Guo Moruo, Prolific Poet
A great litterateur, historian, and social activist in China’s 20th century history, Guo Moruo spent his last 15 years at 18 Qianhai Xijie in Beijing.
It's an autumn day in Beijing, and a short distance north from the lotus market beside Shichahai stands a house with a courtyard. North of the front yard is a quadrangle courtyard that is separated into two sides. The main room and wing-rooms in the same courtyard are connected by a corridor with eaves.
This house is located at 18 Qianhai Xijie. During the Qing dynasty (1644– 1911), this was the Palace of Heshen, a court official favoured by the emperor. It later became the horse stable of Prince Gong Mansion in the late Qing dynasty. During the early Republic of China (1912–1949), the place was taken over by Traditional Chinese Medicine company, Darentang, and rebuilt into a house that combines Chinese and Western elements. After the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, Soong Ching-ling (revolutionary, 1890–1981) lived here. Today, a plaque on the main entrance reads, “The Former Residence of Guo Moruo.” This plaque was written in gold by Deng Yingchao (politician, 1904–1992). Guo Moruo lived here from 1963, until he passed away in June 1978.
The two stone lions outside Guo's former residence are interesting. Unlike the usual stone lions that represent strength, the two particular stone lions are seen squatting livelily while playing on the grass. The bronze bells in front of the festoon gate do not match each other. They are part of Guo's collection. One of them is made in the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644) while the other is from the Qing dynasty.
There is a long and narrow small courtyard between two rooms, where Guo and his wife would grow melons and beans. Besides towel guard and bitter gourd, visitors also notice the long snake gourd.
Meeting his ‘Goddess’
Guo was different from his peers. Born to a landowner and business family in November 1892, he started home schooling at a young age and has an infant name “Wenbao,” that refers to the reincarnation of a leopard. Moruo was a name he gave to himself by combining the names of two rivers, “Moshu” and “Ruoshui.” This also became the pen name he would use whenever he wrote poems.
At the age of 14, Guo left his hometown in Shawan Town, Jiading District, Sichuan province, to study at a school in Jiading. This was where he started learning about democratic thoughts. When Guo turned 20, he had no choice but to marry Zhang Jinghua, as arranged by his parents. Zhang was a traditional lady with no education. A few days after getting married, Guo left home, leaving Zhang alone for several decades.
In spring of 1914, Guo went to Japan to study at Kyushu Imperial University with the support of his brother, Guo Kaiwen. He had wanted to study science so as to contribute his part in saving the nation. Unfortunately, he couldn't adapt to life in Japan and suffered from nervous breakdowns for studying too hard. With these problems and being constantly worrying about unrest in his home country, Guo became depressed and was always on the verge of another breakdown.
“It must have been my love affair with Anna that saved me from going insane. In the fifth year of the Republic of China, we fell in love and that gave me the desire to write poems.” Guo met the “goddess” of his life at a crucial moment.
In 1916, Guo, who was visiting a friend at Saint Luke's Hospital in Tokyo, got acquainted with nurse Sato Tomiko, one year his junior. Gradually, the gentle and understanding Sato removed a lonesome feeling within him and they developed feelings for each other. Sato came from a traditional and educated family. Her grandfather was the founder of Hokkaido University while her father was an engineer who graduated from the same university. To be with Guo, Sato severed ties with her parents, saying, “I feel that I am already a Chinese national inside out.” Sato adopted the name Guo Anna, given to her by Guo, and continued using it for the rest of her life.
Such a love experience gave Guo an abundance of inspiration and passion for writing. Guo, who had read many books on Western philosophy from Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and India, was inspired by foreign writers such as Tagore and Shakespeare. During the May 4 Movement that followed, Guo had a great desire to write new poems. “I write literature to prove my existence and my literature will take the form of poems.” Aside from love poems written for Anna, Guo also wrote many masterpieces like “Fenghuang“(“Nirvana of Phoenix”) and “Tiangou“(“Heavenly Dog”).
Guo's book of poems, Goddess, laid the first cornerstone of a new type of verse in China. This book collected 50 over poems written by Guo from 1919 to 1921, while he was studying in Japan. Guo used myths as a theme in his poems and adopted symbolic writing techniques to reflect a realistic society. His imaginative and peculiar poems were mostly written in a style that appears to be flaunty and rebellious. Guo's poems express his nostalgic feelings and love for his motherland through an innovative way of writing.
Guo first studied medicine and later became involved in literature. In 1921, Guo set up the Creation Society together with writer Yu Dafu, writer and translator Cheng Fangwu, and a few others, making him an important figure of the New Culture Movement.
Joining the Army
Guo's life took another turn in July 1926 when he went on a northern expedition
with the national revolutionary army. He stopped shuttling between China and Japan and ceased writing for a living. During the expedition, Guo wrote a letter to Anna, informing her of the situation and that he was “unusually well.”
In 1927, before the April 12 Incident, Guo wrote an article exposing Chiang KaiShek (1887–1975) of betrayal towards the country, its people and the revolution plan. Due to the strong reaction from the public, Guo became wanted. When Guo heard news of the Communist Party of China (CPC) launching the Nanchang Uprising on 1 August, he left Jiujiang to join the troops in Nancheng. During the March, Guo proudly joined the CPC upon recommendation of Zhou Enlai (1898– 1976) and Li Yimang (1903–1990).
Revolution is precarious. In February of the following year, Guo was wanted by the Kuomintang government and had to change his name to Wu Cheng. He took on the identity of a professor from Nanchang University and left on a ship set for Japan, starting ten years of life in exile. As the ship left the harbour, Guo teared up and cried.
