Digital technology not only opens up exciting possibilities for the future but also allows us to better understand, and enjoy, cultural treasures from the past. In a podcast series launched this month (February 2022), Professor Cai Zong Qi, Lingnan University’s Lee Wing Tat Chair Professor of Chinese Literature and Director of the Advanced Institute for Global Chinese Studies, aims to give a wide listenership the chance to appreciate classical Chinese poetry.
Since his student days, Prof Cai has harboured the desire to share the profound beauty of this art form with Western readers. Having already seen Columbia University Press publish the first six books in his ten-volume series How To Read Chinese Literature, he is now reaching out, via the podcast series, to engage an educated, English-speaking audience, that has little prior knowledge of these works.
An audio journey through genres and dynasties
In each episode, outstanding poems will be read and discussed, and their cultural milieu explored, in English. Each of the poems will also be recited, by professional readers, in Mandarin, and for Tang and Song poetry in Cantonese as well, over a background of classical Chinese qin music.
“We want to help the listener go beyond pure translation,” Prof Cai explains. “You do not really get the same aesthetic pleasure [from a translated text,] as you would get from the original, particularly for some hyper-condensed type of poetry.”
From February 1st, a new 15-minute podcast will be available each week on popular platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and Ximalaya (in Mainland China). The full 52-episode series will cover the major poetic genres that have emerged and evolved over a period of almost three millennia, stretching from the early Zhou all the way to the Qing, the last of China’s dynasties, which ended in 1911. A team of experts will guide listeners through the rich heritage of Chinese poetry, poem by poem, genre by genre, and dynasty by dynasty.
Many classical Chinese poems originated as folk songs or tales about the founding father of the Zhou dynasty, Prof Cai points out. Later they came to be used by diplomats and courtiers to convey messages in the form of an indirect expression of the state’s intent. “Poetic talent became a key criterium for selection for promotion to high government office during the Tang dynasty, from around 600 to 900 AD.”
Reaching out to a global audience
Prof Cai’s bi-cultural outlook has been shaped by his experiences in his native China and while studying and teaching in the United States. In his writing, he has used Western theoretical approaches to examine the nation’s classical literature in fresh and original ways. He believes that knowledge of the Chinese literary tradition can also help people in other countries understand the cultural values that shape thinking within China. And interest in this field does seem to be growing, with sales of the published books in his How To Read Chinese Literature series far exceeding initial expectations.