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Chinese Poetry Conference

Passion Rekindled

As a lyrical TV show becomes a national hit, poetry, long since marginalized, has become a new craze in China

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

One beer per word,” said Wang Haijun, a 65-year-old bike repairer from the Taibus Banner region of Inner Mongolia, beaming as he stood on the CCTV show’s stage.  

Despite his only education being four years of elementary school, poetry composition is Wang’s greatest passion. Having composed more than 1,000 classical-form poems, the candid literature lover enjoys making like-minded friends through poetry. Every day he puts up a little blackboard in front of his bicycle repair stall with that day’s composition on it, waiting for passersby to help him revise and polish it, offering a bottle of beer for each character replaced.  

Wang was among a group of a hundred competitors thrust into the spotlight by a TV game show. Chinese Poetry Conference, a poetry competition show combining recitation with lighthearted quizzes, has become a smash hit after its second series was aired by China Central Television (CCTV), starting at the Lunar New Year Holiday.  

According to data from CCTV, the combined viewership for the second 10-episode series reached 1.16 billion. The series came to a climax with the victory of Wu Yishu, a 16-year-old high school girl from Shanghai, who shot to stardom for her extraordinary performance in the competition’s final.  

In a society where poetry has been widely seen as an art marginalized almost to the point of extinction, the sudden popularity of the show has triggered heated public discussion. “Like a good rain after a long drought,” “a fresh breeze for the ‘over-entertaining’ TV industry,” were some compliments of the country’s netizens for the show, expressed with eloquence to match.  
With more and more people’s passion for traditional culture being rekindled by the poetry show as well as other cultural shows aired recently, many wonder whether a renaissance of traditional culture is afoot.  

A Feast of Poetry 

“From whichever direction the winds leap, / I remain strong, though dealt many a blow,” the opening line with which Bai Ruyun, a 41-year-old farmer and cancer patient from a small village in Hebei Province, confidently stepped onto the stage of Chinese Poetry Conference. The line is from the poem “Bamboo and Rock” by Zheng Xie, a famous poet and painter in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), a eulogy on bamboo’s characteristics – perseverance and a strong will.  

At the age of 36, Bai was diagnosed with lymphoma. She bought herself the Ancient Poetry Appreciation Dictionary, which later became her sole companion during the course of her year-long treatment. She said that after reciting poems to herself she has memorized more than 10,000 of them.  

“My life is hard, but I can taste the pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy of different lives in poetry. That makes me feel that I am a lucky person,” Bai said in a hoarse voice, a side effect of her chemotherapy.  

Bai is one of the most impressive contestants on the stage of Chinese Poetry Conference. More than 100 competitors from all walks of life, young and old, from home and abroad, participated in the show. Among them, the youngest was only seven years old, the oldest, 71.  

Participants had to fill in the missing words of famous poems, rearrange jumbled lines of verse and answer questions on the background of a poem or a poet. Outstanding contestants qualify for a head-to-head challenge, competing to recall verses containing a given character before the countdown buzzer goes off. 

Four judges, all experts on Chinese literature, offered lively commentary to help audiences understand and interpret the poems included.  

The poems in the quiz rounds ranged from the earliest known poetry anthology, The Book of Songs, compiled around the seventh century BC, through the poetry of the Tang (618-907) and Song Dynasties (960-1279), the golden age of classical Chinese poetry, to those written by Mao Zedong, who, apart from his better-known activities, was a well-known poet with many influential pieces such as “Changsha” (1925), “The Long March” (1935) and “Ode to the Plum Blossom” (1961).  

Among the competitors, the champion, Wu Yishu, shone the brightest. The 16-year-old from Shanghai shot to national fame overnight after she beat a PhD candidate from Peking University to become the season champion. Video clips of her recitals went viral and stories about her have been viewed and forwarded hundreds of thousands of times on social media.  

Unlike many of her peers who are fascinated with “fresh-meat stars,” a term referring to young, handsome, and popular celebrities, Wu’s idols are three great poets from over 1,000 years ago: Li Bai, Su Shi and Lu You.  

Wu always has on her a collection of Lu You, a prominent poet of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Lu has been widely seen as a patriotic, sorrowful poet, while Wu regards him as “an extremely adorable person.”  

Wu particularly likes a line from his work, “Written in a Storm” that runs “Warm fire in fire pit, comes from the fire sticks. Surrounded with the softness of a Persian rug, lie the lazy cat and me.”  

“‘Bad weather, heavy rains, I don’t want to go outdoors. All I want is to stay at home with my cat’. That’s so cute! Modern people don’t resonate with me the same way,” Wu said with excitement on the show. 

Wu won the hearts of the judges and audience alike with her composed demeanor and comprehensive knowledge of classical Chinese poetry. Beautiful, elegant and erudite, Wu is widely seen as the “perfect image of a talented woman from ancient times.”  

The renowned TV anchor Dong Qing and four judges, all experts on Chinese literature, in Chinese Poetry Conference

Timeless Charm

Since poetry had been widely assumed to be marginalized to the point of almost extinction in contemporary Chinese society, the huge success of a poetry show has triggered heated online discussion. The show currently holds an 8.5/10 score on Chinese media review site Douban, a particularly high score for a domestic TV variety show. 

