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Poetry Revival
A TV show brings widespread attention to Chinese classics
By Ji Jing | NO. 8 FEBRUARY 23, 2017


Hostess Dong Qing (right) and the four program judges (XINHUA) 

As reality shows flood China’s TV screens, a program aimed at popularizing classical Chinese poetry has gone viral. The second season of the Chinese Poetry Conference aired on China Central Television (CCTV) from January 29 to February 7 not only achieved high audience ratings—12.3 percent of all viewership for the final, but also won favorable reviews. Both seasons were rated above 8 out of 10 on, one of China’s most popular review sites.

The show features a series of quizzes testing contestants’ memory and understanding of Chinese poetry throughout the ages, from The Book of Songs—the first anthology of poetry in China, spanning the Western Zhou Dynasty (1,046-771 B.C.) and the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.)—to works by Mao Zedong. A section called Feihualing, during which two competitors take turns to recite lines containing certain Chinese characters, was added this season.

It is one in a series of programs launched by the state broadcaster in recent years in a bid to revive traditional Chinese culture. Previously, there were programs featuring competitions in Chinese characters, idioms and riddles.

Wang Junguo, a high school math teacher in Beijing, was hooked by the show, watching every episode. "The program displayed the development of Chinese history and culture through poetry, and I was moved by the poets’ love for their country and people. I also learned a lot about the background and meaning of the poems from four judges," he said.

"Unlike some TV channels which import and purchase formats from abroad, this is an CCTV creation," said Wang Liqun, a literature and language professor at Henan University and one of the show’s four judges.

"The Chinese people love poetry and they are inclined to expressing their emotions, aesthetic tastes and understanding of life from poetry," according to Meng Man, an associate professor at Minzu University and another judge.


Contestants at the China Poetry Conference (XINHUA) 

Overnight fame

The show’s success is also attributable to the excellent performance of hostess Dong Qing, a leading CCTV star who won high audience acclaim for her exceptional command of classical poetry and elegant style. The contestants, comprising over 100 poetry lovers of various ages from across the country, are another show draw, frequently wowing the audience with their talent and moving stories.

Wu Yishu, a 16-year-old high school student from Shanghai, became an online sensation after winning the final. She impressed audiences with her profound knowledge of Chinese poetry and calmness. She was widely considered by netizens to be the perfect image of a talented woman from ancient times for her dress sense—wearing outfits similar to those worn in the Song Dynasty (960-1279)—and her straight black hair, arched eyebrows and almond-shaped eyes.

Contestant Bai Ruyun, a farmer from Xingtai in north China’s Hebei Province, contracted cancer in 2011. Yet poetry gave her the strength to overcome the illness. "None of the renowned poets such as Li Bai (701-762), Du Fu (712-770) and Bai Juyi (772-846) lived carefree. Setbacks and troubles are part of life which will eventually be surmounted," she remarked.

Wang Junguo said he was impressed with Bai Ruyun. "In spite of her serious condition, she still uses her spare time to study and write poetry, which is worth learning from."


Chinese Poetry Conference contestant Bai Ruyun learns poetry from the Internet at her home on February 7 (XINHUA) 


However, some say the show focuses excessively on memorizing ability rather than the ability to appreciate poetry. Wang Daiwei, a high school Chinese teacher in Beijing, said the poetry contest primarily tests memory, asserting that it had room for improvement in spreading traditional culture.

Li Dingguang, a professor at the School of Humanities and Communications of Shanghai Normal University and academic director of the show, disagrees, stating that over half of the show’s questions test understanding. This skill is stressed more than recitation.

Classical Chinese poetry has strict requirements for rhythms and rhymes. It evolved from the Western Zhou period and peaked during the Tang (618-907) and Song dynasties. However, it gradually lost popularity in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and gave way to new poetry forms in the early 1900s that put less emphasis on rhythms and rhymes. President Xi Jinping has stressed on multiple occasions the importance of inheriting and spreading traditional Chinese culture, with classical poetry an important component.

Li added that competition is only one of many tactics to encourage society to learn more about poetry, with the goal being to arouse people’s interest. He said the key in changing the exam-orientated system of studying poetry to cultivating true interest lies in developing poetry appreciation.

Meng stressed the importance of cohesion and applying a formulaic system when teaching aspects of traditional Chinese culture, such as poetry, through textbooks. "In ancient times, there were specific instructions for what kind of books to read during a particular stage. However, today it is overly fragmented and lacks continuity," he said.

He Chunqiu, a Shanghai primary school teacher, said poetry teaching based on recitation will cause students to lose interest. It’s important to explain the historical background and anecdotes behind the poems in order to facilitate students’ understanding of them, said He.

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar 

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