nominated poets, Bei Dao and Ouyang Jianghe; Nikola Madzirov (highly decorated Macedonian poet) Aleš Šteger  (Artistic Director of the Festival and also winner of numerous international prizes and honours) and Rod Mengham (Jesus College, Cambridge). Many other prominent figures in the poetry world contributed poems such as Lavinia Greenlaw. Running alongside the poetry event was the ‘Gardens’ exhibition of artwork by esteemed calligraphers and artists from China such as Professor Liu Zhengcheng, Liu Chunjie, Li Xiaojun, Shao Yan and Yu Mingquan. Representing Europe and the UK were artists such as Lady Sarah Butterfield, Professor Jean Bacon, Ann Massing and Peter Cavaciuti. Each guest participant created work responding to the ‘gardens’ theme. The ‘Art Exhibition-Garden’ is hosted at King’s Art Room from Friday 12th to Wed 17th August.

There were memorable public performances of poems, compered by Aleš Šteger, that took place in the beautiful sun drenched garden setting of the Fellows’ Garden, King’s College. These historic readings attracted large crowds and were captured on film by mainstream media from China such as CCTV, Pheonix TV, China Daily and six other prominent stations. British media that covered the event included Cambridge News, BBC and Cambridge Rivers Visuals. Seminars with keynote speakers included Xu Zhimo’s grandson Tony Hsu and an illuminating discussion by Bei Dao and Ouyang Jianghe about their thoughts on a poets life and work.

Gala Dinner

The grand ‘Gala Dinner Opening Ceremony’ on Thursday 11th August featured poetry readings from all the poets and included performances by Revd Dr Stephen Cherry (Dean of King’s College) and Michael O’Sullivan (Chief Executive of Cambridge International Examinations).

Tony Hsu, grandson of Xu Zhimo, spoke about his grandfather’s deep connection to
Cambridge, the place that first inspired him to become a poet at age twenty-two. The festival marked the 95th anniversary of Xu Zhimo’s arrival at Cambridge and was a fitting occasion for Hsu to debut his new biography on the poet, Chasing the Modern: The Twentieth-Century Life of Poet Xu Zhimo, which he spent the last 4 years writing and researching. Hsu discussed Xu Zhimo’s time at Cambridge and the British writers he associated with, many from the Bloomsbury Group, as well as Xu’s complex relationship with his first wife Zhang Youyi, Hsu’s grandmother, from whom he would eventually separate in the first divorce in Chinese history. In many ways, Xu Zhimo served as a bridge between East and West and helped promote cross-cultural discourse between China and the UK, a tradition that has been revived by the festival.

Proceedings kicked off with the ‘Gardens’ art exhibition Private View accompanied by live music. Over 120 guests from all over the world gathered for the evenings entertainment, hosted by Professor Emeritus Alan Macfarlane, who presented special prizes of bespoke silver willow leaf trophies to the following recipients:

  • Xu Zhimo Poetry Prize for China: Ouyang Jianghe
  • Xu Zhimo Poetry Prize for Europe and UK: Nikola Madzirov
  • Xu Zhimo Art Prize: Peter Cavaciuti
  • Xu Zhimo Lifetime Achievements Award: Bei Dao
  • Xu Zhimo China-UK Cultural Exchange Prize: Yu Yong

In the audience were VIPs such as the Mayor of Cambridge, Councillor Jeremy Benstead; Vice Provost of King’s College, Professor Nicholas Marston; Lorraine Headen (Director of Development, King’s College); Jeremy Prynne (famous poet and Fellow of Gonville and Caius); Yu Yong (Chairman of Qi Great Wall Museum of Art); representatives from the Chinese Embassy to the U.K and a delegation from the financial sector based in London.

Influence of the Xu Zhimo Festival

Speaking at the festival in Cambridge, Liu Zhengcheng (Director of the International Calligraphy Association and contemporary Chinese cal­ligrapher) said the festival plays; “a vital role in deepening and broadening international understanding and in pro­moting the exchange of ideas.”

Building on the success of the original Xu Zhimo Cambridge and China Exhibition in King’s Chapel 2014 and The Xu Zhimo Poetry Festival 2015, this years triumphant gathering demonstrates that in just two years, the Xu Zhimo Poetry and Art Festival has become one of the pre-eminent events in Cambridge to celebrate the cultural exchange between the UK, China and other countries.

Host Organisations:

The Development Office of King's College, Cambridge; Cambridge Rivers Project (University of Cambridge); Vanishing Worlds Foundation (UK).

Partner Organisations:

International Calligraphy Association; Haining Xu Zhimo Poetry Festival (China); Kaifeng Foundation; Qi Great Wall Museum of Art (China).

The Xu Zhimo Poetry and Art Festival Full List of Poets and Artists 2016

Chinese Poets:                     

  • Bei Dao (also an artist)
  • Ouyang Jianghe (also an artist)
  • Yang Ke
  • Yang Lian

Chinese Artists:

  • Liu Zhengcheng (also poet)
  • Li Xiaojun
  • Liu Chunjie
  • Shao Yan
  • Yu Mingquan (also poet)

British and European Poets:

  • Lavinia Greenlaw
  • Ales Steger
  • Rod Mengham
  • Nikola Madzirov
  • Vahni Capildeo
  • Elisa Biagini
  • James Coghill

British and European Artists:

  • Peter Cavaciuti
  • Ann Massing
  • Matthew Blakely
  • Sarah Butterfield
  • Lynne Windsor
  • Cathy Parker
  • Jean Bacon

Special Invited Guest:

  • Tony Hsu, Chinese-American writer and grandson of Xu Zhimo


15 August 2016