Teenaged poetry champion Wu Yishu reflects China’s rising interest in traditional culture

By Wei Xi and Zhang Yuchen Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/8 19:28:39

Wu Yishu (left) competes against Peng Min on the game show Chinese Poetry Conference on Tuesday. Inset: Chinese stamps paying tribute to Chinese poetry Photos: IC

Wu Yishu (left) competes against Peng Min on the game show Chinese Poetry Conference on Tuesday. Photo: IC


Wu Yishu (left) competes against Peng Min on the game show Chinese Poetry Conference on Tuesday. Inset: Chinese stamps paying tribute to Chinese poetry Photos: IC

Chinese stamps paying tribute to Chinese poetry Photo: IC

Teenage girl Wu Yishu became the subject of hot discussion on the Chinese Internet during the Spring Festival holidays after she wowed audiences in China with her profound knowledge of classical poetry. 

After three rounds of competition, the 16-year-old won the final round of Chinese Poetry Conference's nine-day-long second season on Tuesday night, standing out from 100 poetry enthusiasts from all ages and walks of life.

China Central Television's first poetry-themed TV show, Chinese Poetry Conference aims to promote classical poetry in today's modern era through competition. 

With professors from well-known universities acting as judges on the show, this had led to some enlightening dialogues concerning traditional poetry between them and the show's hostess.

Young champion

A student from the High School Affiliated to Fudan University, Wu loves wearing outfits similar to those worn during the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220). With her straight black hair, arched eyebrows and almond-shaped eyes, Wu is widely seen as the "perfect image of a talented woman from ancient times."

Aside from her stunning knowledge and understanding of various lines of poetry, what has earned Wu the most praise was her calm and modest behavior during the competition.

During a part of the show on February 1 in which she went up against the previous round's champion, Wu recited a line of poetry that her opponent had used earlier. After the hostess pointed this out, Wu quickly recited another line from the Classic of Poetry, the oldest extant collection of Chinese poetry, without hesitation. This quick and calm reaction made her famous overnight.

This part of the show was based on Feihualing, an ancient drinking game often played by scholars in ancient China. Added this season, the game has the hostess select a Chinese character and the two remaining competitors will then have to recite a verse of poetry that contains this character.

"Her heart has absorbed the charm of poetry. Wu is also modest. She just stands there, calm and relaxed. She makes you feel a poetic sentiment just by being there," Meng Man, an associated professor at Minzu University of China and one of the show's judges, said.

Cultural confidence

Interest in classic poetry and literature has been gaining ground recently, in part due to increased exposure among government officials. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping, for example, often enjoys referring to classics at various occasions such as official meetings, visits to local areas and when dealing with international affairs. In a speech extending Spring Festival wishes during a reception in Beijing on January 26, Xi recited lines from a poem by Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Wang Wei and ended with a poem from Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet Wang Anshi.

Additionally, during his speech at the opening ceremony of the B20, a part for the G20 2016 Summit in Hangzhou, Xi called on international members to be brave economic pioneers by reciting two lines from a Song Dynasty poem: "The tide riders surf the currents/ the flags they hold up never get wet."

"Culture confidence" is a keyword that Xi has used often in recent years. It refers to the concept that Chinese must build up confidence in their own traditional culture, which naturally includes classic poetry and literature.

During a visit to Beijing Normal University in September 2014, Xi pointed out that he did not want to see Chinese classic poetry and essays be replaced by Western works in textbooks.

"I think 'Desinicization' is pathetic. We should have these classics deeply rooted in students' minds. They should be the cultural genes of the Chinese nation," Xi said as quoted by The Beijing News.

Taking the bad with the good

While Xi is certainly looking at the big picture when advocating classical education, the increasing number of ordinary citizens who have begun to pay more attention to traditional culture is partly due to this emphasis toward culture confidence and partly because they are focused on their children's future.

"Though we studied ancient poems and literature at school, it was treated like an assignment rather than something that we wanted to do. English and Math were seen as more important than traditional Chinese literature back then," Li, a mother of a 3-year-old boy, told the Global Times. "This generation and my parents' generation didn't pay much attention to ancient classics, but now we have begun to realize their value."

Li added that while some of the values found in ancient works are not suitable for today's society, such as children unquestioningly obeying their parents or women playing a subservient role to men, there is still plenty to be found that can prove beneficial for a child's education.

Even TV dramas featuring classic poetry have received applause. Take the 2011 hit period drama, Legend of Zhen Huan, as an example. The classic poetry recited by characters often ended up being quoted quite often by audiences online.

This classic revival hasn't been without negatives, however. The high demand over traditional culture and literature has led to an increase in training courses, but many of these are low quality classes only looking to capitalize on a popular trend.

Other industries too are guilty of the same. China has seen numerous "ancient towns" pop up in the name of cultural education, but are actually little more than amusement parks.

In an editorial published Wednesday in the People's Daily, the paper attacked this trend.

"They wave the banner of promoting traditional culture in their search for profit, but neglect the educational side of things … some make up historical facts and figures… and some just copy the past blindly and mechanically."

The editorial proposed that tradition shouldn't just be the object of study, but something that is an integral part of modern society.  

"The best way to carry on and develop traditional culture is to integrate its essence into daily life."   

Newspaper headline: Classic renaissance

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