Li Xiaoyin:
Yu Dafu’s Lover or Muse?

By Felicia Zhang, with Christopher R. McMahon

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2014)


The classical poetry of Yu Dafu (郁达夫) remains important to historians and critics seeking to come to terms with the modernization of China, the events of World War II, and subsequent developments. While some critics are interested in how women are constructed in his literary works (Levan 2010; Ahn 2006; Hu 2012; Feng 2004) or with the question of how the construction of Chinese women is intertwined with Yu Dafu’s self-construction, Chinese masculinity, and the condition of Chinese nationhood (Levan 2010), most Chinese critics assume that the women in his poetry and fiction have a quasi-autobiographical origin. They tend to see his texts as windows into the hidden truth of Yu Dafu and the real women in his life.

Li Xiaoyin and the author in Macau

Li Xiaoyin and the author in Macau

One such woman is my mother, Li Xiaoyin (李晓音), the alleged inspiration of the first seven of the eleven “Miscellaneous Poems of Chaos and Separation” (乱离杂诗) composed while Yu Dafu was exiled in Sumatra in 1942. Hu Yuzhi, rather than Yu Dafu himself, likely supplied the title for this cycle of poems. (Some annotators in Chinese call the cycle “Miscellaneous Poems of Separation and Chaos” [离乱杂诗].) Indeed, my mother’s reputation has largely been consumed and transformed by her role as Yu Dafu’s “lover,” becoming a chapter in the mythical trajectory of the career of this great poet. My mother is repeatedly represented as having had some grand love affair with Yu Dafu—a representation that Yu Dafu, if he did not actively encourage, did nothing to clarify. Yet there never was such an affair; all the “evidence” for the alleged affair is culled from the poems themselves and the spurious testimonies of a handful of “friends” and “witnesses.”

The many critics who have derived a degree of fame by purporting to know the truth about Yu Dafu and my mother will perhaps assume that the present essay is merely a loving daughter’s effort to clear her mother’s name. But the fact is that there is no evidence for any sexual relationship whatsoever between my mother and Yu Dafu other than a few lines of ambiguous poetry, some street corner gossip, and the fervid imagination of critics, novelists, and filmmakers. To this day, my mother repeatedly tells me “there is absolutely nothing in this” (根本没有这回事儿); even after reading volumes of writing about herself and Yu Dafu, she calmly denies that they ever had an affair.

There are deeper issues than the restoration of my mother’s name at stake here, issues to do with history and feminine identity. After the May Fourth movement, the inner life of women became the focus of many creative works of women writers, such as Bing Xin (冰心), Lu Yin (庐隐), Ling Shuhua (凌叔华), Shi Pingmei (石评梅), and Feng Yuanjun (冯沅君). The themes of their work include the oppression of women by the traditional family system and society at large and the awakening of feminine sexuality and consciousness. In Lu Yin’s novel Lantian de chanhuilu (Lantian’s confession, 蓝田的忏悔录), for example, the female protagonist Lantian says: “If I could shake the hands of all the women of the world and enable them to begin a new century, I would confess things from my past and, at the same time, fight for the future” (我如果能与世界全女性握手,使妇女们开个新纪元,那么我忏悔以前的,同时我将要奋斗未来的) (Lu 1999: 392). Yet despite this apparently feminist agenda, girls at this time were largely disempowered in the private sector and hardly appeared at all in public life.

Even so, despite this gap between the theory and practice of women’s liberation, progress was made. The “new woman” of the May Fourth era was at least going to school, and getting educated was generally seen as the only way to gain independence and resist arranged marriages. Indeed, during the May Fourth period, romantic love was increasingly being represented as the proper (perhaps even sacred) foundation of a good marriage centered on mutual appreciation, understanding, and respect. And sex before marriage in the pursuit of true love was regarded as something that should be left to the couple to decide.

By the time my mother was able to read literature (perhaps when she was in her teens), writers like Ding Ling had written extensively (Su 2012). By the mid-1930s, the feeling was becoming increasingly widespread that women of a certain class could find satisfying careers and lead independent lives (Su 2012). Marriage, moreover, was no longer seen as the only way to establish a woman’s status in society. Like the protagonist of Ding Ling’s short story “Meng Ke” (梦珂; 1927),[ 1 ] my mother had a thoroughly Western education through the school system in Shanghai. Like Meng Ke, she did not surrender herself to the love offered by various admirers; she chose to earn her own living to support herself and her family, and she had to negotiate the complex relationships among individual liberation, independence, and social norms in a society in transition. Yet, as we shall see from my analysis of Yu Dafu’s poetry, as well as from my mother’s own story, the prevalence of May Fourth ideals among certain groups within the intelligentsia notwithstanding, Chinese society between the wars and after was not really very “feminist” in practice.

The first part of this essay presents an analysis of the first seven poems of “Miscellaneous Poems of Chaos and Separation.” In the second part of the essay, I provide evidence from interviews with my mother to show that there was never any love affair between her and Yu Dafu. Yu Dafu might (though this is far from clear) have been in love with her, but his feelings, if any, were unrequited. Finally, I tell the story of my mother’s background and her activities during the two years she was in Singapore; such an account of her life in Singapore will help explain why Yu Dafu’s affections (even if they had been made known to her) were not reciprocated.

The First Seven Poems of “Miscellaneous Poems of Chaos and Separation”

“Miscellaneous Poems of Chaos and Separation” was written in the spring of 1942 in Sumatra. There were initial eleven poems in the series, which was first published in Hu Yuzhi’s (胡愈之) booklet Yu Dafu’s Exile and Disappearance (Hu 1946). An additional poem, which I do not discuss here, was discovered in 1986 and added to the cycle. Of these poems, seven are usually said to concern my mother.[ 2 ]

Hu Yuzhi, who worked with Yu Dafu in Singapore, suggested that the eleven poems (and especially the first seven) were written during Yu Dafu’s exile in Indonesia. Hu Yuzhi lived in the same area of Singapore as Yu Dafu and Li Xiaoyin in the 1940s. According to Hu Yuzhi’s recollection:

During the spring of 1942, Dafu was hiding from the troubles in Singapore in the Village of Baodong [Pulau Padang in Indonesian]. In order to pass the time, he formed the habit of composing a poem every day or two. There were only eleven poems in existence. Poems one to seven recalled the past. Dafu had a girlfriend[ 3 ] who, before the fall of Singapore retreated to Java and was working with the Allied Army broadcasting station as a broadcaster. During his time at Baodong village, Dafu went to the nearby town every two or three days to listen to radio broadcasts from the city of Ba [Batavia, the old name for Jakarta]. This was the origin of the line “Yet hearing the voice through the distant air made me happy.”[ 4 ] (Hu 1946: 43)

The consensus view on the importance of the ‘Miscellaneous Poems of Chaos and Separation’ is expressed by Zheng Ziyu (郑子瑜) when he wrote in 1955:

These were the best poems that Dafu wrote in his life. The use of allusion was apposite; the writing style was fresh with both textual beauty and emotional impact. In these poems, we can see the poet’s rich imagination. We can see his sentimental pathos, seriousness, grief, and generosity of spirit. Every poem expresses his thoughts of home and country, his feelings for his native country were especially touching to the heart. (Zheng 1978: 48)

There have been many annotated versions of these poems.[ 5 ] In the seven poems discussed here, Yu Dafu uses many classical allusions, which give the poems cultural depth and rich historical resonance. As a consequence, the poems can be interpreted from many different angles.

Poem 1

Line 1: 又见名城作战场, Again, a famous city has become a war zone;
Line 2: 势危累卵溃南疆。 like unhatched eggs, the southern lands are in grave danger.
Line 3: 空梁王谢迷飞燕, Empty halls of Wang and Xie confused the swallows;
Line 4: 海市楼台咒夕阳。 seeing this scene through a mirage makes one curse the setting sun.
Line 5: 纵欲穷荒求玉杵, In extreme desolation, one indulges in the desire for a jade mortar and pestle;
Line 6: 可能苦渴得琼浆。 will my thirst be quenched by the magic elixir?
Line 7: 石壕村与长生殿, Like Stone Trench Village and the Palace of Longevity,
Line 8: 一例钗分惹恨长 。one hates the prolonged separation between husbands and wives represented by the divided hairpin.

The first line of this poem might be taken as describing the general situation of chaos and danger in lands south of where Yu Dafu was living. A boat with twenty-eight refugees, including Yu Dafu, left Singapore on February 4, 1942. After five days of meandering, on February 9, the boat arrived at the island of Wang Jia Li (望加丽, Bengkalis in Indonesian) (Hu 1946). From Wang Jia Li, Yu Dafu could see the constant shelling and bombardment of Singapore and ships travelling in the Straits of Malacca. The “unhatched eggs” in Line 2 describes the defencelessness of the land in the South, which could include Singapore, and suggests the unleashing of historical forces or the way a few lines of poetry might give birth to great human change.

Map of Sumatra marking Yu Dafu's exile

Yu Dafu’s route of exile in Sumatra, 1942–1945 (in Hu 1946)

Typically, however, the “famous city” mentioned in line 1 has been also been identified as Singapore and the “southern lands” as referring to Malaya, both of which are situated south of Wang Jia Li.[ 6 ] As such, identifying this city with Singapore is perhaps overly literalist. In the present translation, we have used the indefinite pronoun in front of “famous city” to make the location less specific. In fact, in the course of Yu Dafu’s life, he had fled a number of famous cities because of war, including Wuhan, Beijing, and Shanghai. Indeed, “famous city” here could be any war-torn city.

