Barely two weeks into the Year of the Rooster, China’s media is abuzz at the success of a TV programme that has aggregated a viewership of close to 500 million people in a span of 10 days.
The second season of the Chinese Poetry Conference – which has just ended its short run – is a televised competition somewhat modelled on The Voice, a singing contest. Produced and aired by state broadcaster CCTV, it showcases dozens of contestants, mostly young women, reciting Chinese poetry. They compete with each other in rounds of elimination, but also score points as they try to beat the “100 Poetry Fans Group” (so named because of the 100 experts in the group) in the quiz segments.
With popular host Dong Qing as the master of ceremonies and four academics in the judging seats, contestants are asked to recite classic poems from memory, fill in the blanks in popular verse and answer questions about a wide range of Chinese poetry from ancient love ballads to Mao Zedong’s revolutionary urgings.
The show is delivered, mind you, with strong patriotic and political undertones. Amid the commentary on the poems themselves, Dong and the judges repeatedly remind the audience of China’s “brilliantly sophisticated” culture and its “strong and unyielding national character”.
For instance, while analysing an ancient poem that mentions journeying by boat, one of the judges takes the opportunity to emphasise China’s glorious shipbuilding capabilities during the Ming Dynasty. This, he notes proudly, enabled Admiral Zheng He to command fleets of huge vessels that sailed all the way to Africa for what the judge termed as “win-win” missions, contrasting with Western “resource-grabbing” explorations later pioneered by Columbus.
The show also highlights some of the sterling work of the contestants for their motherland – such as a female engineer involved in President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road project or the contributions of another contestant who has spent time patrolling the South China Sea.
Another notable feature of the competition is the prominent inclusion of Mao’s work. His poems are regularly quoted and eulogised by the judges, as well as Dong herself. Adding to the mix, an American student appears at one point to recite Mao’s poem about the Red Army’s Long March. When the American says he’s a fan of Mao’s verse the audience cheers loudly.
Much of this propaganda puff would get audiences in other countries turning off. It’s also questionable whether a poetry show would capture anything like the same number of viewers in other countries. If so, we can assume that Simon Cowell would have cornered the market.
But local fans of the show have raved about its creative and positive portrayal of China’s 5,000-year cultural heritage. One netizen commented that it distilled national pride among the audience, especially the young. Others lavished praise on Wu Yishu, the 16 year-old girl from Shanghai who won the competition, claiming that the bespectacled teen is the “most beautiful” and “most talented” girl in the country.
Dong, the host, has also received respectful coverage for her knowledge of Chinese literature. Articles about her determined upbringing by her intellectual “tiger parents” soon went viral too. There was widespread approval of her father’s strict rules, including giving Dong a long reading list of books, forbidding her from wasting her time preening in front of mirrors and forcing her to take janitor’s work at 3-star hotels during her holidays to learn that money doesn’t come easily. (Amy Chua eat your heart out.)
The show is not completely without its critics, however.
The most common rebuke that WiC has heard is that the competition’s methodology is still designed to promote rote learning, at a time when China’s educational system needs to do more to foster creativity. But all the same, it makes for a decent diversion from the singing, strutting and showing off in much of the reality TV format today.
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