Paris in the Springtime

By Shao Xunmei 邵洵美

Translated by Paul Bevan

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September 2023)

Introduction: Shao Xunmei, a Chinese Poet in 1920s Paris
By Paul Bevan

Portrait of Shao by the artist Xu Beihong 徐悲鴻.

Shao Xunmei (1906-68) was a poet, essayist, and publisher. Today, he is best known for his poetry, which mostly belongs to the period when he was a young man in his twenties inspired by the Decadent poets of nineteenth-century Europe. His lesser-known essays, written during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, cover all sorts of different topics, from the poetry of Sappho to the art of the woodblock print, from Shanghai in wartime to Chinese philately. Arguably his greatest contribution to the culture of the Chinese Republican Era (1912-49) was in publishing. During the 1920s and 1930s, Shao Xunmei published an array of pictorial magazines, so important that they did nothing less than define the era, in their celebration of the unique culture that developed in China’s most cosmopolitan city, Shanghai, at a time of great change. In addition to his own magazines, Shao was also responsible for the publication of many other periodicals, in his capacity as printer and editor. The essays translated in the book One Man Talking were all published in Shao’s own magazines between the years 1929 and 1939, and give a good idea of the breadth of his interests.

This short prose piece, “Paris in the Springtime” 巴黎的春天 (which does not appear in the book and was translated specially for MCLC), was published in 1929, three years after Shao Xunmei returned from Europe to China. It describes his movements whilst in Paris on a brief visit from Cambridge, where he was studying towards the university entrance exams. The cover of the book One Man Talking shows a portrait of Shao taken in a Parisian photographic studio in 1926, which was almost certainly posed for at the time of this visit. It has a handwritten greeting in Chinese to his friends and landlords in Cambridge, Rev. A.C. Moule and his wife, and was sent to them from Paris.[1]

Cover of One Man Talking.

In Shao’s poetic introduction the sun drips like honey; the warm breeze has audible footsteps; the tree is female, and she expresses herself in a variety of different ways, depending on who passes beneath her vast green canopy of leaves and branches.

Shao was a young man of his time, and in his writing we sometimes find references to women that do not read well today. This short essay is no exception. The tree giggles when young women pass beneath it, but is dismissive of middle-aged women because they are no longer young. Shao’s description of the artists’ model, though brief, typically objectifies the sitter, and the naïve, even childish ending to the essay brings in the rather self-conscious and unimaginative reference to the “amorous feelings of spring.” Despite these shortcomings, the essay as a whole displays much charm, and is written in a style that is typical of his writings of the time, with a nod towards the use of a descriptive language that shows his poetic aspirations. Above all, the essay provides an excellent indication as to what Shao Xunmei’s pastimes were during the time he spent in Paris as a man of leisure. It also gives an impression of his interests more broadly, interests with which he was able to fully indulge himself while he lived in Cambridge.

Shao took up life-drawing classes in Paris, and art was certainly something that remained important to him for the rest of his working career. However, in later years he rarely, if ever, took advantage of any skills in art he may have acquired, choosing instead to hire a large team of commercial artists to provide the copious illustrations that adorned the pictorial magazines he published in the 1930s. Instead of continuing his studies in art on his return to Shanghai from Europe, he became a prolific writer of essays and articles for his own magazines and the publications of others.

“Paris in the Springtime” was published in April 1929 in a magazine that belonged to his Francophile friends, father and son, Zeng Pu 曾樸 (1872-1935) and Zeng Xubai 曾虛白, and was probably written shortly before that time.[2] In it, Shao mentions Sanyu (Chang Yu 常玉, 1895-1966), his Chinese artist friend, who spent most of his life in France. The previous month Shao had published another essay devoted entirely to Sanyu’s life in Paris, “A Treasure of the Modern Art World.” This appeared in Shao’s own magazine Jinwu yuekan 金屋月刊 (Golden House Monthly), and is included in the book One Man Talking.[3]