In line 3 of the poem, Yu Dafu adopts the classical image of swallows as the bearer of news (Welch 2008: 88). The swallow () is a witness of historical changes who used to fly happily into the houses of Wang and Xie (the founding fathers of the Eastern Jin Dynasty) to announce the arrival of spring. But now, because the Wang and Xie houses are deserted, the swallows are flying into the houses of commoners, a metaphor for imperial downfall.[ 7 ]

Yu further uses the setting sun, in line 4, to convey the idea of war as essentially unchanged since ancient times: a cataclysm that severs interpersonal relations (such as romantic love). The setting sun could allude to the end of a historical epoch, the fall of an empire, the death of a lover, or one’s old age. Lam Lap (1994) suggests that the setting sun could refer to Japan. However, appreciation of poetry suffers when complex images are reduced to specific biographical referents. Lap’s mistake resides not in seeing the setting sun as an image of Japan but in seeing the image only in those terms (and so reducing a complex palimpsest to a single trace). Yu’s multivalenced use of these images creates a transhistorical text—a generalized representation of cities during wartime. In fact, in his writing, Yu Dafu typically uses a complex palimpsest of images to convey a multiplicity of meanings; in this poem, he may be cursing the fall of Singapore as much as he is denoting the Japanese empire.

Critics aware of the poetic convention of swallows have injected my mother into this poem as the “bearer of news” in wartime Indonesia, where she was the only Chinese language announcer working for the British Information Office, the only reliable source of information in Indonesia during the war. Even so, we ought not to reduce the poignancy and plurality of the image in Yu Dafu’s poem to a historical fact. In choosing the image of the swallow, Yu Dafu deliberately exploits his extensive understanding of Chinese, Western (he was fluent in English and German), and Japanese cultures. In addition to serving as bearers of good news, swallows can also represent the coming of spring. The image of springtime in line 3 operates against the autumnal weight of the setting sun (which serves as its foil) in line 4.

There is, however, also a species of swallow that appears at the beginning of winter and often appears, in Japanese calendars, flying around a willow tree. In Japanese iconography, willow trees (perhaps because they bend in the wind) are often associated with geishas. Yet, swallows (because they generally appear in mated pairs and build their fragile nests under the eaves of barns and houses) can also symbolize harmony and fidelity in marriage or true love. It is for this reason that a swallow might also symbolize an enchanting prostitute (i.e., somebody who offers perfect companionship). As such, a complex tension, one that cannot be unambiguously decoded, is at work in the poem. The question seems to be one regarding the true nature of women and their connection to history. History, in these verses, is a matter of epochs, uncertainties, hopes, and fears, and the nature of women saturates and is enfolded into that history. Yu Dafu’s sense of the non-teleological nature of history (we must remember that victory against the Japanese was in no way guaranteed) seems to speak, at the same time, to feelings of hesitancy in relationships. His representation of history as uncertain and discontinuous is thus, at the same time, a response to questions about the essential nature of women (a question that is not so much historical as fantastical). In fact, it is almost as if the history itself is feminized.

Note, however, that there is an indeterminate number of swallows: it might be one swallow, a mated pair, or a whole flock. The appearance of the swallow(s) in the poem can be understood as polysemous, a chain of signification generated by the intersections, multiplicities, and ambiguities of each motif. For example, is not Yu himself (or at least his poem) a sort of bearer of news? Can’t the Chinese characters inked on his manuscripts also be considered as “swallows”? Yu is creating a complex system of delicate, open-ended analogies concerning historical epochs and love affairs with beautiful women that cannot be contained by any singular interpretation.

Line 5 of the poem refers to the folk tale of a young Tang dynasty scholar Pei Hang (裴航). After failing the palace examination, Pei decides to take a walk around the capital Chang’an. He becomes thirsty and asks for a drink of water from an old lady spinning silk outside her home. He does not know that the old lady is a shaman who recognizes that Pei Hang is a brilliant scholar whose heart was broken because of his failure in the imperial exam. She takes pity on him and asks her granddaughter Yunying (云英) to fetch a bowl of “water.” The liquid is as sweet as nectar. What he does not realize is that he is drinking the “jade elixir” (玉液), a magic medicine that can make one immortal. Pei Hang’s heart is further gladdened by Yunying’s beauty, and he requests her hand in marriage. To test Pei Hang’s worthiness, the old lady insists that he find her a jade mortar and pestle with which she can prepare her magic elixir. After searching high and low and exhausting almost all his savings, he finds a jade mortar and pestle. As promised, he and Yunying are married.

The jade mortar and pestle in line 5 are presumably the magical means of obtaining one’s heart’s desire. In the previous line, Yu Dafu expresses his fear, anger, and despair at the fall of Singapore. With the image of the jade mortar and pestle, he is perhaps contemplating whether, in such dire historical circumstances, redemption is possible. Jade, in Chinese iconography, symbolizes purity and longevity. The poet’s search for the jade mortar and pestle thus becomes a question of searching for the proper balance of the yin and yang forces of history (symbolized by the mortar and pestle) and the proper role of a scholar or poet in the face of those forces.

But can the poet find the magic elixir? And can it truly heal the land? In moments of great historical change, the poem seems to tell us, there is no guarantee that the “good guys” will win. In response to this uncertainty, the poet’s quest takes on the magical, “mythopoetic” (Slochower 1970) qualities of a quest for the medicines of the gods, conveyed through luminous, dreamlike imagery. The poet’s performance of this quest, however, involves responding sagaciously to historical forces. Once again, historical processes and sexual relations become analogous, and they do not require the insertion of biographical referents to make sense. This is not to say that biographical approaches do nothing to enrich our understanding of the poem, only that the complexity of the poem ought not be sacrificed to critics’ desires for clear meanings or their impulse to force Yu’s poetry naively into lurid biographical narratives.

Line 6—”Will my thirst be quenched by the magic elixir?”—Yu Dafu uses qiongjiang (琼浆), the liquid potion that is made from jade slurry which according to Chinese medicine makes one immortal. However, Yu Dafu imitates Li Shangyin (李商隐) (813–58 A.D.) by using the word keneng (可能) to start the line. As with Li Shangyin, keneng might be interpreted as “may be” or as a question “may it not be?”, suggesting doubt that taking the magic medicine produced by the jade mortar and pestle will rescue him. These lines thus express anxieties; they signify the uncertainty, not only of gaining a beautiful wife or of being healed, but of an eventual victory against the invaders (not to mention of his own ability, as a poet, to contribute to such an eventuality).

In most annotations of the poem, the figure of Yunying is identified as Li Xiaoyin (e.g., Zhan 2006). The poem, however, is more obviously about the state of Chinese society and culture in the face of Japanese victories across Asia. In this poem, Yu Dafu sees himself as the poet warrior. However, just as Pei Hang failed in his exam, Yu’s efforts to save Singapore and China also seem to have failed. He asks himself whether despair—national and personal—can be quenched by traditional Chinese values, whose purity is represented by Yunying and her association with the jade elixir. In other words, the poem concerns the role of the poet in history as well as the essential nature of women (yin). Typical of the cycle of poems as a whole, this poem is at once deeply rooted in Chinese literature and also speaks about current events, gender roles, modernity, and war, constructing a sense of cultural continuity in a time of chaos and doubt.

In Line 7, the poet uses two famous allusions about war—one to Du Fu (杜甫) (712–770), and the other to Hong Sheng (1645–1704), a playwright of the early Qing Dynasty—to describe how war affects both the rich and poor equally (in war, partings between husbands and wives are equally painful for both rich and poor families). The Stone Trench Village (石壕村) is a reference to Du Fu’s famous poem “Stone Trench Officials” (石壕吏) which has been translated as “The Conscription.”[ 8 ] The “Palace of Longevity” (长生殿) was situated in the imperial gardens of Chang’an and was the place where Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei swore an oath of love to each other. It has long been a symbol of romance in classical Chinese literature. Yu Dafu uses the stories of Stone Trench Village and the Palace of Longevity to illustrate how both the rich and poor are affected by the separation caused by war. The separations in the poem could refer to separations from Yu’s former wife Wang Yingxia or Li Xiaoyin,, or both, or neither. The true referent is not any particular woman, and any real woman that might be made to serve as such is almost completely consumed by the signified “women” (a signified, that is the product of the classical allusions Yu utilizes). These allusions, moreover, relate to the sorrows of displaced soldiers.

Some critics have made a great deal out of the hairpins () mentioned in the final line of the poem. The “Divided hairpin” (钗分) represents separation between husbands and wives. Some critics say that this hairpin makes it clear that the poem is about a particular couple, not “couples” in general. We should remark, however, that the thrust of the allusion consists of observing that the pain of enforced parting is universal to all regardless of rank or status. So any particular parting between any particular man and woman would merely be an example of a general condition.

The poet is perhaps expressing with sadness that desolation was everywhere in the world at the time. He wonders whether becoming an immortal through drinking the magic potion will save him from the flames of war. “Will I be lucky like Pei Hang to have a beautiful woman sending me the elixir that bestows immortality? Is there a beautiful woman who can deliver me from this suffering?” he seems to be saying. The “beautiful woman” could also be a metaphor for Chinese culture, with which he wishes to be rescued. Thus, this poem can be interpreted as a wish, issued against the war and chaos of the day, to be spared from suffering and despair and to be loved. The poem expresses not only romantic longings but also the poet’s desire for a strong, modern China.

Yu Dafu also suggests that the scholar or poet has a role in history akin to that of a warrior. Judging from the more than two hundred anti-Japanese political editorials he wrote during his stay in Singapore (Fang 2002), Yu Dafu considered himself not only a writer but also a “soldier” in the fight against the Japanese. Like so many writers before him, Yu Dafu defined himself through “linkage with a textual tradition” (Feuerwerker 1993: 179). These poems, almost certainly written after Yu Dafu’s exile to Indonesia, represent Yu Dafu’s continuing anti-Japanese activities, which he saw as essential to his mission in life.

We should not forget that this is the first in a cycle of poems titled “Miscellaneous Poems of Chaos and Separation.” Yu Dafu uses the first poem to introduce the themes of the whole cycle. The focus of the first poem is on chaos and the grand theme of the military loss of Singapore. Yu is especially interested in the effects of war on people. Accordingly, we have, in the final line of the poem, an appeal to the overarching theme of separation. The use of the plurals “husbands” and “wives” in the translation suggests he is not just thinking of a particular husband and wife butChinese society as a whole. While this might be a deeply “personal” poem, his own experiences are made to speak of a larger, historical problematic.

