A Spring Festival televised competition on ancient poetry surprisingly drew more viewers than popular soap operas and reality shows.
Surprising because who would have ever guessed that ancient Chinese verse could touch such a contemporary chord?
The China Central Television program involved participants reciting poetry and answering questions about famous old literary works.
It showed that ancient Chinese culture and literature are still alive today, says Li Dingguang, chief academic adviser for the program and a professor at Shanghai Normal University.
“I believe that many Chinese people still love classic Chinese poetry, but their passion just got obscured by busy modern life,” he says. “This program gave expression to that passion.”
Thousands of people signed up for early stages of the competition across the country, competing for 100 final places on the televised event.
“Not all of the finalists were professors or students of classic Chinese literature,” Li notes. “They came from diversified backgrounds and circumstances, including a farmer with cancer, an old bicycle repairman, primary school students and even foreigners.”
Among the stars of the show was Wu Yishu, a 16-year-old high school student who won the championship with her excellence in verse recitation, literary comprehension and poetry appreciation.
Wu knows some 2,000 ancient Chinese poems. She won the fourth and final sessions of the 10-episode competition and became an Internet sensation.
“There is an old saying: One who is filled with knowledge of poetry always behaves with elegance,” says one netizen. “Wu meets all the criteria for an accomplished woman in ancient China.”
Wu not only knows the poems well-known to the public but also some fairly obscure verse.
When asked to recite a poem that included the Chinese character for “moon,” she chanted one from “Shijing,” or “Classics of Poetry,” a collection of verses dating back more than 2,000 years.
The verse tells how crickets stay in the wild in July, chirp under the eaves in August, jump into the house in September and hide under the bed in October.
The lines, describing the changing of seasons without mentioning the weather, was a crowd-pleaser. Even the judges smiled and nodded when Wu finished the verse.
The poem, like Wu, has suddenly gained public popularity. It is easy to read but not as well known as those written by poets living in the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, the heyday of ancient Chinese poetry.
“While watching the program, I wanted to recite poems along with the contestants,” says Zhang Lei, a Shanghai resident in his 30s. “It reminded me of my school days, when we were required to recite poems to pass exams. It was painful and dull at the time, but now it seems interesting and warm.”
Li says that the questions posed to contestants weren’t so difficult that viewers couldn’t enjoy trying to answer them at home. But the honors belonged to those whose knowledge of ancient poetry ran so deep that they could recite poems when given a designated character to highlight.
The judges, all professors from prestigious universities, also offered cultural and historical perspectives about poems and ancient poets mentioned in the competition — supplementary information that helped viewers appreciate the contest more.
In China, poetry has always been held in high regard. Much of the nation’s history is told through poetry, and celebrated poets are still revered today.
Still, poetry education in schools hasn’t been a top priority in a system primarily aimed at giving students the tools for working in today’s modern society.
Parents would rather have their children cram for math and English exams, instead of focusing on poetry, which doesn’t carry much weight in the exams that determine entry into the best schools.
Huang Ronghua, a teacher at the High School affiliated to Fudan University where Wu is studying, says poetry is only worth six points out of the total score of 150 for Chinese language and literature in the national college entrance exam.
Huang has been promoting traditional culture education for more than 10 years, requiring students to read classic literary works and discuss aspects of what they read. That makes him a somewhat unpopular teacher.
“Some students tell me they are so tired from other studies that they have no time left for poetry,” he says. “Some even questioned whether there is any real use in learning about classic poetry.”
He says the poem Wu recited about crickets was one he included in textbooks he has edited and is required reading for his classes.
“Many teachers and students see poetry education as rote memorization, rather than understanding and loving,” Huang says. “But reciting is a part of learning. The real purpose should be students learning the stories behind the poems and seeing the cultural and historical context in which poets lived.”
Wu showed a nationwide audience how poetry can enlighten the soul.
“She was very shy and stayed close to her father when not on stage,” says Li, the academic adviser of the program. “But when she was on stage reciting poems, she suddenly came alive.”
Wu has refused interviews since she shot to fame, preferring to let poetry express her feelings. Her three idols are ancient poets Lu You, Su Shi and Li Bai.
She was not the only Shanghai student to shine during the competition. Jiang Wenye, 16, and Hou Youwen, 13, also gave stellar performances. When the competition was held for the first time last year, a Shanghai student at the East China University of Politics and Law was the winner.
Li says about 10 percent of the finalists hail from Shanghai, which has a better track record than some cities in classic education.
In 2004, the Shanghai Education Commission introduced curriculum standards that encouraged education in classic literature, including poetry. Currently, 20 percent of the textbooks for fourth-to-sixth graders and 40 percent for higher grades relate to classic literature.
In Changning District, students are required to be able to recite 150 poetry classics when they graduate from elementary school, while high school students are required to recite poems totaling at least 10,000 characters.
The city has organized 15 poetry competitions since 2002 and hosts a poetry fest during the annual Shanghai Citizens Arts Festival.
On the national level, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged schools to promote education of traditional culture in remarks in 2014.
Last year, China’s primary and secondary Chinese language textbooks were revised to focus more on traditional culture.
Many educators called the CCTV competition “a new dawn for classical poetry.”
Meng Man, a judge in the competition, recited a poem at the end of the contest to express her optimism: “The grass wakes up, the land turns green and the wind comes from the east, carrying a message of spring.”