Chu Hsiang (1904-5 December 1933), poet, was noted for his use of a variety of traditional and Western forms in writing Chinese vernacular poetry.
Born into a family of twelve children in T'aihu, Anhwei, Chu Hsiang was the youngest of five boys. His father, Chu Yen-hsi, was a salt tao-t'ai. Both his father and his mother died while he was very young, leaving him to be brought up by an elder brother. This brother seems to have regarded Chu as an unwelcome encumbrance and to have mistreated him throughout his boyhood. At the age of six, Chu began classical studies with a private tutor. Although he was not an exceptional student, by the time he was 11 he had mastered the rudiments of the classical curriculum and was trying his hand at original composition. His brother, however, saw no point in Chu's continuing a traditional education, which the abolition of the examination system had rendered unnecessary, and enrolled Chu in a so-called modern school. Thereafter, Chu's boyhood schooling was highly irregular, including a period spent studying engineering in a vocational school and taking English courses at night. In 1922, at the age of 18, he enrolled in Tsinghua College.
Chu Hsiang had become seriously interested in literature while still a schoolboy. His one sustained interest had been the reading of novels. He was particularly taken with historical tales and eagerly devoured translations of Scott and Stevenson. He also read widely in Chinese fiction and came to regard Hung-lou-meng [Dream of the Red Chamber) as the greatest of all Chinese novels. When he turned 18, however, he gave up fiction entirely and vowed to read nothing but poetry. On entering Tsinghua, Chu took up with the new literature movement, then in its heyday. Soon he was drawn into the circle of Wen I-to, Hsu Chih-mo (qq.v.), and Liu Meng-wei, poets of the "Crescent School," who were concerned with defining new forms and rhythms for a poetry which was the only thing, they held, that could liberate and adequately express the new spirit of the Chinese people under the republic. Chu's early efforts appeared in Wen-i tsa-chih [literature magazine], Hsiao-shuo yueh pao [fiction monthly], and the literary supplement of the Ch'en-pao. In 1925 his first collection of 26 poems, Hsia-t'ien [summer], was published with the editorial advice of Wen I-to. The poems range from two to fifty-two lines and reveal the exquisite craftsmanship that was to become the hallmark of Chu's style. In the preface Chu explained his title as meaning the end of adolescence and the beginning of adult life, in this case a life of art. In 1926 Chu, together with Wen, Hsu, Liu, and other Crescent poets, established the poetry journal Shih-chien [poetry weekly], which they edited at regular meetings in Wen's home. Shih-chien lasted only two months (April-May), but proved to be highly influential, largely because of the high caliber of its contributors. In 1927 Chu's second volume of poems, Ts'ao-mang chi [grasses and flowers], appeared and was well received. Notable among its contents was the 900-line "Wang-chiao," the dramatic retelling of an ancient legend about a Chinese beauty forced into marriage with a barbarian king. With the publication of Ts'ao-mang chi, Chu's reputation as a poetic craftsman was firmly established. Contemporary criticism afforded him a place beside Hsu, Wen, and Kuo Mo-jo (q.v.) as a leading writer of vernacular poetry.
Following his graduation from Tsinghua in 1928, Chu, like many Peking students, went abroad to study. Enrolling first at Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he studied Western literature, Chu soon transferred to the University of Chicago, where until 1930 he studied French and German and especially German fiction. While at Chicago, Chu translated a number of Chinese poems and published them in Phoenix, a student literary journal. He also undertook a translation of Chin-ku ch'i-kuan [stories new and old], a famous collection of 40 vernacular tales dating from the early seventeenth century. Chu's sojourn in the United States was marred by frequent clashes with his American teachers, some of whom he thought harbored racial prejudice against him. One of his favorite recreations was to challenge such teachers to tou-chih [battles of wit] and then scathingly to reveal their errors and inadequacies.
From the autumn of 1930 to the summer of 1932, Chu served as chairman of the Western languages department of Anhwei University at Anking. Here his manner grew markedly eccentric, and, while popular with his students, he was drawn into frequent disputes with the university administration, often over trivial matters or wholly imaginary slights. As a result he was forced to resign his post. Embittered by this experience, Chu refused to continue teaching as a profession. Thereafter, he was often dependent on the assistance of friends for the support of himself and his family. Equally unsuccessful were his attempts to publish new work. Chu even attempted to solicit testimonials as if he had never written or published a word, but to no avail. The collapse of Chu's career as a teacher and a man of letters, combined with his constant sense of persecution, came to a climax on the night of 4 December 1933, when he vanished overboard from a Yangtze steamer. In 1934, a posthumous collection of his later poetry, Shih-men chi [stone gate], was published, as was a collection of essays and literary criticisms, Chung-shu chi [letters from the heart]. Also in 1934 his widow, Liu Ni-chun, published Hai-wai chi Ni-chün [letters from abroad], a collection of Chu's letters written to her while he was in the United States. A second volume of essays, Yung-yen chi [last words], appeared in 1936.
As a poet, Chu Hsiang was notable for the dexterity with which he adapted a variety of forms, traditional and Western, to the new vernacular poetry. "Wang-chiao," his early masterpiece, was a successful attempt to develop poetry along the lines of the popular ballad, especially the t'an-tz'u [strummed songs], a rhymed narrative having both spoken and sung parts. Chu exploited the irregularity of the ballad stanza to achieve a variety and suppleness of line denied him by the traditional forms with their stereotyped syllabic patterns, but at the same time he relied on recurrent rhyme and an underlying musical rhythm to give his verses shape and coherence. Chu was singularly alive to the tendency of "free verse" to formlessness and was severely critical of even Wen I-to and Hsu Chih-mo for a certain diffuseness of form as well as imprecision of diction. Chu spent considerable time translating Shelley and made an interesting attempt to duplicate the original meters in Chinese. Typically, his later verses were brief lyrics showing the influence of both Chinese and Western technique and characterized by short lines and stanzas and simple direct diction. Chu's gradual alienation from the world reflected itself in poetry which came more and more to treat of the themes of winter, rain, separation, loneliness, and death. His own death at 29 concluded a sad career, but he left a body of poetry and criticism which remained influential.