Tony Hsu explores the legacy of his grandfather, iconic Chinese poet Xu Zhimo

Tony Hsu (BSE EE ’68) looks back on how a single moment as a freshman at U-M inspired him to pursue a lifelong quest to understand the life and legacy of his famous grandfather.

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Tony Hsu's grandfather, Xu Zhimo, is considered one of the leaders of modern Chinese poetry. 📷: Tony Hsu.

Tony Hsu was a freshman on campus when a friend and classmate of his handed him a flyer about a guest lecture.

“Hey, Tony, is this guy a relative of yours?” the friend joked, oblivious.

Hsu looked at the flier. The lecture was titled, “Hsu Chih-Mo’s Debt to Thomas Hardy.” Hsu Chih-Mo (now more commonly known as “Xu Zhimo”) was one of the most famous poets in the world, but to Hsu, he was someone else.

“That’s my grandfather,” Hsu said.

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A re-creation of the flyer that sparked Hsu’s lifelong passion to understand his grandfather’s legacy. 📷: Tony Hsu.

Until that day, Hsu had not thought all that much about his grandfather. Zhimo was just a relative Hsu had never met and didn’t know much about, but that flippant joke on that crisp fall day in 1964 inspired Hsu to think that maybe he should know more.

“This one moment at U-M sent me on the odyssey that would bring some of the greatest meaning to my life,” Hsu says.

This one moment at U-M sent me on the odyssey that would bring some of the greatest meaning to my life.

Dr. Tony Hsu (BSE EE '68)

For the past decade, Hsu has been retracing his grandfather’s journey around the world, researching his life and works. Zhimo is a household name in China, and Mingyan Liu, the Peter and Evelyn Fuss Chair of ECE, grew up in Nanjing with a collection of Zhimo’s poems on her family bookshelf.

“It was my sister’s book and was very popular reading,” she says. “The first and the last stanzas of the ‘Second Farewell to Cambridge’ poem are very famous. Even my parents quote it.”

Liu recited part of this poem – which is regarded as Zhimo’s most famous – at one of the graduation ceremonies this past semester.

“I think it describes the feeling very well when you leave a place that you have very fond memories of,” she says. “I told them that Zhimo’s grandson was one of our alums, so they’re in good company.”

ECE recently caught-up with Tony to learn how his own life, especially his experiences at U-M, helped shaped this intergenerational quest.

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Students relax on the diag in 1967. 📷: Bentley Historical Library.

Hsu was born in Shanghai, and he grew up in Hong Kong. When he was six years old, he and his siblings immigrated to the U.S., rejoining their parents who were attending college here. They lived in Queens, New York, and Hsu attended an advanced technical high school, which paved the way to U-M. He attended U-M from 1964 to 1968, earning a BSE in EE.

“I’m very fond of my experience at Michigan where I appreciated being among so many brilliant engineers,” Hsu says. “I felt comfortable on campus.”

Hsu worked part-time in the Radiation Laboratory under Ralph E. Hiatt and Keeve (Kip) M. Siegel to help pay his way for some of his college expenses. While the work was challenging, Hsu always found time to enjoy Ann Arbor.

“I tended to study hard and play harder,” he says.

Hsu enjoyed tennis, squash, and sailing here, and he was a member of the FF Fraternity – a global social club for Chinese students. He spent many Saturdays cheering on the Wolverines in the Big House and grabbing a greasy, mouthwatering dinner at Blimpie Burger. He frequented the original Pretzel Bell, which featured wooden tables where generations of U-M students had carved their names. But his favorite place on campus was the Undergraduate Library, or as it is more commonly known as, the UGLi.

“The UGLi was basically the place where I could find a quiet setting,” Hsu says. “But it was also a place where guys would meet girls.”

After U-M, Hsu attended Yale University where he studied Engineering and Applied Science, as well as Plasma Physics, earning his master’s and PhD. It was during his time at Yale when the Vietnam War got worse, and his entire future became uncertain.

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Students protest the draft lottery on the Ann Arbor campus during the 1960s. 📷: Bentley Historical Library.

“They introduced the draft lottery, and I pulled a number,” Hsu recalls. “It was done strictly by your birthdate, so no one really knew if they were going to go or going to stay. I remember sitting in the Yale Graduate School Hall, and all these grad students were huddled around listening to the birthdates being called on television, and some people were ecstatic because they were safe, but those who got number one were in tears. And my number was literally right in the middle, so I had no clue.

