It was a slim volume of poetry that gave relief to Bai Ruyun after the grueling sessions of chemotherapy. The frail 40-year-old farmer charmed her way into the hearts of millions in China after reciting couplet after couplet from ancient texts — from memory — on national television in recent weeks.

“In poetry, I’ve found echoes of human emotions, including happiness, anger, joy and sorrow,” said Bai who has lymphoma.

She was among a group of 100 poetry aficionados, well-versed in ancient Chinese classics, brought to the limelight by a reality-TV show. The 10-episode Chinese Poetry Conference, a weekly poetry quiz aired by China Central Television since the Lunar New Year holiday, has attracted nearly 1.2 billion views despite the absence of celebrity judges to add star power.

The contestants included university professors, students, retirees and even a 53-year-old deliveryman, Cao Zhongxi, who sent delivery notices to clients in the form of rhyming couplets.

Many in China start to recite ancient poems out loud while still in kindergarten (preschool), and had to memorize iconic pieces such as the following written by Tang dynasty poet Li Bai on nostalgia:

Seeing the moon before my couch so bright
I thought hoar frost had fallen from the night.
At her clear face I gaze with lifted eyes:
Then lower them full of youth’s sweet memories.

This intimate relationship between classical poetry and the Chinese public may explain why this low-budget reality-TV show became such a surprise hit, triggering heated online discussions over what fueled its success.

“The Chinese Poetry Conference offers a breath of fresh air at a time when TV screens are dominated by mindless entertainment-driven shows,” wrote one blogger on Weibo.

Others said its lively format — packed with tense moments when contestants had to recite verses from memory and were quizzed for their knowledge of the country’s most-renowned wordsmiths — reminded them of their school days.

“Almost all of us have recited verses from ancient poems during our school days, but most of the memories faded as we grew up,” said Meng Man, a history professor at Beijing’s Minzu University of China and a judge of the competition. “But the familiar feeling comes back whenever we are reminded.”

Participants had to rearrange jumbled lines of poetry or fill in the missing words on a famous verse picked from a massive collection of works. They ranged from the earliest known Chinese anthology, The Book of Songs, compiled around the seventh century B.C., to those written by poets in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) and Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), when classical poetry was at its peak. The best ones, who survived the grueling cutoff rounds, would stand face-to-face for a “poetry slam,” reciting verses containing a fixed character before a buzzer went off.

The jurors — all experts in Chinese literature — offered lively comments and interpretations to help the audience understand and appreciate some of the works that were highlighted.

Poetry reigned supreme as the most refined form of literature for a long period in Chinese history. It was also used to measure the latent talent of intellectuals hired to serve emperors. Reciting and composing poems was part of the exam to select civil servants until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912.

Classic poetry gave way to vernacular-style writing or free verse during the New Culture Movement, pioneered by writers such as Lu Xun and Chen Duxiu in the early 1900s. But the influence of classical works by poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu have lasted both colonial influences and the Cultural Revolution.

But many were skeptical of whether the interest in classics reignited by the TV contest would last long.

The show can make more people curious about classical literature by creating a buzz around the topic. But the revival of traditional culture requires systematic efforts and institutional support, said Kang Zhen, a professor at Beijing Normal University, another judge. “The phenomenal success of the TV show has promoted us to think of new ways to promote and educate people about traditional culture, ” he said.

Some critics bemoan the lack of interest among youth for painstakingly crafted Tang Dynasty poems. But the fact that a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Shanghai bagged the trophy stands as proof of the timeless appeal of these works.

“I like classical poems for joy they bring” because ancient poems are imbued with delicate emotions that can hardly be experienced in modern life, said Wu Yishu, who memorized over 2,000 ancient poems.

By Han Wei, Caixin

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