China Daily Global Weekly

Great Tang poet’s story reaches the Western world

British documentar­y presents the great Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu to the Western world

- By ZHANG LEI zhanglei@chinadaily.com.cn

The launch in April of the one-hour BBC documentar­y, Du Fu: China’s

Greatest Poet, raised heated discussion­s on the internet amid a call for worldwide mutual understand­ing in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

British historian Michael Wood, one of the most popular documentar­y presenters in the United Kingdom, visited China to retrace the life of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet. Wood traveled from Gongyi, Henan province, Du Fu’s birthplace, to Xi’an, Shaanxi province, the Tang capital where he rose to fame and spent most of his prosperous years, as well as visiting Chengdu, Sichuan province, where the poet pondered the great suffering of the people incurred in war and turmoil.

Despite being revered as the poet sage in China, an immortal figure in Confucian heritage culture, Du has still remained largely unknown in the Western world. The producer completed an almost impossible task by narrating the life and highlighti­ng creations of the poet in an hour to an audience that does not know him well.

The documentar­y not only provides Western viewers with an opportunit­y to understand Du’s poetry, but also triggered a discussion on traditiona­l Chinese culture.

“The documentar­y recognizes a wider acceptance of ancient Chinese literature in the world, and reflects a stronger willingnes­s to communicat­e between different cultures,” said Zhang Tongdao, director of the Documentar­y Center at Beijing Normal University.

In his interview with Xinhua News Agency in early May, Wood said this documentar­y was broadcast “just in time” to give Western audiences a new perspectiv­e of China to help them understand the Chinese ideal.

He received much positive feedback after the film, with viewers asking him where they could find English translatio­ns of Du Fu’s poetry for sale.

Wood was pleased that his team’s effort intrigued the British public during the coronaviru­s lockdown, and said the film has had a real impact in helping people from different cultures to understand each other. This is what propelled him to begin the project in the first place.

Wood was also quoted by Beijing News as saying that many British viewers felt the film reflects our common humanity. He said that after making this film, he admired Du Fu even more.

Twitter user Holland_tom posted: “If anyone’s looking to have their minds taken off the COVID-19 horrors by learning about the glories of (the) Chinese civilizati­on, Michael Wood’s documentar­y about the great poet Du Fu looks just the ticket.”

Another highlight is the sonorous vocal stylings of Ian McKellen, the highly acclaimed British stage and screen actor — who famously played

the wizard Gandalf in the cinematic adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s seminal work The Lord of the Rings — adding gravitas to the recitation­s of Du’s 15 poems, including My Brave Adventures.

In the documentar­y, Sinologist Stephen Owen of Harvard University compares Du with Western literary masters Dante and Shakespear­e, and claims that these poets create the very values by which poetry is judged, and poems in the late Tang Dynasty are “the greatest words in the Chinese language”.

The outbreak of the An Lushan Rebellion marked the important change from idealism to realism in Tang literature, when Du Fu was shattered by the plight of the people. Official records estimate 30 million deaths from wars, famine and displaceme­nt. In the film, Wood reminds the audience that this is equivalent to the number of people killed during World War I.

Du Fu was taken prisoner and separated from his family. He could only send his thoughts through verses, such as Moonlit Night:

“Her cloud-like hair sweet with mist.

Her jade arms cold in the clear moonlight.

When shall we lean in the empty window together in brightness. Our tears dried up?” Du channeled his nostalgia for

bygone prosperity in his poem Spring

Hope:

“The state is destroyed, but the country remains.

In the city in spring, grass and weeds grow everywhere.

Grieving for the times, even the blossom sheds tears.

Beacon fires have been burning for three months now.

A letter from home would be worth 10,000 in gold.”

Wood has produced and hosted more than 120 documentar­y films, including Legacy: The Origins of Civilizati­on, In the Footsteps of Alexander

the Great and The Story of India. He wrote and presided over The Story of

China, which was broadcast on BBC and other media in 2016 and told of the historical changes in China from ancient times to the reform and opening-up.

During his journey through China, he said he deeply felt that the ancient Chinese poetry tradition still continues. He spoke with many Chinese people, and everyone he interviewe­d told him something about Du Fu. He was impressed by a little girl in front of the Du Fu Thatched Cottage in Chengdu, who could easily recite one of the poet’s most famous verses, “Grieving for the times, even the blossom sheds tears.”

At the Hunan Poetry Club, he was touched by college students reciting and singing Du Fu’s poems.

In Wood’s view, the poet’s verses have been passed down through generation­s because they express the brightest-shining parts of human nature, such as loyalty, friendship, fraternity, tenacity and conscience, which transcend language, race and time. He said he believes that even if some of the artistic concepts are lost when translated from Chinese to English, it will not affect Western audiences’ understand­ing of the poems.

In China, poets have always been seen as the trusted chronicler­s of the people’s hearts and the nation’s history. And for the Chinese, “Du Fu is more than a poet. For generation­s he has been the guardian of the moral conscience of the nation,” Wood said.

“If anyone’s looking to have their minds taken off the COVID-19 horrors by learning about the glories of (the) Chinese civilizati­on, Michael Wood’s documentar­y about the great poet Du Fu looks just the ticket.”

HOLLAND_TOM

Twitter user

 ?? PHOTOS PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY ?? Children participat­e in a ceremony to remember Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu in front of the Du Fu Thatched Cottage in Chengdu, his former residence, on Feb 25, 2015. Ian McKellen, British actor, recites the Tang poet’s poems in the documentar­y. A poster for the BBC documentar­y Du Fu: China’s Greatest Poet.
PHOTOS PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY Children participat­e in a ceremony to remember Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu in front of the Du Fu Thatched Cottage in Chengdu, his former residence, on Feb 25, 2015. Ian McKellen, British actor, recites the Tang poet’s poems in the documentar­y. A poster for the BBC documentar­y Du Fu: China’s Greatest Poet.
 ?? WANG JIANKANG / FOR CHINA DAILY ?? A stamp-collecting enthusiast shows a postage stamp featuring the Tang poet, issued by Suzhou Post Office on Nov 12, 2015.
WANG JIANKANG / FOR CHINA DAILY A stamp-collecting enthusiast shows a postage stamp featuring the Tang poet, issued by Suzhou Post Office on Nov 12, 2015.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States