Chinese Poetry Admired Beyond Borders
WANG SHASHA July 27, 2017Comments(0) Post Your Comment E-mail Print Save

China Central Television (CCTV)'s poetry-recitation program, Chinese Poetry Conference, has become hugely popular in China. Meng Man, a guest on the program and an associate professor with Minzu University of China, says the program has reignited Chinese people's passion for poetry. Moreover, people in other countries have come to appreciate classical Chinese poetry.

"The TV show (Chinese Poetry Conference) was a hit during this year's Spring Festival. The 10 episodes attracted more than 1 billion viewers. I watched several episodes with my grandson. A line of a classical Chinese poem goes, reading makes a person graceful," Wang Guoqing, Deputy Director of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and spokesperson of the fifth session of the 12th National Committee of the CPPCC, said during a news conference on March 2.

There can be no doubt the show has caused many Chinese to rekindle their interest in classical Chinese poetry. The first season of the show was broadcast in 2016. The show's producers say the program is intended to help people "appreciate classical Chinese poetry, explore their cultural genes and enjoy the beauty of life."

Wu Yishu, a 16-year-old high school student from Shanghai, on February 7 claimed the championship for the show's second season. "I love classical Chinese poetry, and I enjoy the happiness brought by poetry," Wu said. Her and other contestants' excellent performances won the hearts of countless viewers.

Foreign Contestants 

More than 100 contestants — including farmers, teachers, students, seniors (in their 70s) and a seven-year-old child — competed. Some foreigners, who were studying and/or working in China, also competed.

Li Yixing, from Singapore, is a student in the Chinese Department of Peking University, in Beijing. Her favorite poet is Su Shi (1037-1101), a well-known poet during the North Song Dynasty (960-1127).

She says she was happy to take part because she got to meet so many people who loved poetry. "I developed an interest in classical Chinese poetry when I was 12. At that time, I felt lonely, because I had few friends who also loved poetry in Singapore. I feel really lucky to have been able to participate on the show, and to enjoy poetry with so many friends," she says.

"I am touched by the contestants' passion for poetry. They love poetry, no matter what conditions they are in, and no matter what jobs they do. Liu Zeyu read books every morning when he was a construction worker. Li Danfeng read poetry when she did farm work. I really admire them. I think it was not easy for me to study Chinese poetry when I was in Singapore. But compared with them, I feel that I have a much more favorable environment in which to study poetry. I must study harder than before," Li added.

Dylan Walker (Chinese name Wu Danran), an American who studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, is fond of Chinese poetry, especially poems written by late-Chairman Mao Zedong. One of Walker's teachers recommended that he participate on the program.

Walker developed his interest in poetry during his Chinese classes when he was a primary school student in the United States. His Chinese-language teacher was from Shanghai. The teacher once organized a party to celebrate China's Spring Festival. During the party, Walker and his classmates recited a poem, Reflections on a Quiet Night, written by Li Bai (701-762), a renowned poet during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Since then, Walker has been interested in Chinese poetry, and he has bought several books to study Chinese poetry.

Walker likes Chairman Mao's poems the most. "I feel like I can see the soldiers marching and the red flags flying (through reading his poems)," he says.

Love of Poetry 

In recent years, culture-themed TV programs, such as Chinese Characters Dictation Conference, Chinese Idioms Conference and Chinese Poetry Conference, have inspired a wave of foreigners to start learning about traditional Chinese culture.

In popular foreign forums, such as Quora and Reddit, a growing number of netizens in countries other than China discuss and share Chinese poetry. Li Bai, Su Shi and Du Fu (712-770) are among foreigners' favorite Chinese poets. On Reddit, one netizen, Gndowns, asked: "I've been having a lot of fun lately learning through Chinese poetry, analyzing lines and translations and such. Does anybody have a personal favorite poem to share?"

Atrain, another netizen, replied that he/she studied Chinese poetry in college, and that his/her favorite Chinese poet is Li Bai. AugustusL commented: "Su Shi is my all-time favorite poet, and I love every single piece from him." AugustusL also posted one of his/her favorite poems, A Riverside Town . Hunting at Mizhou (written by Su and translated by Xu Yuanchong, a renowned Chinese translator). The following is the poem:

Rejuvenated, I my fiery zeal display,
On left hand leash, a yellow hound,
On right hand wrist, a falcon gray.
A thousand silk-capped, sable-coated horsemen sweep across the rising ground
And hillocks steep.
Townspeople pour out from the city gate
To watch the tiger-hunting magistrate.
Heart gladdened with strong wine, who cares about a few newly frosted hairs?
When will the court imperial send me as their envoy?
With flags and banners then I'll bend my bow like a full moon, and aiming northwest,
I will shoot the fierce Wolf form the sky.

Another netizen, Fer_al, wrote: "I'm not advanced enough yet to know the Chinese version, but I have to memorize the Villa on Zhongnan Mountain, by Wang Wei (701-761), for a Chinese literature history course. I'm really excited to eventually tackle the translations of his poems and other Tang Dynasty poems."

The following is the poem, Villa on Zhongnan Mountain (from An Anthology of Chinese Literature by American sinologist Stephen Owen):

In my middle years I came to much love the way
And late made my home by South Mountain's edge.
When the mood comes upon me, I go off alone,
And have glorious moments all to myself.
I walk to the point where a stream ends,
And sitting, watch when the clouds rise.
By chance I meet old men in the woods; 
We laugh and chat, no fixed time to turn home.

Poetry Ignores All Frontiers

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a Russian poet, once said, "Poetry is like a bird. It ignores all frontiers." Classical Chinese poetry has enjoyed popularity beyond China's borders, and it has inspired many foreign writers and composers.

Many residents of the US were first introduced to classical Chinese poetry by Ezra Pound (1885-1973), a renowned American poet and critic. In Cathay (published in 1915), Pound, who didn't know the Chinese language, translated 18 classical Chinese poems into English based on the notes of Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), an American art historian. The translations of the poems, mainly by Li Bai, are acknowledged as masterpieces.

Renowned American poet Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) said Pound had become "the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time." American poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) once said, "If these were original verses, then Pound was the greatest poet of the day."

During the 1950s and 1960s, Han Shan (literally Cold Mountain, around 691-793), a relatively unknown Tang Dynasty poet, became an idol for the Beat Generation (a term used to describe a group of American writers, who rose to prominence in the 1950s, and the cultural phenomena that they wrote about and inspired). Han's poems are generally about the short and transient life, and the necessity to escape through some sort of transcendence.

Classical Chinese poetry, given the beautiful rhythms, has also inspired many musicians. In 1905, The Chinese Flute, a collection of Tang Dynasty poems translated by German poet Hans Bethge (1876-1946), was published.

Austrian composer Anton von Webern (1883-1945) transformed the translated poems into songs. The poems were also used by Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) when he composed The Song of the Earth.

(Executive Editor: JIAN TONG, Women of China English Monthly April 2017 Issue)

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