Poem 2

Line 1: 望断南天尺素书, Letters and news from the South have stopped;
Line 2: 巴城消息近何如。 what news from the city of Ba?
Line 3: 乱离鱼雁双藏影, The shadows of wild geese or fish have become confused;
Line 4: 道阻河梁再卜居。 blocked roads force one to look for a new place to live.
Line 5: 镇日临流怀祖逖, All day I thought of Zuti;
Line 6: 中宵舞剑学专诸 。Like Zhuan Zhu, I practice swordplay at night.
Line 7: 终期舸载夷光去, When it’s all over, Xi Shi and I would go
Line 8: 鬓影烟波共一庐。 and together we would live as one.

At the time he wrote this poem, the second in the cycle, Yu Dafu was living on the island of Sumatra. The British Information Service, for which Li Xiaoyin was broadcasting, was in Jakarta, south of Sumatra, on the island of Java. Therefore, the words “nantian” (南天) and “Bacheng” (巴城)[ 9 ] in line 2 could be seen as referring to news that was being broadcast from Jakarta. This line suggests that Yu Dafu regards the news “from the South” as reliable and is keen to hear more. He strengthens the overarching form of the cycle here, using “South” in this poem to parallel the “South” of line 2 of poem 1. These different mentions of “South” do not, however, necessarily refer to the same places. The poems do not establish a unity of place through a strict allegorical structure. Rather, we are dealing with analogies that are polysemous, momentary, and discontinuous. The poem defies any attempt to systematically arrange the signifiers into a “realist” narrative; indeed, Yu precludes such a reading through the complex, dialogical structure of his imagery.[ 10 ] The silence from the city of Ba in line 2 of poem 2, for example, can be read as being caused by the evacuation of the British Information Service from Java, but ought not to be read simply in those terms.

In line 3 of the poem, the images of wild geese and fish stand for the postal service.[ 11 ] Yu Dafu tells us now that posts and news of the time are confused; in using the word “shadow” (影), he might be hinting that the allusions in his poems are mere shadows of history. The poet invites us to interpret these images as we would dreams. The uncertainty caused by the lack of news from the South and roads and nearby territories occupied by the Japanese forced Yu Dafu to move (line 4 of poem 2). This time he moved to Baodong (Pulau Padang in Indonesian), a village on Sumatra opposite Wang Jia Li, further away from Singapore. In this line, the focus of the poem is the poet and his feelings of dislocation.

In line 5 of poem 2, the reference to Zuti (266–321) recalls the departing armies in the story of the Stone Trench Village referred to in line 7 of poem 1. However, it adds the promise of a triumphant return. Zuti was an open-minded, generous, educated, and successful general, well known for the strict discipline he imposed on himself and his soldiers. Furthermore, Zuti forged a strong, unified force out of the potentially unruly army under his command through the power of his words. This army might thus be likened to the state of confusion the poet expresses in lines 3 and 4 of this poem as well as the condition of war-torn Singapore. Part of his confusion, moreover, is because the news has stopped (as mentioned in line 1 of poem 2). Yu Dafu expresses a wish on behalf of China and the Chinese people who, like the army of Zuti, need to unite and act as one if they are to recover their homeland. This unity, however, can only be achieved in response to words of true vision and power like those of Zuti. These are the words that Yu Dafu seeks: a kind of magical medicine that promises to heal the motherland.

In line 6, Yu Dafu invokes the story of Zhuan Zhu, one of the five famous assassins in Chinese history, to draw a parallel between writing poems and the swordplay of Zhuan Zhu. He tells us that he has to practice late at night because the Japanese had already landed on Sumatra and practicing swordplay during the day would have been extremely dangerous.

Map of the Han Empire

Han Empire with the addition of modern provinces and cities, and historical regions.
In Minford/ Lau 2000

The final couplet of the poem (line 7 and 8)—particularly the line “When it’s all over, Xi Shi and I would go, and together we would live as one”—is almost always said to refer to my mother.[ 12 ] This line refers to the love story between Xi Shi and Fan Li (范蠡). Xi Shi (西施, 506 B.C. – ?) was the first of the renowned four beauties of ancient China. She is said to have lived during the end of the Spring and Autumn Period in Zhuji, the capital of the ancient State of Yue (越). Her proper name was Shi Yiguang (施夷光), and Yu uses the characters “夷光” to refer to Xi Shi. The legend goes that Xi Shi was trained in dancing, decorum, and knowledge of rites for three years prior to being forcibly presented to the King of Wu (吴) as part of a complicated revenge plot. Bewitched by her beauty, the King of Wu neglected state affairs and was defeated in 473 BC by Goujian (勾践), King of Yue. Minister Fan Li did not want to be rewarded by the King of Yue for his role in defeating Wu. Instead, in the middle of the night he left with Xi Shi. They escaped successfully, had a son, and lived out their lives on Lake Tai.

In their biographical reading of the poem, critics see my mother as the “real life” Xi Shi and Yu Dafu as Fan Li. But as suggested above, this reading is based on flimsy evidence. More important, it denies the nationalistic message that Yu Dafu is expressing in the poem. Instead of simply a reference to my mother, this final line expresses Yu Dafu’s hopes on behalf of all soldiers, regardless of rank, for a peaceful and united China. This poem also expresses a fantasy. In the insecure and unstable situation—news from the South (Singapore, Malaysia and Jakarta) cut off and Yu was forced to look for a new place to live—the poet fantasizes about practicing sword play, like the assassin Zhuanzhu, and about taking action, like Zuti, against the approaching Japanese army. He also fantasizes about retiring with a beauty, like Fan Li in the myth, enjoying each other’s company in a quiet and peaceful environment.

Poem 3

Line 1: 夜雨江村草木欣,Plants in the night rain grow lush.
Line 2: 端居无事又思君。In my daily nothingness, I again think of thee.
Line 3: 似闻岛上烽烟急,News from the island is urgent,
Line 4: 只恐城门玉石焚。I am afraid the city gate will be burned.
Line 5: 誓记钗环当日语,I swear that I remember what you said to me;
Line 6: 香余绣被隔年熏。fragrance from yesteryear lingers on embroidered quilts.
Line 7: 蓬山咫尺南溟路,South sea lies between here and Peng Mountain;
Line 8: 哀乐都因一水分。happiness and sadness are but divided by a river.

The meaning of the word “” (jun) in line 2 of this poem, rendered in the translation above as “thee,” is unclear. According to Xu Qingyou (1999: 48), jun had three different meanings in the classical language: the earliest connotation was to the king of the country; it then came to refer to people with status; finally, it was used to refer to intellectuals. Jun was never used to refer to common people, and in particular, not to ordinary women. However, in the poem “Zeng ming” (赠名), written for his first wife in 1917, Yu Dafu swept away thousands of years of Chinese tradition to use jun to refer to his wife. Here in poem 3, however, jun is intentionally ambiguous. It could refer to a person or persons, gender unknown. It suggests that Yu Dafu is deliberately bestowing respect on the referent even as he widens its scope to include everybody (whether men or women of high or low status) whose lives are being torn apart by the war (or who have ever been torn apart by any war or will be torn apart in some future war). This line speaks passionately for an end to all wars.

At the time, he wrote the poem, many of Yu’s friends or relatives were either left behind in Singapore or, like his eldest son, had gone back to China. As Hu Yuzhi (1946) suggests, Yu Dafu could well have composed the first three poems in this cycle in four days. Indeed, Yu seems to have composed this poem shortly after hearing that Singapore was under Japanese occupation on February 15, 1942 and before news from the island of Java and the capital Batavia had stopped (on February 19, just before the British Information Service evacuated on February 20, 1942 [Rojanavita 204]). Yu knew how in Japanese occupied territories, people and houses of the poor and the rich alike would be destroyed. Through the use of classical allusions, however, the poem situates the specific urgency of contemporary events within a more general historical framework, one in which the question of guilt or innocence in a city—or world—torn apart by military aggression is irrelevant and one which is bereft of all but the most personal codes of value. At the same time, however, the poem itself enacts the reproduction of Chinese culture, which is being threatened by foreign aggression. Recalling the past, as such, is not merely a personal matter, but a cultural performance. The personal meaning grounds the political meaning, while the political is made more urgent (and beautiful) through the enunciation of personal sorrows.

As we have seen in the final line of poem 1, the divided “hairpin” (钗分) represents gifts exchanged between a husband and wife before they are separated. In line 5 of poem 3, “I swear that I remember what you said” could refer to words that were spoken to Yu Dafu either by his ex-wife, Wang Yingxia, or some other woman. The “you” in the translation is represented by the word chaihuan 钗环, a hair accessory for a woman. Or maybe nothing of this sort ever happened, and Yu Dafu is merely exercising a conventional literary trope. My mother denied saying such words of farewell to him in my interview with her (Zhang 2010).

The “yesteryear” (隔年) in line 6 of this poem—”fragrance from yesteryear lingers on embroidered quilts”—suggests that, if anything, Yu Dafu was reflecting on his relationship with Wang Yingxia and not my mother (who stayed in his house only for two months from October to December, 1941). The word “yesteryear” would point to a relationship he had had a long time earlier. The reference to “embroidered quilts” (绣被), furthermore, indicates a location other than Singapore, where, with its tropical climate, no one would sleep with quilts.

The “thee” of line 2 is the personification of Chinese culture. Yu feminizes Chinese culture, whereas the nation is masculinized, and represented by Yu himself (as we see later). The “embroidered quilts” are the psychological bequests of Chinese culture to Yu, and to modern China. Yu is passionate about Chinese culture, but its effect is insubstantial—a sweet fragrance from yesteryear. There is thus implied in this line a concern about how to apply Chinese culture to the current, desperate circumstances.

In line 6 of poem 3, Yu Dafu mimics Li Shangyin’s words in the poem “Unnamed” (无题), which was written about a dream after the death of the poet’s wife. Both poems are about a departed wife. So those who wish to make the poem wholly biographical really ought to say that Yu Dafu is writing about Wang Yingxia and not my mother. Moreover, as with the first two poems, it is possible to read the female as a representation of Chinese culture and society rather than as any specific woman.

