Cantonese poetry recitation

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A recent issue (1/7/14) of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) carried an article by a staff reporter entitled "Hong Kong student's poem recital goes viral in the mainland ". The article features this amazing video of a Hong Kong high school student reciting a couple of Classical Chinese poems:

Quoting the article:

Hong Kong student Leung Yat-fung became an internet sensation after a recent clip of him reciting two classic Chinese poems in his native Cantonese onstage went viral on social media.

While some said they found Leung's emotionally charged performance entertaining and creative, others said it was an overkill.

I asked many of my friends, colleagues, and students: "Why do you think this student's recitation went viral on the Mainland?" Below are some of the answers I received.

1. A senior editor of China's most important dictionary (the equivalent of the OED for China):

This is an Internet phenomenon. His poetry recitation of Meng Haoran is expressive and exaggerated. Consequently, it became a sensation on social networks, with comments being forwarded among friends, attracting the attention of a lot of people, even becoming a news item.

2. A distinguished Chinese-American professor of historical phonology:

I taught Tang poetry at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 2001. My students insisted upon reading these poems in Cantonese; they preferred this to my annotation in Middle Chinese. They were actually right. Cantonese preserves –p, -t, -k endings for the entering tone, and also the distinction between –m and –n. Now, being confident in their native dialect, they would inject creative interpretation. This is better, i.e., more exciting, than the sort of fare mainland viewers would get from CCTV 4. The exegesis there is quite good, but the performance is staid, and the reading has an artificial flavor. That may explain why Mr. Leung’s reading went viral.

3. An emeritus North American professor of Chinese poetry:

I think it might be a combination of things: (1) Possibly received in the context of Chinese rap, which is immensely popular, but, I'd also like to think, the poetry is so very much better that it has accordingly increased appeal; (2) The performer is "one of them" — i.e., obviously a young adherent of pop culture and not a member of the academic (thus marginal and irrelevant) elite who teaches such things; (3) The Chinese text and English translation subtitles may also play an essential role, especially the English (which, of course, can be much improved on, but largely OK). I would not be surprised at all to discover that the English makes the text accessible to those who only have the vaguest grasp of literary Chinese and who cannot understand the original. I've come across this phenomenon often over the years. Chinese who even have a strong traditional education and can read and speak English fluently often have what seems to be an insurmountable block when it comes to translating Chinese poetry — at best they seem capable of only the most general paraphrase. So when it comes to those without a strong traditional education in literary Chinese, classical Chinese poetry is surely even more opaque. Many young Chinese have told me that they depend on English translations of classical Chinese texts to understand the originals, or, at least, depend on them for an enhanced appreciation of them. My wife just finished a review of Michael Emmerich, _The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature_ (CUP), who says the same thing happened to the Genji — it only became a popular classic in Japan with Waley's translation! Emmerich's last chapter is an especially good read, by the way. (4) the performance itself might also have something to do with it — highly emotive, seems innocent and naively engaging. Whereas it might seem over the top to some, especially foreign, observers, never underestimate the appeal of overt sentimentality.

4. An American university professor of poetry recitation:

I have no idea why this would go viral. Is there some hidden political message of something?

5. A Chinese-American specialist on translation of philosophical and other texts:

a. He is reciting the poem by "singing it" as it were, by dragging out and carefully enunciating the syllables for expressiveness (like my dad did when reciting a poem expressively), so it's almost like a piece of jazz, like rap, and its musicality would appeal to the young (and old). People would be astonished and say: "This is beautiful, musical! Expressive! Like jazz and pop music", especially since the poem is inherently beautiful.

b. It harks back to a time when there was no pollution, the air was pure, the water was pure and blue, when the land was not cut up by roads, and disturbed by the roar of cars, when there was no noise pollution, no food pollution, back to a time of beauty which is no more for the daily life of the vast majority of Chinese people. It is an evocation of another world, a paradise, a paradise which belonged to China, not America (which is the present "paradise" which all in China yearn for), a paradise that was "ours!!!".

