In China today, does poetry still matter?


From the University of Washington Post Blog

There’s a famous Chinese saying that “the misery of the state leads to the emergence of great poets” (guojia buxing shijia xing)–or more literally, “when the state is unfortunate, poets are fortunate.” These words come from a poem by the Qing dynasty historian Zhao Yi (1727–1814), observing the phenomenon in which classic works of poetry often appear during times of calamity: war, famine, dynastic downfall, and so on.

Zhao Yi’s saying sprang to mind for many observers of Chinese poetry after the Sichuan Earthquake of May 2008. The loss of nearly 70,000 lives spurred an outpouring of poems that were widely circulated on the Internet, in newspapers, on television and radio, and recited at fundraising events. As a form of writing that “follows from emotion” (shi yuan qing), poetry is ideally placed in times of turmoil and tragedy. When things go wrong, you can trust that poets will find a way to put into words what many are thinking and feeling.

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