In lines 7 and 8, we see the use of the magical mountain, Peng Mountain (蓬山) and the image of the river (一水). Yu Dafu might again be imitating Li Shangyin’s use of Peng Mountain to mean a magical mountain in the middle of the Bohai Sea where immortals lived. Here, because of Peng Mountain’s proximity to Japan, we might be forgiven for reading into the poem a sincere wish that wars will be no more than nightmares from the past and that the Chinese and Japanese people might once again be friends—a wish that was explicitly expressed in Yu’s open letter to his Japanese friend, Mr. Nii Itaru (新居格)) (Yu 1982: 208–214).

The poem can thus be understood as a deep and polysemous allegory that deftly manipulates the past and the present, the public and the private. My reading is consistent with the complex genius of Yu Dafu and his conception of the role of the poet in wartime. Narrow biographical readings, by contrast, all too often sell short Yu’s genius in favor of prurient fabrications.

Poem 4

Line 1: 谣诼纷纭语迭新,Rumors abound,
Line 2: 南荒末劫事疑真。casting doubt on the truthfulness of the news on the end of days for the southern land.
Line 3: 从知灞上终儿戏,The almighty army, stationed at Bashang, took the invasion as a joke;
Line 4: 坐使咸阳失要津。giving up important places such as Xianyang without a fight.
Line 5: 月正圆时伤破镜,Couples parted when the moon was full.
Line 6: 雨淋铃夜忆归秦。Hearing bells in heavy rain made me wish to return to Qin.
Line 7: 兼旬别似三秋隔,Twenty days of separation feels like three years;
Line 8: 频掷金钱卜远人。frequently I throw coins to predict news from afar.

This poem contains many clues that may indicate the time of its composition. Lines 5 and 6 refer to the full moon and heavy rain. The “southern land” referred to in line 2 of poem 4 could, therefore, refer to Java (though not only to Java). Living at the time in Baodong village on the island of Sumatra and without access to broadcasts of the British Information Service (which had left Jakarta for Bombay on February 20, 1942), only “rumors” could have reached Yu Dafu. Even so, the poem might not have been written on those actual days and the moon (such a pregnant image, rich in tradition) ought not to be reduced to a biographical clue.

The place name Bashang (灞上) in line 3 alludes to the story of how Liu Bang (刘邦) of Han defeated Qin and invaded its capital Xianyang (咸阳) after passing through Bashang. It is, therefore, possible that Xianyang refers to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta (then known in English as Batavia) and Bashang to its environs. Yu Dafu uses historical allusions to indicate how the Dutch colonists surrendered Batavia to the Japanese without a fight. But the use of historical allusions here also conflates that past with the present and suggests that all wars are evil.

Line 5 of this poem expresses, perhaps, the poet’s sadness over his separation from his ex-wife. “Couples parted when the moon was full” refers to the poet’s sadness over the enforced partings of husbands and wives who think of each other when the moon is full. Line 6 refers to the Tang Emperor Xuanzong’s (玄宗) grief over the death of his beloved concubine Yang Guifei (杨贵妃). During the An Lushan Rebellion, as Emperor Xuanzong and his cortege were fleeing the capital Chang’an, the emperor’s guards demanded that he put Yang to death because they blamed her and her family for the rebellion. The emperor capitulated and reluctantly ordered his attendant to strangle Yang to death. “Qin” () here refers to a united China or homeland. Line 6 is said to be about my mother,[ 13 ] but it seems to me to make more sense to read Yang Guifei as a representation of Chinese culture and Xuanzong as the poet himself and the political entity that is China. In classical Chinese literature, the custom was to use the emperor or monarch to represent the nation.

In this reading, Yu Dafu is expressing his sadness that (like Xuanzong) he had to abandon his beloved country when fleeing the enemy. Line 8 of this poem seems to say that the poet was so desperate for some news that he threw coins to consult the I Ching. If we assume that this poem was written twenty days after the couple parted (line 7), then it does make some sense to say that Yu Dafu is confessing to have missed my mother for twenty days (兼旬).[ 14 ] But the poem is clearly not just about a personal relationship. The silence from Singapore distresses Yu Dafu because of what this Japanese victory means for China. Yu Dafu understands the events, with the aid of classical allusions, as signifying a transition from the British to the Japanese empire. The poem uses historical allusions to forge a continuity of existential meaning, ethics, and aesthetics between the past and the present. His use of classical allusions is highly sophisticated, and we ought not to treat them merely as coded references to “real life” events. In fact, his images never tell us the true nature of the contemporary events, nor do the contemporary events seem to inhibit the polysemy of the allusions. Rather, a productive symmetry is generated between the classical allusion and contemporary events. The tension between them is at the heart of the meaning of this poem, as well as the others in the cycle.

Poem 5

Line 1: 久客愁看燕子飞, Living here for a while, I anxiously watch the swallows flying around,
Line 2: 呢喃语软泄春机。announcing the arrival of spring.
Line 3: 明知世乱天难问,One cannot ask Heaven the happenings of the world;
Line 4: 终觉离多会渐稀。ultimately one feels the chance for parting exceeds the chance to meet.
Line 5: 简札浮沉殷羡使,Letters remain undelivered, just like those entrusted to Yinxian.
Line 6: 泪痕斑驳谢庄衣。Tracks made by my tears are like those made on Xie Zhuang’s clothes.
Line 7: 解忧纵有兰陵酒,Though one can always drown one’s sorrows in Lanling wine,
Line 8: 浅醉何由梦洛妃。In my mild inebriation I cannot dream of Luo Fei.

In this poem, we can observe once again the function of swallows in a time of historical uncertainty. Singapore fell on February 15, 1942, and all of what is now Indonesia was in Japanese hands by February 19. The British Information Service, where my mother worked, evacuated secretly on February 20 from Java to a destination unknown (Rojanavita 2004).[ 15 ] It is likely that when Yu Dafu says “living here for a while,” (line 1 of poem 5) he would have been referring to weeks after the fall of Singapore.

A sense of historical uncertainty is reflected in the doubts and longings of the poet expressed in line 3 of poem 4. As does Qu Yuan (340–278 B.C.) in his Chuci poems, which were composed while he was in exile, Yu Dafu uses “天难问” (it is hard to ask Heaven)[ 16 ] in line 3 of poem 5 to question the affairs of the nation, family, and war in the contemporary context.

Again, the palimpsests that constitute Yu Dafu’s poem depend on a dialectical relation between past and contemporary texts that promise to create—or at least make room for—meaningful interpersonal relations (and individual identities). Line 1 of this poem is about Yu Dafu as an individual, his separation from his beloved China and Chinese culture, and his feelings of despair: he is a lover, longing to meet his beloved. Yet, while, in peacetime, such a case might well be cause enough for despair, there is a war going on that dominates the lives of everybody, throwing the comparatively ordered traditions of peacetime courtship into chaos. The poet’s attempt to continue courting as if there were no war might thus be read as a kind of anomie, a failure to shoulder the unbearable burden of the times.

In line 5, Yu Dafu represents the poet as a mailman by using the classical allusion of Yinxian (殷羡). Yinxian was finishing his term as a provincial prefect. Before he departed for home, people entrusted him with a heavy load of over 100 letters and parcels. During the journey, the burden was too great. He thus threw the letters and parcels into the river and said “If they sink they sink, if they float, they float. I can no longer be the distributor of such things.” The allusion implies that because of the chaos of war, news was hard to send. Like Yinxian, Yu Dafu is a servant of China and the Chinese people, but one who is unable, ultimately, to help his country. The self-defeating logic of the case does not escape the poet. Yu Dafu reflects on complex questions pertaining to personal social responsibility, individual liberty, and cultural identity. In other words, the poet identifies himself as a bearer of news, much like my mother or the swallow. By using the allusion of Yinxian, the poet is telling his audience that he can no longer endure the great burden the war is imposing upon right-minded scholars. He is exhausted just like Yinxian. The irony here is that by sharing his sense of exhaustion, Yu Dafu might be inviting us to share his burden.

In line 6, the poet refers to Xie Zhuang (谢庄) (421–66), a writer in the Southern dynasties who excelled at composing poems. According to the Shishuo xinyu (世说新语), Xie suffered from an eye disease that caused tears to flow from his eyes. The tears would run down his clothes leaving tracks of different colors. With this allusion, Yu Dafu artfully expresses the effect that the lack of opportunity to deliver news is having on his emotional state.

Line 8 of this poem is supposedly also about my mother because it mentions another famous beauty, a mythical goddess called “Luo Fei” (洛妃). Luo Fei is introduced in Yu Dafu’s poem as part of the tale of Cao Zhi (曹植), who describes the goddess in his “Rhapsody on the Goddess of the Luo” (洛神賦).[ 17 ] In this poem, he likened Zhen Fei (甄妃) to the mythical Luo Fei, suggesting that the former was a reincarnation of the latter. Cao Zhi met concubine Zhen when he was thirteen and she twenty-three. Despite the age difference, Cao Zhi fell in love with her. Zhen Fei, however, died under tragic circumstances. After her death, Cao Zhi went to the capital (Luoyang) to have a meal with his brother, Cao Pi, the King of Wei. After the meal, Cao Pi gave Cao Zhi an embroidered golden pillow that had belonged to Zhen Fei. On the evening boat journey back to his fiefdom, he seemed to see Zhen Fei floating toward him. He awoke suddenly and realized it was a dream. In invoking this allusion, Yu Dafu again situates himself as a poet warrior just like Cao Zhi; unlike Cao Zhi, however, he is incapable of dreaming of Luo Fei. The appearance of Luo Fei as an allusion in the poem seems to create a symbolic vacuum that demands that some real woman occupy the position of the modern Luo Fei, a role Yu’s biographers ascribe to my mother.[ 18 ] Again, this narrow reading limits the power of the historical allusion and precludes other possibilities.