“It wasn’t until near the end of the year that I learned my number got to stay. Had it been one number below, I’d have been drafted into the army.”

After finishing his advanced degrees at Yale, Hsu went into industry and had a very successful career as an executive for the Newport Corporation for 12 years before transitioning to starting new companies as well as venture capital. Now retired, Hsu has dedicated his time to learning as much as he can about his grandfather, hoping to gain insight into one of China’s most iconic and influential writers.

“He’s what is referred to as a ‘polymath’ – a person who can participate in many different fields and be quite proficient at it,” Hsu says. “Although he lived only until he was 35 years old, he wrote about art, drama, and political science. He’s extremely well respected in literature, he wrote groundbreaking essays about different forms of government in a way that would not box him in – which is very tricky to do in China – and he also wrote a long essay about Einstein and relativity for the Chinese.”

Zhimo studied at several universities in China and the U.S. before he went to study with English philosopher and political scientist, Professor Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, at King’s College at Cambridge University. He also became very close to Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell while at Cambridge.

It was during Zhimo’s return to China after his final visit to Cambridge that he wrote “Second Farewell to Cambridge,” which earned him the reputation as being one of the leaders of modern Chinese poetry.

Second Farewell to Cambridge
Translation by Cyril Birch, Prof. UC Berkeley

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The Xu Zhimo memorial stone at King’s College in Cambridge. 📷: King’s College, Cambridge

Lightly let me leave now,
Lightly as first I came;
Lightly wave farewell
To the western sky aflame.

Golden willow on river path,
A bride in the setting sun:
Her splendor on the stream
In my heart makes ripples run.

Green fronds upon the mud
Below surface lazily sway:
Could I only live as a water plant
Where Cam winds her gentle way!

That pool in the elm tree’s shade,
No spring, but a rainbow it seems,
Shattered among the rushes,
Steeped in a rainbow dream.

A dream? To pole with a long pole
Where the green grass greener springs
A punt loaded with starlight,
And in dapple of starlight to sing.

But I have no voice to sing,
Silent the farewell pipe,
The very insects for me are still
And still is Cambridge tonight.

Silently I leave now,
Silent as that first day,
With shake of sleeve, to carry
Not a wisp of cloud away.

There is a carved white marble stone from Beijing inscribed with the first and last lines of this poem at Kings College, Cambridge, commemorating Zhimo. He was also honored during the 800th anniversary of the university’s founding as one of the school’s 50 most influential alumni of all time, alongside Isaac Newton. Last summer, Hsu and his family helped build a new Chinese garden at King’s College, Cambridge, dedicated to Zhimo’s legacy.

“We were all very excited with this further recognition of his contributions to poetry and to Cambridge,” Hsu says.

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Hsu lives in California with his wife of 45 years who was a fashion designer. His daughter is a filmmaker developing her first feature film at the SFFILM FilmHouse Residency. 📷: Tony Hsu.

In addition to the stone and the garden and the many other commemorative displays around the world, Hsu wanted to create another kind of creative work to honor his grandfather: a book.

“My dream for the past two decades has been to write a biography that could encapsulate and preserve my grandfather’s legacy and inspire new generations of readers to pick up his poetry,” Hsu says.

The book, published in both English and Chinese versions, Chasing the Modern: The Twentieth-Century Life of Poet Xu Zhimo, explores Zhimo’s life and legacy through Hsu’s own journey to know him. It was a lifelong quest that took Hsu all over the world – a quest that began on this very campus with simple flyer.

Just as Hsu’s grandfather reflected deeply on what his alma mater gave to him, so too does Hsu consider what he received from U-M.

“I came to Michigan from Queens, New York, where life was much more rough and tumble,” says Hsu. “In New York, the streets were crowded, our days were often noisy and chaotic. When I first stepped onto the U-M campus, I took in the sweeping grounds and gracious old buildings, and my whole perspective shifted. Here, finally, was a landscape that allowed me to breathe. Maybe gave me the space to dream. I loved the Midwestern values of compassion and understanding, of not having to be so driven all the time. Michigan was a much simpler and more peaceful place to learn and thrive.”

What’s more, says Hsu, who grew up in a tight Chinese-American family, U-M allowed him a view onto a bigger world. He learned to integrate into a wider society. That ultimately led him to find his and his family’s roots back in China – the flyer, the road to discovering the academics and readers who admired his grandfather, and the grand adventure of writing Chasing the Modern.

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