Guo managed to find joy amid hardship. While seeking refuge in Japan, Guo was able to concentrate on writing a book related to ancient Chinese society. In the book, he quoted from historical documents and judgment of Marxist law of social development. Based on scientific theories, he discussed about ancient production activities like fishing and hunting, livestock breeding and trading and wrote about the associated social structures. He also observed the transformation of social formation through the historic river, started the school of historical materialism, and took up a dominant position in a Chinese academic society. At the same time, Guo used his knowledge on inscriptions to write Jiagu wenju yanjiu (“the study of oracle bone inscriptions”) and Yinzhou qingtongqi mingwenyanjiu (“the study of Yin Zhou bronze ware inscription”). He completed these works while under surveillance by Japanese police.
Even during hard times like this, Anna took great pains and gave her best like she always did. She planted a small garden in front of their residence to grow capsicum and tomato, and reared chickens in a coop at one corner of the yard. On the side of the yard is a small flower garden where roses bloom. Anna managed to provide Guo with a comfortable home during his times as a fugitive.
Their happy life came to an end in 1937 when the war against Japan broke out. Guo left Anna without saying goodbye.
Upon his return to China, Guo made himself a list of rules. He was “not to drink, smoke or seek comfort and pleasure; to train one's body to possess a boxer's spirit and follow monastic rules.”
Writing to Save the Nation
After returning to Shanghai alone, Guo took part in propaganda work. In 1937, Guo, together with screenwriter Xia Yan and a few others, started Jiuwang ribao ( National Salvation Daily Paper), doing front line reporting on the latest news and publicising the movement, while particular emphasis on literary movements. Meanwhile, they organised a war area service corps and launched various propagandist and consolatory singing, drama and film events involving people from literary and art circles. After the fall of Shanghai, Guo decided to resume Jiuwang ribao in Guangzhou after careful consideration. While managing Jiuwang ribao, Guo became acquainted with Yu Liqun.
During the Chinese People's War of Resistance against the Japanese, Guo worked closely with and showed concern for Yu, the sister of his bosom friend Yu Lichen, while Yu had love and respect for Guo. They eventually developed feelings for each other. In 1938, the political branch led by Guo entered and stationed in Chongqing, putting an end to their miserable life of drifting from place to place. After settling down in Guangzhou, Guo and Yu held a grand wedding on New Year's Day, 1939.
During the stalemate in the Chinese War of Resistance against Japan, a dark time period under the Nationalist Party, Guo produced many dramatic scripts to inspire readers. The most famous and popular one was act five of the play Quyuan, written in January 1942.
Meanwhile, the country was almost losing the battle and the Southern Anhui Incident, a massacre that killed soldiers and civilians, took place. “There was anger among the Chinese people and I relate this to patriotic poet Quyuan's (340–278 BC) situation. In other words, I am using Quyuan's era to symbolise the current circumstances.” Guo was filled with indignation when he wrote Quyuan to chastise the Kuomintang's governance.
With a stroke of genius, Guo managed to depict the tragic yet famous poet and historical figure Quyuan and build a theatrical image of him. The play told the life story of Quyuan in a day, with one climax following another. It was solemn and overflowing with romanticism.
Guo took only 10 days to complete Quyuan. The play, which focused on the elimination of dark and evil and yearning for freedom, was performed by at the Chongqing Guotai Grand Theatre in April 1942. It caused a sensation since the play resonated with audiences. The same play was also staged in Japan and the former Soviet Union. It was recognised as the best and most influential work among all Guo's historical plays. Quyuan, Hufu ( Tigershaped Tally) and Kongquedan (Peacock Gall) were some of his plays on historical tragedies, written by Guo during this period. He opened up a new path in literature and culture that combines modernity and national culture.
Anna suffered turmoil of the political situation and the plight of her life. On August 15, 1945, when news of the unconditional surrender of the Japanese was reported, Anna and her five children couldn't help but be emotional. She took out a kimono she wore in her twenties to have a photo taken with her children as a commemoration of the victory. Her only daughter praised her, saying, “Mum, you look even more like Virgin Mary in your kimono.” Anna replied with a smile, “Really? Your dad said so, too.”
In the early spring of 1948, Anna decided to make a detour to Taiwan where her son worked, then looked for Guo in Hong Kong. Guo was pleasantly surprised to see Anna, but also realised that she had aged. He sighed, saying, “You've suffered so much from the Japanese warlords.” Anna was speechless to see her husband leave without a word, together with a young lady and their children. History has forced them be separated and meet with new circumstances. When they finally met each other again, everything changed. After Anna calmed down, she decided to live with her eldest son in Taiwan. Later, all of Guo and Anna's children returned to their motherland. “China needs people for its development. I told them to return, and they did,” said Anna.
After the People's Republic of China was established, Guo took on various roles related to state administration and leadership in scientific culture, and was appointed chairman of China National Literature and Art Association, first Dean of Chinese Academy of Sciences, first Principal of University of Science and Technology of China and President of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles. During this time, he continued composing literary works like Cai Wenji and Wu Zetian. These two historical plays by Guo focused on textural research of historical data, research and literary creation. Their performances caused a sensation.
On June 12, 1978, Guo passed away in Beijing. He was a great litterateur, historian, scholar in ancient writing, calligrapher and social activist in China's 20th century academic history. His former residence, where he spent over 10 years of his life, has now become the premises of Guo Moruo Memorial Hall, Guo Moruo Research Society and Guo Moruo China History Prize, welcoming visitors to visit and understand more about his life story.
Backyard of the former residence of Guo Moruo
Guo Moruo’s study