Poem 6

Line 1: 却喜长空播玉音,Yet hearing the jade voice through the distant air made me happy.
Line 2: 灵犀一点此传心。It is as if our hearts are as sensitive as the area between a rhino’s horns.
Line 3: 凤凰浪迹成凡鸟,Even the phoenix, wandering endlessly in the world, becomes an ordinary bird;
Line 4: 精卫临渊是怨禽。the mythical Jingwei becomes but a common bird who complains about the sea.
Line 5: 满地月明思故国,Looking at the moonlight on the ground, reminds one of homeland;
Line 6: 穷途裘敝感黄金。one’s state of poverty and a future insecure.
Line 7: 茫茫大难愁来日,Endless disaster and worry are upon us.
Line 8: 剩把微情付苦吟。All one can do is to use one’s remaining feelings to compose a few lines of bitter lament.

Line 1 of this poem was the only line that explicitly mentions a specific trait that may refer to my mother: her “jade voice.”

Hu Yuzhi (1946) explains that when at Baodong village, Yu Dafu used to go to nearby towns every two or three days to listen to broadcast from Batavia. Line 1 describes the purpose of such visits. According to my mother:

I evacuated with the British army. At that time, I found a job easily. I was working for the British. At that time, a person who could speak both English and Chinese was very scarce in Singapore. As a result, as soon as I looked for work, I found it. I found a job working for the Information Bureau for the [British] government. As a result, the British army was also very much in need of this kind of person. Why did they choose me? Why were they interested in me? That was because in future when we fought against the Japanese to regain Asia, everywhere such as India, in places where there were Chinese, we needed to broadcast news using Chinese. Consequently, I left with the British. It was the British who took me with them.I later went with the British Army to India, arriving in New Delhi, working at All India Radio. But why did the British Army choose me to go particularly, out of two people? That was because I am linguistically talented. I have talent in languages. This was very useful for them. I stayed in New Delhi the longest. Quite a few years because New Delhi was the closest to Japan, and it was in Asia. Therefore, during the time of the Anti-Japanese war, there was a need to broadcast news and therefore it needed a person like me. I could speak English; I could do the translation and I spoke good Mandarin Chinese. Therefore, they took me with them; the British Army left with me. They took me because I could do the broadcasting. (Zhang 2010)

Here, my mother confirms that the voice mentioned in the poem is indeed her voice. My mother is proud of her talent in languages and how she contributed to the war effort. So, while the poem as a whole has a much broader significance, the first line might indeed be taken as a reference to my mother’s broadcasts.

In line 2, Yu writes: “It is as if our hearts are as sensitive as the area between a rhino’s horns.” According to legend, the line between the two horns of a rhinoceros was the most sensitive part of the rhinoceros. Therefore lingxi (灵犀) has been used to refer to the closeness between friends.[ 19 ] Allegorically, it is as if the world were now as hard and impervious as a rhino’s skin yet the poet is almost painfully vulnerable to nuances of his friend’s voice, a voice that seems to make his own heart beat in sympathetic resonance. We thus might read here not merely some kind of coded love letter to my mother, but rather a wonderfully cumbersome image expressing the strange clumsiness of love and friendship during wartime. This sense of anomie is engendered by resituating courtly codes of love and romance in the context of brutality and debasement. Thus, in line 3, the phoenix appears. This imaginary bird usually symbolized high virtue and grace in women of fair to good birth. After many years of wandering from place to place, Yu tells us, even a majestic, mythical creature such as the phoenix will become an ordinary bird. A gentleman, likewise, might well become a rhinoceros.

Yu Dafu is thus perhaps using the sad fate of the phoenix to indicate his own fate: once a literary giant of the May Fourth era, he has now become an ordinary person, a refugee living a miserable existence in a small village in Sumatra. Note the application of a traditionally feminine symbol to represent the condition of his (presumably masculine) identity. Yu may be feminizing himself, or perhaps he is revalorising traditional feminine images and resituating them in the context of war and struggle.

The mythical Jingwei mentioned in line 4 of the poem also turns into an ordinary bird. The Jingwei bird, according to legend, was once the daughter of Emperor Yan, one of the founding emperors of China. She often roamed the Eastern Sea and unfortunately drowned one day. Later she was reincarnated into the Jingwei bird. The Jingwei bird often went to the Western Hills to collect wood and stones with which to fill up the Eastern Sea, in which she had drowned. She also swore never to drink the water of the Eastern Sea. The Jingwei bird’s attempts to fill up the sea, if accomplished, would have made it easier for the poet to travel home.

Line 5 is clearly about the poet’s longing for his motherland. The line alludes to Li Bai’s famous poem “Thoughts on a Quiet Night” (静夜思) to express the poet’s desire to return to China (note that Yu Dafu changes Li Bai’s “hometown” [故乡] into “homeland” [故国]), a desire provoked by the full moon’s shadow cast on the ground. In line 6, the poet tells of his shabby clothes, poverty, and insecurity; these are not merely personal concerns, however, but the concerns of the Chinese nation as a whole. The purpose of this poem is not so much to indulge in self-pity as to take stock, sensitively and aesthetically, of the human losses suffered due to wars. Lines 7 and 8 of this poem suggest that a return to the poet’s homeland is impossible or at best realized only in the imagination. A return, furthermore, is unlikely to offer any significant help for China; all he can do, he says, is to pen a few lines of verse.

Poem 7

Line 1: 犹记高楼诀别词, I remember the words that were said to me when we parted;
Line 2: 叮咛别后少相思。you urged me not to worry too much.
Line 3: 酒能损肺休多饮, Wine does damage to your lungs; it is wise to drink less.
Line 4: 事决临机莫过迟。When decision making is nigh, don’t be too late to act.
Line 5: 漫学东方耽戏谑, Like Dongfang Shuo, I treat my circumstances with humour;
Line 6: 好呼南八是男儿。proclaiming the way to be a man is to be like Nan Ba.
Line 7: 此情可待成追忆, Can I wait, for this mood to mature with hindsight?
Line 8: 愁绝萧郎鬓渐丝。 Worry and despair would turn a lover’s hair as thin as silk.

Traditional Chinese medicine holds that excessive alcohol can damage the lungs. Given that Yu Dafu was by most accounts a heavy drinker (and that he depicted himself as a modern version of famous drunken poets like Li Bai, as seen in line 7 and 8 of Poem 5), the words of admonishment said by “you” in lines 3 and 4 of this pome seem to be exactly the kind of thing that my mother might have said. She always has been a decisive person, ever since her father’s death in 1937, when the fate of her entire family was thrust into her hands. Even if, my mother did say these words, the intention would have been to offer practical advice to Yu, the romantic. For Yu to recall such practical advice so clearly in the jungles of Sumatra would have meant that he had the highest regard for the speaker.

Lines 5 and 6 appear to be Yu’s response to the admonishment in lines 3 and 4. He uses two allusions to tell the reader what decisive actions he intends to take. The first allusion is from the story of Dongfang Shuo (东方朔) (154–193 B.C.), who was popularly known as “the wag.” Because of his wittiness and intelligence, Dongfang Shuo became an intimate friend of and advisor to Emperor Wu and continued to be in favor until his death (Minford/Lau 2002: 352, 574). Yu Dafu continues his response to Line 1 by saying that he would be as heroic as Nan Ba (南八), who fought bravely for the Tang in the suppression of the An Lushan Rebellion.[ 20 ]

In line 7, the poet borrows a line from Li Shangyin’s famous poem “Brocade Zither” (锦瑟)—”did it wait, this mood, to mature with hindsight?” (此情可待成追忆) (Minford/Lau 2002: 929). The line questions whether the poet understands the meaning of what was said to him in lines 2 to 4 of the poem. The last line of the poem underlines the depth of the lover(s)’ feelings of anxiety and despair through the image of thinning hair. In Zhan Yayuan’s (2006) annotation, the poem is said to refer to the sadness Yu Dafu felt about parting from my mother. It is equally plausible to see it as a universal statement about the anxiety and despair caused by war. What we have in this final line of poem 7 in the cycle is a poignant scene that many people, having been forced to part with lovers due to war, hardship, or some other cause, might identify with. It might make some sense to situate my mother in this poem, but it is clear that Yu Dafu has much broader, more universal concerns in mind.

The above analysis of the seven poems suggests that only Poem 6 and 7, perhaps, refer to my mother. As we have seen, allusions to women in the cycle as a whole can be interpreted as pointing to a specific woman, women in general, and even Yu’s longing for China or nostalgia for Chinese culture and society.

Yu Dafu was able to call upon his vast cultural knowledge in his skilful deployment of classical allusions. But where did his understanding of contemporary events come from? His knowledge of contemporary events came to him from the British Information Service through the voice of my mother. That he had shared a house with her could only have rendered more potent Yu’s sense that Li Xiaoyin could serve as the modern equivalent of the great beauty, intellectual woman, or brilliant courtesan, thereby fulfilling one side of the dialectic between the past and the present. The romanticism of the classical allusion requires the presence (or heart-breaking absence) of a great modern woman. Without the great beauty on the contemporary side of the dialectic (i.e. my mother announcing British Information Service broadcasts), the poem would be sterile and present events rendered inexplicable in terms of the past. In other words, the narrative strategy (and deep structure of the poems) requires, from contemporary events, a feminine presence (or heartbreaking absence) corresponding in impact to (but not necessarily exactly the same as) Xi Shi, Yang Guifei, or Luo Fei. Without such a presence, the poems will be incapable of performing the role Yu Dafu specifies with respect to history. Modernity would, in effect, be discontinuous with Chinese history and classical culture would have no role to play in the development of the modern Chinese society and identity May Fourth intellectuals like Yu Dafu were trying to uncover, develop, and articulate.

Yu Dafu’s poetry thus owes something to my mother (and her voice on the British Information Service news), but there is very little reason to think they ever had an affair. My mother did have a place in Yu’s life, but it is not the one that has been made for her (till now). Her voice is the swallow bringing reliable news at a moment of historical confusion and uncertainty. Thanks to this swallow, Yu Dafu’s poetry could inspire the Chinese people at a time when it was impossible to say when the darkness would end.

