“From whichever direction the winds leap, / I remain strong, though dealt many a blow,” the opening line with which Bai Ruyun, a 41-year-old farmer and cancer patient from a small village in Hebei Province, confidently stepped onto the stage of Chinese Poetry Conference. The line is from the poem “Bamboo and Rock” by Zheng Xie, a famous poet and painter in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), a eulogy on bamboo’s characteristics – perseverance and a strong will.
At the age of 36, Bai was diagnosed with lymphoma. She bought herself the Ancient Poetry Appreciation Dictionary, which later became her sole companion during the course of her year-long treatment. She said that after reciting poems to herself she has memorized more than 10,000 of them.
“My life is hard, but I can taste the pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy of different lives in poetry. That makes me feel that I am a lucky person,” Bai said in a hoarse voice, a side effect of her chemotherapy.
Bai is one of the most impressive contestants on the stage of Chinese Poetry Conference. More than 100 competitors from all walks of life, young and old, from home and abroad, participated in the show. Among them, the youngest was only seven years old, the oldest, 71.
Participants had to fill in the missing words of famous poems, rearrange jumbled lines of verse and answer questions on the background of a poem or a poet. Outstanding contestants qualify for a head-to-head challenge, competing to recall verses containing a given character before the countdown buzzer goes off.
Four judges, all experts on Chinese literature, offered lively commentary to help audiences understand and interpret the poems included.
The poems in the quiz rounds ranged from the earliest known poetry anthology, The Book of Songs, compiled around the seventh century BC, through the poetry of the Tang (618-907) and Song Dynasties (960-1279), the golden age of classical Chinese poetry, to those written by Mao Zedong, who, apart from his better-known activities, was a well-known poet with many influential pieces such as “Changsha” (1925), “The Long March” (1935) and “Ode to the Plum Blossom” (1961).
Among the competitors, the champion, Wu Yishu, shone the brightest. The 16-year-old from Shanghai shot to national fame overnight after she beat a PhD candidate from Peking University to become the season champion. Video clips of her recitals went viral and stories about her have been viewed and forwarded hundreds of thousands of times on social media.
Unlike many of her peers who are fascinated with “fresh-meat stars,” a term referring to young, handsome, and popular celebrities, Wu’s idols are three great poets from over 1,000 years ago: Li Bai, Su Shi and Lu You.
Wu always has on her a collection of Lu You, a prominent poet of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Lu has been widely seen as a patriotic, sorrowful poet, while Wu regards him as “an extremely adorable person.”
Wu particularly likes a line from his work, “Written in a Storm” that runs “Warm fire in fire pit, comes from the fire sticks. Surrounded with the softness of a Persian rug, lie the lazy cat and me.”
“‘Bad weather, heavy rains, I don’t want to go outdoors. All I want is to stay at home with my cat’. That’s so cute! Modern people don’t resonate with me the same way,” Wu said with excitement on the show.
Wu won the hearts of the judges and audience alike with her composed demeanor and comprehensive knowledge of classical Chinese poetry. Beautiful, elegant and erudite, Wu is widely seen as the “perfect image of a talented woman from ancient times.”