The Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu knew what it was like to live in unsettled times.
In the poem Spring Scene, composed during the An Lu Shan Rebellion, Du mourns the empty streets of the city of Chang’an but notes that nature carries on regardless.
“In fallen states, hills and streams are still there,” he writes.
Some have made similar remarks about the challenges of battling Covid-19, as well as the simple pleasures of staying in touch with friends and family.
“The hill-top beacons have been alight for months. A letter from home is worth a thousand gold coins,” Du also wrote.
Yet the parallels with contemporary China are not the main reason why the eighth century poet started trending on social media late last month. That was more down to a BBC documentary presented by historian Michael Wood, which compared Du Fu to Shakespeare and Dante.
At a time when Beijing is battling a sceptical international press over its initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak, China’s state media was thrilled to see something more positive on British television.
Government bodies were pleased as well, including the main anti-corruption agency, which celebrated how Du Fu’s “greatness and compassion are resonating in the West”.
“If someone wants to escape virus anxiety by understanding China’s splendid civilisation, then just watch the Du Fu documentary,” advised an article on the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection’s website .
Du Fu, considered China’s greatest poet alongside Li Bai, was born in 712 and spent most of his life striving to become a high-ranking court official. But the An Lu Shan Rebellion prevented him from realising that dream. Instead he travelled widely looking for employment.
Du has over 1,500 poems to his name with a style and subject matter that varied over his lifetime.
In the opening minutes of the BBC documentary, Harvard University’s Stephen Owen says Du deserves comparison with Shakespeare and Dante in that they are all “poets who create values by which [all other] poetry is judged”.
Reviews of the programme on television and film rating website Douban were generally positive.
“It’s pretty good for an hour-long documentary,” wrote one.
“Not bad, but clearly made for foreigners,” claimed another.
Others said that an hour was not long enough to do justice to the “poet sage” and that the documentary was too dumbed down for Chinese audiences to enjoy.
Some were also amused that Ian McKellen was chosen to voice some of the verses, as most Chinese only know the actor from his role as the ‘you shalt not pass’ wizard in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “Gandalf did a good job,” one joked.
State media was keen to portray the programme in a positive light, so that the nation could share in the compliment. “It is due to the glory of Chinese civilisation, and it also proves that Western media platforms like BBC are actively engaged in dialogue with Eastern civilisation,” opined the Global Times.
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