Why were critics so intent on manufacturing a relationship between Yu Dafu and Li Xiaoyin? One possible reason might be the confessional nature of Yu Dafu’s fiction (Lap 1994). Indeed, Yu Dafu’s pronouncements on the close relationship between life and art add further weight to such interpretations (Yu 1927). The essence of the matter, however, seems to be that the story was too sexy to pass up and was simply copied from one source to the next. Moreover, Yu himself seems to have been flattered by the idea that he was having an affair with such an acclaimed young woman and never (as far as we know) saw fit to deny it.

These seven poems thus may present some strong individual feelings or nostalgia of the poet toward women, or a certain woman, in his life. These poems express a longing for a beautiful, intelligent femininity that could be represented by his second wife, Wang Yingxia, or by my mother. Biographical critics have never properly investigated such a possibility because they already presume to know the nature of Yu’s relationship with my mother. It is not that biographical criticism has no place but that it tends to be reductive (and given to rather severe confirmation bias). I have, therefore, attempted to show how the poems might be read in a way that does more to recognize their full scope and profundity.

Certainly, the nonexistence of a sexual relationship between Yu Dafu and Li Xiaoyin would not add to Yu Dafu’s reputation as one of China’s greatest lovers. Yu Dafu might have been in love with my mother, but that love was not reciprocated or consummated. The “Miscellaneous Poems of Chaos and Separation” were partly autobiographical, as many of his other works were, but they are much more than a sort of chronicle of his life. They were meant to inspire the Chinese people, and for that purpose Yu needed to focus his readers on the essence of China, the nation (yang) and its culture (yin). He is, in a sense, creating a classical Chinese allusion for future generations. Partly, he is creating a certain image himself, but in order to do so he needed to invoke, reproduce, and transform feminine personae: Chinese women like my mother reputed for their beauty and accomplishment.

Li Xiaoyin’s Relationship with Yu Dafu

According to my mother and my eldest maternal uncle, my mother left China to go to Sibu, Sarawak, Malaya in 1940, when she was 22, or 23 sui. It is not clear exactly when my mother arrived in Singapore, most probably late in 1940 or early in 1941. She would have had to have arrived by plane because no boats or ships were travelling between Sarawak and Singapore through the South China Sea.

Her first recorded encounter with Yu Dafu was through a painting of wild geese by the famous Chinese painter Liu Haisu (刘海粟). A poem, penned by Yu Dafu, based on this painting was published in the Singapore Daily evening editions supplement “Stars” (繁星) on July 22, 1941. The title of the poem was “For the Wild Geese painting by Liu Haisu for Ms. Xiaoyin.” Liu Haisu described Li Xiaoyin as Yu Dafu’s “girlfriend.” Liu also described Yu and Li’s relationship as “close as father and daughter” (Liu 1986) and did not suggest that Yu Dafu and my mother had a sexual relationship.

During my interview with my mother, she denied on seventeen occasions having a relationship with Yu Dafu. In Chinese, “having relations” (有关系) with a man is used as a euphemism for a woman having had sexual intercourse with a man. My mother, even at the age of 91, was determined to clear up this ambiguity by telling her forty-nine year-old daughter “I didn’t have any relations with him. He might have been a little in love with me. . . But we never had sex, absolutely not” (我是跟他没关系的。 他那可能有点爱我 . . . 但是我们没有sex,绝对没有的) (Zhang 2010).

One of the reasons the “relationship” between Yu Dafu and my mother has been blown up into such a “scandal” was, as my mother explained it, that “At that time, when girls like me worked in society, anybody would make up things like these rumors” (那个时候,有像我这样的女孩子到社会上去,谁都要搞这些). In 1940, capable young women who fled from war-torn China to Singapore and who then participated actively within intellectual circles were very rare. My mother knew that acting as she did would attract gossip and criticism from less enlightened individuals. Nevertheless, she was and still is, supremely proud of her participation and contribution to the anti-Japanese war effort in Sarawak and Singapore. In my interview with her, she also revealed that Yu Dafu was still very much in love with his former wife, Wang Yingxia (Zhang 2010), which suggests that there was an intimate, but platonic relationship between Yu and my mother.

Line 1 of Poem 6 was the line that Yu Dafu dedicated to my mother. This line represents a mark of respect, not necessarily an expression of sexual love. Yu and Li Xiaoyin worked as colleagues. She was beautiful and strong and represented, for him, the real life embodiment of the “new Chinese woman” he had been thinking and writing about for many years. Meeting her seems to have been tremendously fulfilling for Yu Dafu, especially since he was trying to reshape social relations, including gender relations, through his writing. As such, Li Xiaoyin was Yu’s muse. From her point of view, Yu Dafu was a respected senior colleague who was kind enough to move his son out of his bedroom in order that she could have somewhere to stay.

Indeed, romantic love between them was not really ever on the table. Li Xiaoyin was very practical and hard-headed. She had already rejected two proposals of marriage. She knew perfectly well, moreover, how Chinese society worked and that a fling with Yu would damage her marriage prospects. In any event, she had responsibilities—her broadcasting job and her family back in China—that were far more pressing. As for Yu, he was old enough to be her father, and a fling with someone so much his junior seems unlikely. Rather, my mother seems to have represented for Yu a model of womanhood in the new China, and he would have been intellectually attracted to her because of that.

Sadly, in the 1930s and 1940s, even as they embraced modern notions of sex, sexuality, and the emancipation of women as important elements of China’s modernization, male writers tended to fall back on stereotypes of women. In his 1935 essay “To Be a Chinese Woman Is Unfortunate” (不幸而为中国女子) (Yu 1935), Yu Dafu lamented that, “since Confucius ridiculed that raising a woman is difficult, the downfall of a nation, break up of families, and any kind of event that did not work, were [all] blamed on women … Even when the revolution has been successful, when women’s rights have been confirmed, the orders are still on banning women’s fancy dress, forbidding women to be barefoot and bare-necked . . . the rationale being that such behavior would disturb public morals, as if the maintenance of public morals should totally be the responsibility of women.”[ 21 ] Though he clearly adored the great beauties of Chinese history, Yu Dafu opposed the rules that Confucius (and others) recommended for the control of women. He was an early feminist sympathizer who would have been aware of the suffragette movement in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century. He was, furthermore, of the opinion that making women solely responsible for sexual morality was unfair and inappropriate.

Who is Li Xiaoyin?

Li Xiaoyin in 1938

Li Xiaoyin in Shanghai (1938)

My mother was born on the December 1, 1918 in Fuzhou, Fujian. She was born into a China in economic, intellectual, and cultural transition. My grandfather, Li Miantang (李勉堂), also known as Li Zhengzhong (李拯中) headed the Li family. He was born, probably in the 1890s, into a rural family in Fuzhou. In his younger years, he worked as a study companion for Zhu Shaoliang (朱绍良) (1891–1963). He would follow Zhu to school and accompany him while Zhu studied. Zhu Shaoliang subsequently became a general in the Nationalist army.

Zhu Shaoliang’s military career enabled my grandfather to enter the Baoding Military Academy, a late Qing military school that later served as a model for the Whampoa Military Academy. My grandfather graduated from the school under the headmastership of Jiang Baili (蒋百里) (1882–1938). During Jiang’s period as the headmaster, Jiang attempted large-scale reforms in the school directed at training a strong and efficient army for the new Chinese republic. Jiang met with many difficulties and, on June 18, 1913, attempted suicide because he felt that he had not achieved his objectives. On June 18, 1913, he attempted suicide because he felt that he had not realized his objectives of training a strong and efficient army for the new Chinese republic. No doubt this episode made a deep impression on my grandfather. Though my grandfather was Zhu’s servant, they formed a friendship that lasted a lifetime. They participated in both the Northern Expedition (1926–28) and the offensives against the Communists (1933–34).

In 1918, my grandfather graduated from the military school and returned to his hometown triumphant. He was by now 28 and of marriageable age. However, he was not interested in the daughters of wealthy families. According to my mother, when my grandfather saw my grandmother’s picture in 1918, he instantly fell in love with her. My grandmother was 18, illiterate, had bound feet and was from a poor family. Even though foot binding was in serious decline in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, it was still practiced in the countryside around Fuzhou. She was, however, very pretty, and my grandfather, ten years her senior, was smitten. They were married and were devoted to each other.

My mother describes her father as a forward-looking, modern man who insisted that his children be educated, not just in Chinese, but also in English. Of course, his daughters’ feet were not bound. My mother’s education began at home where English-speaking tutors from Fuzhou were hired to teach her and her siblings before they attended primary school. My mother lived with her parents for a time in Guangzhou and Hong Kong during her formative years, thus enabling her to become fluent in Cantonese as well as Mandarin and Fukienese. The family finally settled in the Shanghai in the French concession while my grandfather worked in Gansu province serving as Chief of Staff of the 24th Division in the Nationalist army alongside Zhu Shaoliang. My grandfather died in 1935 following an inspection of his work in Gansu: on his way back from taking the inspectors to the airport, his jeep overturned, and he was killed. There were rumours that he had been assassinated (Zhang 2006).

Li Miantang

My grandfather, Li Miantang (1891-1935)

Zheng Lanying

My grandmother, Zheng Lanying (1902-73)

In eighteen years of marriage, my grandmother gave birth to eight children; the first four of whom were girls. Wolf (1978) suggests that Chinese women accumulated power in the domestic sphere by strengthening their ties with the family through giving birth to sons. Seen in this light, it would have been very embarrassing for my grandmother to have had so many girls. Being the eldest child, my mother would have observed from a young age how gossip would circulate and make her father and mother lose face. The situation was so embarrassing that two of the daughters were given away to relatives. The arrival of sons after the fourth daughter restored my grandfather’s face and my grandmother’s position within the family.

