Reviving ancient poetic charm in modern society
Verses in vogue
Published: Feb 04, 2024 10:41 PM
Editor's Note: In an era dominated by fragmented information and short videos, professor Kang Zhen has risen as a distinguished cultural influencer, advocating for the timeless beauty of ancient Chinese poetry. 

Amid today's fast-paced, content-saturated landscape, the professor stands as a beacon, making the appreciation of classical verses not just a luxury but a vital connection to China's rich cultural heritage. His commitment to unraveling the intricacies of classical poetry in a world inundated with fleeting content reflects a dedication to preserving and revitalizing the profound artistry embedded in these age-old verses.

How does he balance his role as both a researcher and promoter of Chinese classical literature? And how has he created this strong resonance between classical verses and modern life? The Global Times aims to give you some poetic insight into how this professor has built a bridge between ancient rhymes and contemporary society.

This is the sixth issue of our Cultural Influencer series.

Kang Zhen at Chinese Poetry Conference variety show Photo: Courtesy of Kang Zhen

Kang Zhen at Chinese Poetry Conference variety show Photo: Courtesy of Kang Zhen

For thousands of years since the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046BC-771BC), poetry has been the shining jewel in the crown of Chinese literature. 

From the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry Shi Jing, or Book of Songs, to its pinnacle development in the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, classical verses, known for their concise wording, profound insight, creative fantasy and delicate fusion of emotion and scene, have been an enduring epitome of the wisdom, philosophy and thought of the Chinese people, offering a window into the culture and history of China. 

Within a few lines of rhymes, Chinese poetry goes beyond artistic expression to showcase the profound humanistic sentiments of the Chinese people and serve as a vocal example of traditional Chinese culture. 

The vitality of classical poetry and its rich cultural heritage continues to bloom in the present, providing a heart-warming cultural power to individuals, families and all of society.

Creating resonance

Kang Zhen, a professor with a university in Beijing, stands as one of the cultural influencers dedicated to researching this literary treasure and actively promoting its development in an era marked by fragmented information and fleeting content.

"The classical poetry of China is, in essence, a condensed version of the evolutionary history of Chinese civilization," Kang told the Global Times during a recent exclusive interview. 

The reason why classical poetry can constantly rejuvenate itself is because it helps people communicate and express new emotions and insight in the contemporary era, capturing the essence of the evolving times, said the professor. 

While poetry might be a pursuit for a minority of people in the West, in China it is woven into people's everyday lives. Children learn classical verses throughout their schooling starting from kindergarten. People create or refer to poems to bid farewell, celebrate births, weddings and the launch of a new initiative.  

In an effort to make classical poetry more accessible to modern people, Kang, 53, integrates classical verses with modern lyrics and paintings for people to better understand poetry. 

His innovative approach in helping people understand ancient poetry has breathed new life into traditional literature, sparking growing interest in classical poetry among a broader audience.

"What I've been trying to do is to bring classical poetry out of the study and into society, and into the lives of modern people. In short, it's about respecting the ancients while also respecting contemporary individuals, creating a resonance between classical poetry and the modern era," he said. 

Since childhood, Kang had a passion for Chinese literature and opted to teach literature at the Beijing Normal University after graduation. 

In balancing his role as a researcher and promoter of classical literature, Kang noted that it is a mutually reinforcing and complementary process.

"Being both a researcher and promoter of classical poetry is actually a challenging task. On the one hand, it is crucial to continuously enhance my level of academic research, which lays the foundation for promotion. On the other hand, it is essential to communicate research outcomes to the general public effectively," Kang said.

As a scholar, a primary task is to engage in profound research, which will ensure accurate promotion. With the deepening of promotion, you will gradually discern which poems are more widely embraced by the public and identify those that have yet to be thoroughly understood. This insight will serve as a catalyst, motivating you to delve further into the research, he said.

Inner page of Kang Zhen's Poetry Lessons (Youth Edition) Photo: Courtesy of Kang Zhen

Inner page of Kang Zhen's Poetry Lessons (Youth Edition) Photo: Courtesy of Kang Zhen

Bridging classical lines and modern life

As an expert in Chinese classical literature and traditional culture, Kang has been invited as a literary consultant for TV shows such as Chinese Poetry Conference, Everlasting Classics and Readers in recent years. His insightful perspective on classical poetry, exquisite rhetoric and refined demeanor on these shows have earned him a substantial fan base.

"My primary goal in participating in these programs is to utilize modern communication channels to make classical poetry more accessible to contemporary audiences. I try to build a connection between modern individuals and those of ancient times, creating a resonance that allows more people to appreciate the beauty of classical poetry," Kang noted. 

Classical poetry encompasses all essential elements and reflectes the "five prominent features" of Chinese civilization, according to the scholar.