“It’s been ages since we’ve seen a domestic-made TV program that has had almost no negative responses!” said Sina Weibo user “Sue.” 
“Chinese Poetry Conference becomes a phenomenon, like a fresh breeze for the screen. Such a program teaches TV show makers a lesson that we should not give away our precious screens to those cheesy, tacky, wasteful ‘popcorn’ shows to get a few cheap claps and meaningless fake ratings,” the TV anchor of Dragon TV Cao Kefan wrote on Weibo.  

Meng Man, associate professor of history at Beijing’s Minzu University of China and one of the show’s four judges, said that the most fundamental reason for the success of the show lies in the Chinese people’s undying passion for poetry – it has been buried in their hearts for a long time, but now has been reignited.  

As the most refined literary form, poetry has been held in extremely high regard in China since ancient times. It has provided a forum for both public and private expressions of deep emotion across more than two millennia. In the past, intellectuals were required to recite and compose poems as part of imperial civil service examinations.  

The language of classical Chinese poetry, which is archaic, rhyming and sophisticated, bears little resemblance to the Mandarin spoken today. Classical poetry gave way to vernacular-style modern poetry after 1919’s May Fourth Movement, when writers such as Hu Shi, Lu Xun, and Chen Duxiu tried to use free verse closer to spoken language rather than previously used forms, unintelligible to all but the highly educated.  

The influence of classical Chinese poetry stretches beyond national borders. It exerted strong influences on early forms of Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese poetry. In more modern times, classical Chinese poetry inspired poets, writers and even hippies in the West.  

In his collection Cathay (1915), the modernist poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972), despite his own near-complete lack of knowledge of the Chinese language, translated classical Chinese poetry into English based on the notes of Ernest Fenollosa, an American art historian.  

A Tang Dynasty poet, Han Shan, literally “Cold Mountain,” is particularly loved by Beat Generation writers as the most popular icon of Zen Buddhism. Gary Snyder, one of the most influential poets of the Beat Generation, published the first translation of Han Shan’s poems into English. The Beat’s great novelist Jack Kerouac quoted Snyder’s translation of Han Shan in his hugely successful novel The Dharma Bums. 

Chen Geng, a PhD student in Computer Engineering of Peking University, was greatly admired by audiences for her extraordinary performance in Chinese Poetry Conference

Cultural Revival?  

Besides Chinese Poetry Conference, two other culture-themed TV programs have also enjoyed popularity since the Lunar New Year. Readers, produced and anchored by renowned TV personality Dong Qing, invites people from all walks of life to read aloud excerpts of poems, essays and books they like to share. Letters Alive, the Chinese version of BBC letter-reading program Letters Live has been also highly acclaimed, with a score of 9/10 on Douban.  

Netizens have hailed the bloom of culture shows as a “breath of fresh air.” After the Chinese Poetry Conference became a phenomenon, promoting traditional Chinese culture has become a hot topic in the media, schools and among academics and also government departments. Many wonder if a traditional cultural renaissance is about to blossom.  

This is not the first TV-show-inspired culture craze. Back in 1991, CCTV’s program Lecture Room which invited scholars to give live lectures on their fields of expertise, mostly on Chinese history, philosophy and literature, was as popular as Chinese Poetry Conference. The show turned some scholars into extremely popular celebrities, such as Yi Zhongtian, Yu Dan, Yuan Tengfei. However, the audience’s enthusiasm did not last long.  

“Chinese Poetry Conference, essentially speaking, is a variety show. It kicked off a fad more because of its entertaining, tense, highly competitive game design rather than the poetry itself. 
The game is the real eye-catcher. It’s not appropriate to overestimate the cultural function of a show,” Nan Hongying, an experienced Chinese teacher at the prestigious Beijing National Day School who has taught Chinese poetry for over 30 years, told NewsChina. From Nan’s perspective, the recent craze of classical literature and traditional culture is more a media than an educational phenomenon.  

Many experts on education point out that one of the biggest obstacles to promoting classical Chinese poetry lies in the exam-oriented mindsets of students, parents and teachers. Classical poetry has usually been regarded as language material for examinations with students studying and memorizing poems in a mechanical way.  

After the champion of the Chinese Poetry Conference, Wu Yishu, became an Internet celebrity, the inevitable media churn got underway with articles such as “How to Educate Your Child to Become Another Wu Yishu” and “Start with Prenatal Education to Make Your Baby a Talented Kid Like Wu Yishu,” emphasizing the importance of memorizing poetry. Critics point out that this might be just another manifestation of the utilitarian way of thinking in terms of poetry learning.  
 Peng Min, a runner-up on Chinese Poetry Conference and editor of Poetry Periodical, believed that when the current craze fades away, poetry will probably return to the margins once again, for the archaic classical form of the language has long been out of daily use, which makes it difficult for classical poetry to stay in the limelight for long.  

From the perspective of Feng Jicai, a famous writer and folk artist, it will be a long path to an authentic cultural self-consciousness for the Chinese. “Don’t expect people to love poetry after just watching a few TV shows,” Feng told The Beijing News. “The artistic cultivation of a person is a slow process which can’t be accomplished with a few quick steps.”