The humiliation of my grandmother must have affected my mother deeply. She would have witnessed my grandmother’s dependency on my grandfather first hand and the unreasonable societal demands on women’s bodies. She attended missionary schools and was educated in both the Chinese classics and Western literature. Being the daughter of a Nationalist army general, she wanted: “to be independent. I was like that ever since I was young. I wanted independence; it is in my character. I am like my father. I felt more like a boy” (Zhang 2010).

My mother’s school years (1925–36) coincided roughly with the publication and wide distribution of a multivolume series of pamphlets under the title “Collected Discussions of the Woman Question” (女性问题讨论集) (Mei Shen 1934) between 1929 and 1934. These pamphlets dealt with a large number of questions concerning women. With the modernization of China into the second decade, and under the auspices of the May Fourth Movement, women could enjoy increasing freedom and mobility as professional people. Unlike the female writer and scholar of classical Chinese literature Feng Yuanjun (1900–73), my mother did not come from an intellectual family (書香世家), nor was she forced to leave home like the female author Ding Ling (1904–86). Her family life was happy and modern until the death of her father in 1935.

Following her father’s death, the family was supported by a sort of pension provided by the Nationalist Party through Zhu Shaoliang. My uncle, the youngest son, who was born after his father’s death, recalls going to parties at the Zhu residence when he was a few years old and playing in the yard. Before leaving Zhu’s home, he and my mother would go upstairs and receive “presents” consisting of money to support the family.

In 1936, my mother graduated from high school and gained entry to the selective Jinan University, in Shanghai to study business. According to Chen Songxi (Chen 2001), she did not particularly excel in her studies but was very good at English. She won first prize in the Jiangnan Eight University English Language competition in 1938 (Chen 2001). My mother also became a member of an acting troupe during her university years, performing alongside famous actresses such as Yan Huizhu (言慧珠) (1919–1966) and under the direction of the famous leftwing playwright Tian Han (田汉). She performed the starring role of Xiangjie (香姐) in “Put Down your Whip” (放下你的鞭子), an anti-Japanese “street play” adapted from an earlier play by Tian that was influenced by a Goethe novel (Chen 2001).

My mother’s university study was interrupted repeatedly by historical events. After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, China was in chaos. While attending university, she was also responsible for the welfare of the whole family on an inadequate amount of money provided by the Nationalist Army. When Shanghai fell to Japan in 1937, she made the decision to flee from Shanghai to her ancestral hometown of Fuzhou with her entire family. She was 19 years old. Six months later, she heard that though the Japanese had occupied Shanghai, they had left the concessions alone. My mother brought the whole family back to Shanghai.

My mother graduated from Jinan University in 1939. By this time, she was 20, or 21 sui, a marriageable age for a young woman. As the eldest of six children, having to support her siblings and an illiterate mother, getting married was not a priority—looking for a job was. However, in occupied Shanghai, no job could offer the income and stability needed to support a large family.

Li Xiaoyin’s economic difficulties could easily have been solved by accepting the proposal of marriage extended to her by a classmate at Jinan University, who was a year ahead of her. He came from a family of means. After graduating, he had gone to America to seek employment. Before he left, he proposed to my mother and urged her to follow him and then marry him in the US. Although his family did not approve of the marriage (because my mother came from a poor family with six dependents), his mother, for the sake of her son’s happiness, went to my mother’s house to beg her to go to the States to marry her son. After thinking long and hard, my mother rejected the offer and decided not to go to the States. I asked her why she made this decision, and she replied:

If I wanted to be a rich man’s wife, I had plenty of opportunities in Shanghai. My first boyfriend was just like this. I could be his friend but if he wanted me to be his wife, then I did not want to . . . I wanted to be independent. I was like that ever since I was young. […] . I am like my father. I am more like a boy. (Zhang 2010)[ 22 ]

Huang Zeng-an

Photo of Huang Zeng’an in 1970

Not long after rejecting this proposal, a job offer came from Huang Zeng’an (黃增安), an overseas Chinese classmate from Sibu, Sarawak. Huang was born in 1914, and so was four years her senior. He too was a year ahead of my mother at university. After graduation, Huang went back to Sibu, Sarawak to become the principal of his own school. Before he left Shanghai, he offered my mother a job as an English teacher and asked her to come to Sibu after she graduated. He even entrusted my mother’s safety to his brother on the voyage by ship from Shanghai to Sibu (Zhang 2010). According to Tian Yingcheng:

Huang Zengan was born in 1914 in Mianqing County Fujian province. During the anti-Japanese war, he graduated from Jinan University in Shanghai in Chemistry. It was in Shanghai where he was influenced by left wing revolutionary theories. After graduation, he went to Sibu, Sarawak to be with his mother. He also married his classmate Li Xiaoyin, a beautiful modern female with excellent English ability. At that time, Sibu, Sarawak was a backward town. Perhaps Li Xiaoyin was not used to living there. After a while, she moved to Singapore and later divorced Huang. (Tian 2012)

Although they were considered engaged (Zhang 2014b, 2014c, 2014d), my mother never lived with Huang Zeng’an (Zhang 2014a), and they never married. During her stay in Sibu, she was living at the school where both she and Zeng’an worked. According to historical documents from the Sarawak Chinese Cultural Association (Cai 2007; 2013), my mother most probably arrived in Sibu in the first half of 1939 as she was listed as the deputy director of the drama troupe of the Sibu Chinese Choir. While in Sibu, she organized singing and dancing performances and flower selling events to raise money for the anti-Japanese resistance movement. Records of the various positions she held are published in books by the Sarawak Chinese Cultural Association (Cai 2007). She seems to have left for Singapore after September 1940, according to the Association documents.

From the above accounts of the two marriage proposals she received as a 19–20 year old, my mother showed a strength of character in choosing not to be a rich man’s wife. She wanted to be independent—as she put it, “to be like a boy.” Having to support the whole family at such a young age, my mother did not have the luxury of retreating from life. After losing her father, she had to make her way in the world on her own and take life into her own hands.

My mother travelled from Sibu, Sarawak to Singapore with a female friend named Zhang Yuxian (张玉仙). From January to the fall of 1941, she lived in a spare room in perhaps Zhang Yuxian’s friend’s house (Zhang 2014d). My mother found a job in the Ministry of Information of the British government almost immediately after arriving in Singapore. The job enabled her to use her talent for languages to support herself and her family back in China.

She moved out of that house in October, 1941 because “the family wanted to take the room back” (人家要收回那个房子) (Zhang 2010). At the time, the Japanese were bombing Singapore and nearby Malaya. With the impending takeover, people panicked, and it was difficult to secure accommodations on short notice. When my mother told Yu Dafu of her own difficulty in securing accommodation, he suggested that she stay in the study in his flat in October, 1941. At that time, my mother and Yu Dafu had known each other as colleagues for a few months, and my mother had been working for the British Information Service for some months. When the British Information Service wanted to publish a newspaper (Overseas Chinese Weekly) to rally the local population against the Japanese, my mother recommended Yu Dafu to be the editor of the newspaper. Yu Dafu became the paper’s editor in April, 1941. By the time Yu Dafu wrote the poem on July 22, 1941 for Liu Haisu’s painting, they had known each other for some months. The poem penned for Liu Haisu’s painting may have been a gesture of gratitude from Yu Dafu to Li Xiaoyin for getting him the job as the editor of the Overseas Chinese Weekly. Therefore, his offer for her to stay in his flat was a generous gesture to help her solve an accommodation problem. No doubt, if a male colleague had been in the same difficulty, the same offer would have been extended.

My mother said, however, that she could not have stayed in the study because “the whole room was filled with books; from the floor to the ceiling it was filled with books. Everywhere there were books.”[ 23 ]Yu Dafu’s obsession with books is well known. The painter Liu Haisu observed: “In the study, thousands upon thousands of English books were piled on the floor. He also had an obsessive habit of reading. Without reading a book, it was very difficult for him to fall asleep.”[ 24 ] My mother went on to explain that she ended up staying in the room of Yu Dafu’s son, Yu Fei (郁飞):

I did not sleep in the same room as his father. I was only borrowing a room in his [Yu Dafu’s] house. I borrowed Yu Fei’s room. This was the room that Yu Fei used to read in. There was a small table. Later on, after I moved in, there was no room. Later on, Yu Fei and his father slept in one room. Yu Fei moved out of his room for me to live in. . . His [Yu Dafu’s] life at that time was like mine. We both had jobs outside. So we would go to work and then return home. (Zhang 2010).

My mother was perhaps naïve in thinking that Singapore, then under British control, was open and tolerant and that there would not be any problems in associating with Yu Dafu, who was a divorced man. She possibly thought that the twenty-three year age difference between them was so big that it would shield her from any gossip. As she put it: “During that time, the age difference was too big. He was already a very old man’ (那个时候年龄差太多了。他那个时候是很老的老头了) (Zhang 2010). My mother made no apology for being beautiful and intelligent. She said: “At that time, a person of my age who was young and beautiful and with only a few females around, being a woman whose Chinese and English were really good and who worked in the cultural and artistic sphere, I was popular.”[ 25 ]

Yu Dafu treated my mother as an equal. She was said to have inspired many of Yu Dafu’s anti-Japanese writings during the time they knew each other (Yu 1986). Yu Dafu’s nickname for her, “Livius,” a male Roman historian, reflects his respect for her as an equal (Yu 1986).


Through my reading of the poems in “Miscellaneous Poems of Chaos and Separation,” I hope to have clarified the nature of the relationship between Yu Dafu and Li Xiaoyin, thereby correcting a misconception found in literary gossip, in the many novels and films about Yu Dafu’s life, as well as in most scholarly commentary on these poems. In the 1940s, any woman taking charge of her own destiny, as my mother did, ran the risk of being labelled a loose woman by the male literary establishment of the day. By examining the function of images in “Miscellaneous Poems of Chaos and Separation,” we not only liberate the poetry of Yu Dafu from the reductionist criticism founded on hearsay and conjecture, we also come to a deeper understanding of Yu’s concept of the role of women in modern poetry and society.

