Yu Guangzhong, Exiled Poet Who Longed for China, Dies at 89
Posted December 20, 2017 6:04 p.m. EST
Yu Guangzhong, a prominent poet, essayist and translator whose best-known work, “Nostalgia,” came to symbolize the aching separation, displacement and longing for cultural unity felt by many in mainland China and in the Chinese diaspora, died Dec. 14 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. He was 89.
A statement by the Kaohsiung Medical University Chung-Ho Memorial Hospital, where he died, said the cause was respiratory failure.
Yu was a young college student in mainland China when his family joined the wave of Nationalists who fled to Taiwan after they were defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communists in the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
He flourished in his new home, finding success as a poet and a scholar. But like many exiled Chinese who had left behind relatives, friends and homes, he could never quite shake his yearning for the “motherland.”
“The Yellow River flows torrential in my veins/China is me I am China,” Yu wrote in the poem “Percussion” in 1966.
Although Taiwan and mainland China are separated only by a narrow strait, travel between the two was largely prohibited after 1949. By 1971, Yu said, he was tormented by the uncertainty of when, if ever, he would be able to return to his ancestral homeland.
“It was under that kind of pressure that I wrote ‘Nostalgia,'” he told Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong broadcaster, in 2014. “It only took me 20 minutes to write because the feeling had been in my heart for over 20 years.”
The poem, which has been included in the standard literature curriculum in China and Taiwan and taught to generations of students, subtly but powerfully draws on imagery familiar to a generation of homesick Chinese.
Even today, many Chinese — young and old — can recite the poem, here in its entirety:
When I was a child,
Nostalgia was a tiny postage stamp,
I, on this side,
My mother, on the other.
When I was older,
Nostalgia became a ship ticket,
I, on this side,
My bride, on the other.
Nostalgia was a squat tomb,
My mother, inside.
Nostalgia is a coastline, a shallow strait.
I, on this side,
The mainland, on the other.
“He was one of the most accomplished writers not only in Taiwan but in modern Chinese literature,” said Sung-Sheng Yvonne Chang, a professor of Chinese language and culture at the University of Texas at Austin. “He could combine images from Tang Dynasty poetry with this kind of daring, Western modernist aesthetic.”
During a visit to the United States in 2003, the Chinese premier at the time, Wen Jiabao, quoted “Nostalgia” in a discussion to make the case for an eventual reunification with Taiwan, which the Communist Party considers to be a part of China.
“The shallow strait,” Wen said, using the Chinese phrasing from Yu’s poem, “is our greatest nostalgia and biggest sadness.” Although Yu was outspoken about his anti-Communist views, he remained largely unfazed by the apparent politicization of his work by party officials.
“No matter what happens politically, we still share the same culture,” he told the newspaper The People’s Daily in 2006.
“With more communication, there will be more understanding,” he added. “Let’s not abandon 5,000 years of culture because of 50 years of politics.”
Yu Guangzhong was born Oct, 21, 1928, in Nanjing, which was then the capital of China. His father, Yu Chaoying, was an educator and later a civil servant in the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek. His mother, Sun Xiujun, was a teacher in southern Fujian province when she met Yu’s father. Through his father, Yu also had a half brother, Yu Guangya, who died in childhood.
Yu was 9 when his family fled their home following the Japanese invasion of Nanjing in 1937, moving from city to city as the Sino-Japanese War, and later the Chinese Civil War, engulfed the country. In 1949, he was a student at Jinling College when he moved with his family for a final time, fleeing to Taiwan in 1950 by way of Hong Kong.
His first collection of poetry, “Elegy of a Boatman,” was published in 1952, the same year he graduated from National Taiwan University. Yu had a passion for Western literature, and in 1957 he published his Chinese translations of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and Irving Stone’s “Lust for Life.”
After graduating from the University of Iowa’s acclaimed creative writing program in 1959, he returned to Taiwan to teach and joined a modernist literary movement, alongside other writers like Pai Hsien-yung and Wang Wenxing.
Beginning in 1975, he taught Chinese literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong for 11 years before returning to Taiwan, where he taught Western literature at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Kaohsiung for 32 years, until his death.
Yu was prolific, publishing more than 50 books of poetry, prose, criticism and translations over seven decades. He traveled frequently. Besides Hong Kong, he wrote and taught in Europe, the United States and, after the travel ban was lifted in 1987, mainland China.
“Mainland China is like my mother, Taiwan is a wife, Hong Kong is a lover, and Europe is a mistress,” he wrote in a 1998 essay titled “From Mother to an Affair.”
Although Yu was unequivocally celebrated in the mainland, his legacy in Taiwan was at times the subject of debate.
In the 1970s, Taiwan — one of the four so-called Asian Tigers — was undergoing rapid industrialization and social transformation. In response, local writers began to take up what they saw as the growing marginalization of farmers and underprivileged classes.
Yu was alarmed by what he viewed as rising leftist sentiment at home. So in 1977, with Cold War-era tensions still high, he ignited a debate in Taiwanese literary circles with an essay called “The Wolves Are Here,” in which he accused several writers of supporting proletarian values, like those espoused in Communist China.
At a time when even a hint of Communist sympathies could invite harsh punishment and a prison sentence in Taiwan, it was a damning charge. Many criticized Yu of collaborating with the Nationalist government to suppress leftist writers.
Many years later, Yu denied the accusations. “I have never joined any political party,” he wrote in 2004.
At the same time, he also expressed regret for writing the 1977 “Wolves” essay. “My emotions were out of control,” he explained. “I was still in shock about the Cultural Revolution. I was feeling depressed and especially sensitive to any left-leaning remarks.”
His survivors include his wife, Fan Wo-tsun, and their four daughters, Shanshan, Youshan, Peishan and Jishan. Yu remained steadfast in his love for China and Chinese traditional culture. In a 2010 interview, he estimated that he had returned to mainland China “about 50 or 60 times” since 1992.
“In the last few years, I’ve come back to the mainland too often,” he said wryly. “I can’t bring myself to write nostalgia poetry anymore.”