Shao’s love of gambling is also mentioned in this short piece. Here he talks about how he liked to watch his friends win at cards, but in reality he was a prolific gambler himself, whether it be on card games, or on the popular sport of Hai Alai (Jai-alai), in Shanghai.[4]

Shao informs the reader about his love for browsing the second-hand bookshops of Paris, a habit – or “addiction” – he indulged in in Cambridge, and continued to cultivate on his return to China. He collected all sorts of books: poetry collections, books on art, print collections, Western and Chinese, and had a valuable collection of Song dynasty illustrated books, which is mentioned in his essays on “Covarrubias” and “A Year in Shanghai”, both translated for One Man Talking.

The piece is set at the time in his life when Shao was most interested in Decadent French poets such as Paul Verlaine (1844-96) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), and it can be seen that he took the opportunity, during his sojourn in Paris, to buy books relating to the world of Decadence. He also mentions purchasing La Nouvelle Psyche, and this points towards his fascination with the classical world. When Shao mentions a classical writer, the Greek poet Sappho is never very far behind. Apuleius (c.124-c.170) was a Latin prose writer, but, as with so many of the historical poets and writers Shao chose to focus on, he had something to say about Sappho (c.630-c.570BC) and her love poetry. The following appeared in his Apologia:

…there was even a woman, a Lesbian, who wrote with such grace and such passion that the sweetness of her song makes us forgive the impropriety of her words.[5]

Sappho, together with Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), were two of Shao’s greatest poetic loves, and it was just at the time when he was in Europe that this passion for their poetry was at its peak.[6] Some of his own poetry that he dedicated to them was written on his return journey from Europe to China and published shortly after his arrival in Shanghai.

Since the 1980s, when Shao Xunmei’s writing started to be rehabilitated by a small handful of scholars, Shao has become the subject of many academic studies. His poems have already been translated into English, but this book One Man Talking is the first to present his prose in translation. Susan Daruvala and I have translated a small but varied selection of Shao Xunmei’s essays (mostly on the subjects of art and literature) and provided our own essays based on them. Guest contributions were made by Michel Hockx and Helen Wang. There is a foreword by Leo Ou-fan Lee and an Afterword by Shao Xiaohong 邵绡红, Shao Xunmei’s daughter. Madam Shao Xiaohong was supportive of this book project from the very outset, but sadly didn’t live to see the final result. One Man Talking is dedicated to her.

Paris in the Springtime
By Shao Xunmei
Translated by Paul Bevan

Spring is upon us. The arrival of spring can be hidden from no one.

The sun, delicate and soft, drips onto our skins like honey. The breeze is gentle, and the sound of her footsteps, rhythmical, like the Tango.[7]

A tree, all dressed in green. When young women walk beneath her, with a giggle she will assume an expression of great charm; when she sees older women, she will adopt a proud bearing, proud that she is the symbol of youth. If lovers sit in twos beneath her, or by her side, she will take on a look coloured by jealousy and envy, and sing a song, that seems like poetry but really is not.

Perhaps it is only Paris that has a spring like this.

But spring in Paris can also have a gloomy side.

Breakfast is a cup of Noir et blanc, and two croissants. Fed up with reading, I go in search of my friend for a chat. My friend is not at home, so I set off on a stroll. When my feet begin to ache from pounding the streets, I visit a billiard hall to watch a game of cards. Only when watching a card game are all my pressures alleviated, and my interest sparked. If there is a vacant seat next to someone I know, I will squeeze in beside them, holding my breath so as not to disturb them, hoping they will win some money. Otherwise, I will stand behind them, wait for when it’s their turn to choose the cards, and, before they look at them, I’ll alert them by pressing their foot with my own, and fix my eyes on a certain card to ensure they have a good hand. If they really do win with that hand, they will certainly turn around to express their thanks. Under such circumstances, to be thanked in this way is more intoxicating even than when a beautiful young woman turns her head and glances back to smile at you. If you haven’t experienced this for yourself, of course, there is no way you will understand what I mean. Sometimes I stay for so long that I forget to eat lunch.