My mother succeeded in balancing her duty to her family in China and herself with her duty to her country. Li Xiaoyin did not end up heartbroken and destitute like those characters in the fiction of Lu Yin or Feng Yuanjun. Despite being totally distraught by the death of my grandfather, she took up the challenge of supporting her family, eventually making the heart-wrenching decision to travel overseas for work. She managed on her own and was never dependent on any man. She also never complied with society’s expectations of women at that time; instead, she created a life of her own, despite the gossip and sneering (usually from men), and was as much in control of her life in the war-torn 1940s as any of us is today.

In short, my mother’s story is not that of a stereotypical Chinese woman victimized by tradition or society. She lived her life, in her adult years, more like the new women depicted by Ding Ling in her stories. The series of actions she took that culminated in her arrival in Singapore speak volumes of her determination to be a truly independent person. And her life in Singapore was very much dictated by the practical concerns of how to survive in a foreign country.

From interviews with my mother, undertaken over a number of years, it is clear that she is very proud of having been a broadcaster for the British Information Office, first in Singapore and later in New Delhi, and she freely admits that she is the “jade voice” in Poem 6 in Yu Dafu’s series of poems. She is proud of her contribution to the anti-Japanese war effort, reading the texts she translated from English to Chinese, her voice was like the swallow bringing news at the moment of historical confusion and uncertainty. Her acquaintance with Yu Dafu provided Yu with the latest news on the progress of the war, contributing to his writing over 200 anti-Japanese essays. Influenced by my mother, Yu Dafu’s writing could then inspire the Chinese people at a time when it is impossible to say whether the darkness would last one night or a thousand years. Though the first seven poems analysed here seem to have spoken endlessly of disasters, worries, chaos and separations, the remaining four poems “display a noble spirit and soaring aspirations” (Xu 1999: 220).

Yu Dafu spent a large part of his adult life trying to articulate what the new Chinese society should look like, even as he recognized that the ideals of the May Fourth project were a work in progress and that the role for women in the new society still needed to be sorted out. The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War further complicated the May Fourth project. My mother came into Yu Dafu’s life precisely at this time of national despair. She was beautiful, intelligent, articulate, steeped in and respectful of Chinese culture, but able and determined to find her own way. Perhaps she embodied Yu Dafu’s feminine ideal, which explains why he admired her so much. What we have in Yu Dafu’s work is an attempt to situate the “new women” not only within traditional ideas of Chinese femininity, but also to resituate them as active participants in public affairs unprecedented in the history of China. The Singapore that Yu Dafu experienced from 1939 to 1942 showed him it is possible to realize a new Chinese society that functions effectively in the modern world with emancipated women participating with men in public affairs. His close association with my mother contributed to his view that women have an extraordinary role to play.

The “Miscellaneous Poems of Chaos and Separation” deal with the age-old Chinese themes of (political) chaos and (personal) separation. When Yu Dafu wrote them, China had fallen to the Japanese and Britain had given up its colony Singapore without a fight. The poems simply articulate his misery at this situation. Yoon-wah Wong (1988) tells how Yu and fellow intellectuals who had fled to Singapore had to melt into the Sumatran jungle, with the Japanese spies and agents coming after them. This was more than mere misery; this was the Gotterdammerung. The new China for which he had been working all his adult life had been killed before it had had a chance to exist. In the face of unimaginable loss and terror, these poems were his therapy. Not knowing whether he might be alive in a week, he put his heart and soul into them.

As he had done many times before, Yu chose to express his feelings through allusion to classical literature. In so doing, he projects and enfolds the past into the present and vice versa. In these poems, Yu Dafu and his experiences became representative of China. This representation is essentially male (yang), and he needs a female figure to stand in for Chinese culture, society, and family life (yin). In these poems, the Chinese nation (as a political entity) and its culture and society are interwoven to encompass the full spectrum of Chinese suffering during the war. He was also writing for future generations of China, even as he was fearful that the new China has no chance of being achieved in his lifetime. And my mother was, perhaps, the Muse, who inspired him to do this in these poems.

Felicia Zhang, with Christopher R. McMahon (University of Canberra)
University of Canberra


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[ 1 ] Ding Ling’s first story, “Meng Ke” tells of a young woman who discovers her sexuality in a tough city full of rich predatory men.

[ 2 ] See Lu 1962; Xu 1999; Zhan 2006; Zhejiang wenyi 1987; Zhou/Yu 1981; Zhu 1995.

[ 3 ] In English speaking culture at that time, a “girlfriend” meant a romantic attachment, but not a sexual relationship. Hu might have been referring to an unconsummated “romantic attachment” here.

[ 4 ] This line is the first line in Poem 6.

[ 5 ] See footnote 2.

[ 6 ] See footnote 2.

[ 7 ] Here, Yu imitates a technique from the poem “Wuyi Lane” (乌衣巷) by the Tang poet, Liu Yuxi (刘禹锡, 772–842 AD). Wuyi Lane (乌衣巷) is located on the south side of Qinhuai River in Nanjing. The name Wuyi means black clothes. This was because the non-commissioned officers at that time always dressed in black. Later the aristocrats of Eastern Jin (317–420) gradually assembled at Wuyi Lane, making it popular and famous. Wang Dao (王导) and Xie An (谢安) once lived here. The poem “Wuyi Lane,” written by Tang poet Liu Yuxi(刘禹锡)is based on it: “Beside Red Sparrow Bridge, wild plants are in flower, / At the entrance to Raven robe Lane [Wu yi xiang], evening sunlight sinks down; / The swallows that once were before the halls of the former Wangs and Xies, / Now fly into the homes of the common peasantry” (Minford/Lau 2002: 862).

[ 8 ] For a translation, see Minford/Lau 2002: 813–814.

[ 9 ] Bacheng is the Chinese name for the present day Jarkarta; then the capital of Indonesia. The English name for Jarkarta then was Batavia.

[ 10 ] According to Rojanavita’s book King Rama 7’s Spy Phor: 27 (Rojanavita 2004), the British Information Service fled Jakarta on Java on February 20, 1942 on the British ship SS Yoma to a top secret destination. They sailed for three days, stopping at Colombo, Sri Lanka and then entered India through the port of Bombay on March 12, 1942. The journey from Batavia, Java to India took 21 days. From Bombay, the whole company then travelled by train to New Dehli which took another 10 days, arriving in New Dehli on March 22, 1942. They resumed broadcasting on April 7 in Thai, Mandarin, and Malay. The evacuation of the British Information Service was timely as the Japanese landed on Java on February 28, 1942. Payome Rojanavita was my mother’s first husband of Thai origin. He travelled with her from Singapore to New Delhi in 1942. He was the Thai language announcer for the British Information Service.

[ 11 ] The wild goose and fish are the earliest images to represent postal services in classical Chinese. See

[ 12 ] See footnote 2.

[ 13 ] See footnote 2.

[ 14 ] And there is some support for this chronology. According to Hu Yuzhi’s memoir, Yu Dafu left Singapore on the morning of the February 4, 1942 in a small boat with twenty-seven other people. Before Singapore fell on the 15th, they stayed on a small island called Wang Jia Li (see figure 1), which was only divided from Singapore by the Malacca Strait. From there, they could hear the bombs dropping on Singapore. After realising that Singapore had fallen (because the bombing had stopped) and confirming this fact by listening to the Allied Forces radio, the refugees moved to Baodong. They arrived at this village on the night of February 16, a day after the fall of Singapore. They were said to have stayed in Baodong for about half a month (Hu 1946).

[ 15 ] Some parts of Eastern Indonesia were captured before the fall of Singapore. Some parts of Borneo fell before Christmas Day 1941. At the time, Australia begged the US to defend it, which it did. Japanese naval forces were defeated in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.

[ 16 ] 天难问 (it is hard to ask Heaven) is derived from “天问” (to ask Heaven) in Chuci (Songs of the south) by Qu Yuan (340-278 B.C.)

[ 17 ] Cao Zhi (192–232 A.D.), son of Cao Cao (155–220 A.D.), was a prince of the state of Wei (220–225 A.D.) in the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 A.D.) and an accomplished poet in his time. As Cao Zhi once engaged his elder brother Cao Pi (187–226 A.D.) in a power struggle to succeed their father, he was ostracised after Cao Pi became king. “Rhapsody on the Goddess of the Luo” is a romantic poem written by Cao Zhi celebrating his brother’s deceased wife (Zhen Fei), whom he loved. The reputation of Luo Fei is mainly due to this famous poem.

[ 18 ] See footnote 2.

[ 19 ] This word was originally used in Li Shangyin’s “Unnamed” in which the line “心有灵犀一点通” appeared. This image, as such, speaks of an enormous tenderness.

[ 20 ] Nan Ba’s story comes from “Epilogue of the Legend of Advisor Zhang Zhong” (张中丞传后叙) written by Han Yu (韩愈) in the Tang dynasty. Nan Ba was born in 712 AD in the Tang dynasty. His real name was Nan Jiyun (南霁云) but because he was the eighth son of a peasant family, he was later called “Nan Ba.”

[ 21 ] 自孔子讥女子为难养以来, 国破家亡, 以及一切大小不行的事件发生, 就都推在女子的身上。取缔女子的奇装异服, 禁止女子的赤足袒胸,理由总是坏乱风化; 一若风化之维持, 全须女子负责者

[ 22 ] 如果自己要做少奶奶,在上海是有机会的。我那个第一个男朋友就是这样,我跟他做朋友, 可以。 你看我做他家里媳妇,我就不行。。。我自己要,要自己独立的。我从小就是这样的。要自己独立, 我个性就是这样的,像我爸爸,像一个男孩子 (Zhang 2010).

[ 23 ] 他整个房间里,不是说书架上,他整个房间是空的,全部都是书。一直从地下到屋顶这里都是书。 到处都是书。(Zhang 2010)

[ 24 ] 屋里堆了上千册的英文书,他常书成癖,每天不翻完一本,很难入睡。 (Liu 1986)

[ 25 ] 那个时候,像我这样的人年纪又轻又比较漂亮…而且女孩子少, 而且中英文都要好。都是在文化界工作。所以都很受欢迎。(Zhang 2010)