At a meeting on cultural inheritance and development in June, 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out that China's excellent traditional culture has many important elements that have jointly shaped Chinese civilization through five prominent features - continuity, originality, uniformity, inclusivity and a peaceful nature. 

Spanning over 3,000 years from the era of the Book of Songs to the present day, Chinese classical poetry exemplifies an enduring continuity. The genres, themes, connotations, forms, artistic expression and aesthetics of Chinese poetry have undergone consistent innovation, Kang said.

Many ancient poems depict flourishing scenes of unified dynasties, reflecting a sense of unity. The inclusiveness lies in the wide range of authors and rich content, covering various aspects of Chinese social life, including family, friendships, love, war, labor, and interactions with foreign cultures. Moreover, many poems carry undertones of opposition to war, expressing a yearning for peace and harmony, he said. 

As part of China's 5,000-year-old civilization, the rich heritage of classical poetry is a crucial foundation for the modern civilization of the Chinese nation. By continually employing classical poetry to depict and experience contemporary life, people can rejuvenate it and reflect a fresh spirit of the times in modern life, said Kang. 

Directed by Xie Junwei and Zou Jing, the domestic animated film 30,000 Miles from Chang'an was a blockbuster hit last summer that generated a surge of interest in traditional Chinese poetry and heated discussions about the famous poets of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), including Li Bai, Gao Shi and Du Fu.

The enduring friendship between Gao and Li portrayed in the film touched many people. Kang noted that the film opened a new window for the inheritance and development of classical poetry. 

"In my view, this film is not only about the stories of Li and Gao. The two poets represent two facets of the same individual, forming a complete person. This individual has the flamboyant dreams of youth, while enduring the harsh realities and trials of life. In reality, they symbolize the dual aspects of life," Kang said. 

"This film provides us with a crucial insight: Traditional culture must be interpreted from a contemporary perspective to be relevant and applicable to the present. For classical poetry to be revived in modern times, it is essential to establish a close connection between it and the emotional lives of contemporary people," he added.

National cultural confidence 

Ancient poetry is a literary form that best embodies the charm of classical Chinese literature. In recent years, classical poetry has increasingly become a reading trend, especially among youths. Kang said that the trendy phenomenon of reading classical poetry among people of all ages reflects its powerful charm and demonstrates the cultural confidence of Chinese people. 

"In fact, classical poetry has become an important part of the spiritual and cultural life of the Chinese people," he said.

In the past few years, Kang has dedicated much effort to youth poetry education. Following the success of Kang Zhen's 81 Poetry Lessons published a few years ago, he recently released a new book, Kang Zhen's Poetry Lessons (Youth Edition). Describing the differences, he notes that the new edition is more concise, with selected poems from the textbooks of Chinese language classes in primary and secondary schools. It serves as a concise edition of Chinese poetry, representing different stages of its development.

Kang's interpretation of classical poetry is essentially a promotion of traditional culture, guiding young readers into the ocean of Chinese classical culture to explore the lives of great predecessors in Chinese poetry such as Li Bai, Du Fu and Su Shi, who can serve as profound references for contemporary readers.

It doesn't matter that some of the Chinese characters' pronunciation may differ from what they were decades ago. For young learners, it's imperative to make clear three things: the historical context in which the poet composed the poem; the circumstances and mindset of the poet when writing the poem and the meanings embedded in the words and expressions of the poem, Kang noted.

This edition of Kang Zhen's Poetry Lessons (Youth Edition) aims to add a touch of poetry to the learning lives of young readers, helping them better appreciate the beauty of classical poetry and inherit the knowledge, aesthetics, emotions and spirit embedded in the classical poetry.

To make poetry more vivid and imaginative for children, Kang incorporates many of his own calligraphy and painting works into the new book. He says that when reading a poem, various scenes come to his mind, and his artworks represent his interpretation of various poems. His paintings are intended as open-ended communication, sparking a dialogue with young readers who can, in turn, create their own scenes inspired by poetry.

Kang emphasizes the importance of introducing the basic context of the poem to students but avoiding overly complex interpretations, allowing them to develop their own insight as they grow.

He underscores the essential elements for students: understanding the historical context in which the poet wrote, the real circumstances and mindset behind the poem, and the meaning of its words and phrases. 

In addition to ancient poetry, recent years have seen increased interest among young people in traditional Chinese clothing like Hanfu and ancient-style songs, and dances. Kang sees this phenomenon as reflecting an important trend in society: a growing confidence in China's own culture. 

"As our nation and its people mature, cultural confidence becomes the spiritual foundation and driving force for the Chinese people's journey into the future." 

A prosperous and confident nation is essential for actively preserving and promoting its own culture, constituting an indispensable path to cultural self-assurance, said Kang.