City Beat

Poetry star shines light on how to appreciate Chinese culture

Teenager recites her way to television fame on the mainland and turns the learning of classical literature into a hot topic

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 March, 2017, 6:34pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 March, 2017, 10:45pm

Politics continues to be the dominant theme in Hong Kong as the leadership race heads into its final three weeks in a three-horse showdown. But across the border, around the nation, the focus has been on Wu Yizhu (武亦姝), a 16-year-old girl who became the latest wang hong, or internet celebrity, thanks to the popular variety show Chinese Poetry Conference produced by state broadcaster CCTV.

The slim, mild-mannered high school girl from Shanghai beat a PhD candidate from Beijing University to win the final championship of the season. It was a win-win for both CCTV and the girl.

Overnight, Wu shot to national fame through the poetry recital contest. Video clips of her reciting classic poems went viral when the programme became an unexpected hit. And suddenly, learning Chinese classical literature has become a hot topic among schools, parents, students and academics, with many believing it can enhance the younger generation’s understanding of their culture and history.

However, the Wu phenomenon has also triggered debate on what a “girl of talent” means. While Wu’s admirers praise her broad knowledge of the classic works, there are also those who question whether merely memorising words written hundreds, even thousands, of years ago can help inspire innovative and critical thinking among today’s youth.

Whatever the arguments may be, the learning of Chinese culture is the talk of the country, and for CCTV – often the target of public criticism for some of its very “official” kind of programming – this particular poetry conference provided a ratings boost by capturing the nation’s attention.

Interestingly, this national sensation has not caused even a ripple in Hong Kong so far. It may be because CCTV has never been popular in town – it’s just one of the hundreds of pay TV channels available here. Or could it be down to the different audience tastes here?

The thing is, even if the show was to grab some attention locally, whether Chinese poetry would be a new hit here would be hard to tell.

For many of the city’s educators as well as government officials concerned, raising youth awareness of Chinese history has been a big headache. It’s getting even more difficult under the current political environment. The failure of the government’s national education drive some years ago was just one good example.

In his recent maiden budget, Paul Chan Mo-po, the new financial secretary, decided to put more funding into education. Also, throughout the chief executive election campaign so far, education and youth have been the most talked about issues.

Still, education is neither just about funding, nor should it be confined to only the classroom.

Wu did not learn all those poems just from going to school, but was more driven by her own passion for the subject. At the same time, she could not have turned into a role model for her peers without the TV fame.

That is not to suggest Wu’s young fans will all turn out to be connoisseurs of ancient literature like her. What matters more is public recognition of the learning of poetry as an effective way to nurture young people’s virtues.

If the Wu phenomenon is to be of any reference to Hong Kong, it’s about how to forge a social atmosphere in favour of Chinese culture appreciation. Merely imposing the learning of Chinese history in school does not necessarily work. The issue is, how can such an environment be nurtured where anything – the learning of Chinese history and culture included – can be so easily politicised.