By the afternoon there are so many places to go. Don’t let’s speak of the park; let’s not speak of the museum, nor of the coffee shop. These can all be visited in the morning. Let’s not mention the cinema, nor the dance hall either. What is actually most amusing to me is to pick up my portfolio, grab some charcoal, and run across the Jardin de Luxembourg, pass through a street there, and, having turned a corner, enter a grey-coloured house. Here, several American, English, and French men and women will have arrived before you. If you come a little early you will have to wait a while; if you go later, then there on a low plinth that stands just seven or eight inches high, will be a woman with nothing on from head to toe, striking all sorts of poses. Sometimes she will raise her breasts, sometimes she will part her thighs. Every five minutes she will change her posture. Then, just in that moment, you must capture on paper your impression of the outline of her body. If you stay there for two hours you’ll be able to take away ten or twenty sketches, and you can sit by the window at home and work on them in detail. Our friend Sanyu likes nothing better than to while away his time in this way. Doing that every day, of course, would become far too boring, and there are many other places that are worth a visit. In the end, Paris will never leave you idle.

When I was in Europe I had an addiction, one that I still have to this day, which is to run around all the secondhand bookshops. In Paris, I liked most of all to visit the bookshop next to the Odeon. It is not all that big, and doesn’t sell expensive books or manuscripts, but I was often able to find books there that suited my taste and were hard to find elsewhere. In this shop, I once bought a finely-illustrated, unbound, quarto volume of a collection of poetry by Verlaine, and a volume of the twenty-five poems of Baudelaire in a manuscript facsimile. Even though the prices are low there, normally these two volumes are very hard to find. There are also a few places on the banks of the Seine that mostly sell books on politics and philosophy.

There is another shop on a street I don’t actually know the name of, but am able to find my way there. The books at this place are of a much finer quality, and sometimes cost as much as one thousand, or even ten thousand francs. I can’t really afford them, but it was there that I bought a volume of La Nouvelle Psyche written by Madame xx and published in Paris in 1711. It is based on Apuleius, and could be said to be a translation of it, though it would seem no one has ever made that suggestion. I bought many books of this sort when I was in Cambridge, and, in the future, I will write something about them in detail. What I’ve recorded here for you today, though, is simply to tell you that while I was in Paris in the springtime, as well as spending time visiting art galleries, I liked to browse the secondhand bookshops.

And sometimes the so-called “amorous feelings of spring” would be aroused.

Oh! Paris in the springtime. In the end, I am simply not worthy of you!


[1] This is in the Moule papers, University of Cambridge and has been reproduced on the cover of the book with the kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

[2] Shao Xunmei, “Bali de Chuntian” 巴黎的春天 (Paris in the Springtime) in Zhen Mei Shan 真美善 (Truth Beauty Goodness), vol. 4 no. 1 (16 April 1929).

[3] Shao Xunmei, “Jindai yishujie zhong de baobei” 近代藝術界中的寶貝 (A Treasure of the Modern Art World) in Jinwu yuekan 金屋月刊 (Golden House Monthly), vol. 1, no. 3 (1 March 1929), pp. 81-86.

[4] Shao Xunmei, “Ji zhong du yu jige ren” 幾種賭與幾個人 (A Few Types of Gambling and Some People) in Shanghai manhua 上海漫畫 (“Shanghai Sketch”), no. 2 (20 February 1934), n.p.

[5] H. E Butler, (tr.), The Apologia and Florida of Apuleius of Madaura (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909). This is the sort of publication Shao is likely to have had access to in Cambridge.

[6] For more on this see Paul Bevan, “Sappho’s Younger Brother: Shao Xunmei, Translation and his Golden House Bookshop,” Chapter 11 in Cosima Bruno, Lucas Klein and Chris Song (eds.), The Bloomsbury Handbook of Modern Chinese Literature in Translation. Forthcoming, November 2023.

[7] All words in bold appeared in roman letters in the original.