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Xu Zhimo was the son of a successful banker and manufacturer. While a student Hangzhou High School one of his essays attracted the attention of the prominent Zhang family, leading to his engagement to Zhang Yiuyi; they married in 1915 when he was 18 and she 15. The following year her brother Jiaao refused to obey president Yuan Shikai's request that the Bank of China stop redeeming banknotes for silver, leading to the privatization of the bank and its status in the 1920s as the largest in the country. Xu then studied law at Peking University. After his first son was born he went to the US in 1920 to study history, political science, and economics at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and at Columbia University in New York, and he changed his courtesy name from Zhangzu to Zhimo. By then his other brother-in-law Junmai had already accompanied the reformer Liang Qichao on his tour in Europe to promote his theory of constitutional monarchism. Unhappy in the US, he traveled to the UK, hoping to study under the iconoclastic philosopher Bertrand Russell(who would win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950), but, ironically, Russell was in China (and had already been expelled from his Trinity College fellowship at the University of Cambridge). However, he made the acquaintance of Golsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a fellow at King's College, who arranged for a special student who was allowed to audit classes and use the library. He met Dickinson in London at a luncheon with Lin Changmin, the director of the Chinese League of Nations Association. Lin's daughter Huiyin was a student at St Mary's College (a middle school) in London and, although a decade younger than Xu and already betrothed to Liang Sicheng, he fell madly in love with her. By the time Yiuyi joined him in 1921 he and Huiyin were surreptiously exchanging daily letters. After quarreling, Yiuyi, pregnant with their second son, traveled to Berlin, where Junmai had studied under philosopher Rudolf Eucken (the 1908 winner of the Nobel prize in Literature), and would soon act as translator during the Chinese lecture tour by Eucken's student Hans Driesch; she would enroll at the Pestalozzi Furberhaus there. Xu also fell under the spell of the the English and French romantic and symbolist poets and began writing poetry himself in 1921. As he remarked, "Cambridge opened my eyes. Cambridge stirred my desire for knowledge, hatched my self-consciousness." In 1921 he returned to China and divorced Yiuyi, who was still in Berlin; later, with Jiaao's help, she would manage the Shanghai Women's Savings Bank.
In 1923 Xu founded Xintue [Crescent Moon], a literary society named after a book of poetry written by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, the year he won the Nobel Prize. When Tagore visited China in 1924 on a tour arranged by Liang Qichao's Chinese Lecture Association, Xu and Huiyin served as his oral translators. But that year Huiyin left to enter the University of Pennsylvania's School of Fine Arts with her fiance Liang Sicheng, who was enrolled in its School of Architecture. (He had been born in Tokyo during the exile of his father, the reformer Liang Qichao, who was one of Xu's own mentors; Sicheng and Huiyin would marry in 1928 before returning to China before becoming two of the country's leading architects.) In 1924, when Xu was 27, he met and may have had an intermittent romance for the rest of his life with the 31-year-old Presbyterian missionary Pearl Buck, whom he encouraged to write (she would win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938); decades later she remembered him as "one handsome and rather distinguished and certainly much beloved young poet [who] was proud to be called 'The Chinese Shelley.' He used to sit in my living room and talk by the hour and wave his beautiful hands in exquisite and descriptive gestures until now when I think of him, I see his hands. He was ... tall and classically beautiful in looks, and his hands were big and perfectly shaped and smooth as a woman's hands." But he fell in love with Lu Xiaoman (originally named Mai, "eyebrow"), a painter, writer, singer, and actor, fluent in both English and French, who had been married to his friend Wang Geng since 1922. After a scandalous affair, she divorced Wang in 1925, the year Xu visited the USSR, published his first book of poetry, and began editing Beijing's leading review, the literary supplement of the "Chenbao" (Morning Post). When Xu and Lu married in 1926, Qichao presided at their wedding, where he publicly chastised them for not being "single-focused in their emotions;" he wrote to his son and future daughter-in-law, "Xu Zhimo is really intelligent, and I love him surpassingly; seeing him fall this time to the point of drowning, I have expended no little effort to rescue him.... I worry that, were he now to be cast out by society, he'd be driven to take his own life. I also see that, with such a companion, his future suffering will be limitless, hence the blow I delivered, it being my hope to make him come to his senses (though I also fear that this would be difficult), and to save him from being worn to a frazzle." Xu's family and many of his friends abandoned him, and, as Qichao predicted, the marriage was unhappy due to his loss of familial financial support and her emotional distance from him; he had to take on various teaching jobs in different cities to support her lifestyle. In the summer of 1927 Xu had a brief affair with the leftist American journalist/spy Agnes Smedley, who was five years his senior; he also founded Xinyue Shudian (Crescent Moon Book Co) with fellow poet Hu Shi & Liang Shiqiu, and returned to Cambridge for a short visit. In 1928 he founded the "Xinyue literary monthly (and began publishing Huiyin's poems when she returned to China with her new husband to establish the School of Architecture at Northeastern University in Shenyang). In 1931, en route from Nanjing to attend a lecture by Huiyin at a university in Beijing, Xu died in a plane crash, leaving behind four volumes of poetry and several translations. He was 34.As his friend Hu Shih (who would be nominated for a Nobel in 1939) remarked, "Love was his religion, his God."
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