c. It is in traditional characters, which, together with the beauty of the poem, are exotic now, and precious, and makes Chinese breasts expand with pride, feeling: "We have such a beautiful heritage! So civilized!" And the recitation will make them think: "We had our own jazz and pop and rap (in the recitation of such poems, which are in simple language)."

d. It will be a sensation with parents and grandparents in China, who will think: "See, he is memorizing the classics! It's fun! I'll get my child to see him and memorize too!!" The poem also shows that the present way of teaching-and-memorizing the classics or bits of classical Chinese, if they are taught in the classroom, is boring, and doesn't make the classics come alive.

e. Then there's the mike, the stage, and the exaggerated emoting — all of which goes with pop and jazz performances. It's glamorous! And the Cantonese is exotic (no more strange to the Mandarin ear than pop-song English) and beautiful.

6. A North American emeritus professor of premodern Chinese poetry:

Because he chose one of my favourite poems by my favourite (Chinese) poet?

Because, being young and in Hong Kong and free to choose anything, he chose to recite a venerable old poem and do it as though he believed in it (in contrast to mainland life and the usual ways of getting ahead there).

7. A graduate student from Hong Kong:

Because mainland students are not familiar with this type of exaggerated poem recital. Even Hong Kong students would *always* laugh at this kind of stuff….

This recital actually happened a few years ago. He's now a university student. Someone interviewed him recently about how he felt about the sudden attention.

Here is the 恶搞版 (spoof version; the one that truly went viral):

The poem is altered to match the tune of Hong Kong pop song 红日 ("Red Sun")。The first half gives you the actual lyrics of the song. The second part — well, just watch it yourself (pay close attention to the "poetry" on screen)!

The 恶搞版 (spoof version) sounds like 潮州话 (Chaozhou topolect). It's not nice to laugh at 梁同学 (student Leung),but I won't lie to you, it's hilarious as hell!!! Particularly at 1.22, when he says “孟浩然” (Meng Haoran), it rhymes perfectly with the actual lyrics “在偶然” (by chance) of 红日 ("Red Sun")。

This is the actual song of 红日。

[To which I replied: We foolish Americans were thinking it's because he's a great poetry reciter!!]

[Then she continued:]

No, that's not foolish at all! I actually heard several Chinese (highly educated) say that 梁同学's way is probably how the Tang poets recited back then! Unfortunately, people probably have to be really highly-educated to realize that….

8. A university professor of Chinese language and literature:

Hmm, the guy is kinda cute, but this kind of "emotional charge" is not unusual.

9. A graduate student from Peking University:

a. I do not enjoy his recital. I did not feel its elegance or beauty.

b. I appreciate his passion for Classical Chinese poems.

10. A German graduate student studying computer science related to Chinese languages:

Isn't that how one is supposed to recite Literary Sinitic (LS) poetry? ie: Very deliberately, with phrasal pauses and strong intonation, while moving one's head, while pretending to have fallen deeply into raptures. Maybe the student just followed his teachers' instructions. I would guess that people making fun of the recital will associate this type of performance with older generations. I'm wondering how and how much poetry recitation is taught in present-day mainland China (especially compared to Hong Kong).

Recitation was certainly not a part of German instruction in German secondary schools where I lived. (And during primary schooling it was more about showing that you memorized a poem or song.) Every once in a blue moon, a teacher would ask the class to recite one or two stanzas of a poem in a dramatic fashion. Barely anyone would volunteer. Most of those that tried would do a bad job (they seemed to just be reading it off in a monotone voice), and those few brave souls that made an effort would earn ghastly gazes from the class or be laughed at. (My recollections are from when we were taught Goethe's Erlkönig or his Zauberlehrling, the latter of which Disney's Fantasia is based on.) I would expect mainland-Chinese students to be more civilized and respectful in such a situation, but then I don't know the weight recitation has in Chinese secondary schools. Is it important or marginalized?

11. An American professor of Chinese oral and performing arts:

Not sure. What's your take? My gut feeling is that it has to do with reaching back to a "purer" past, unencumbered by the clashing, painful confusion of recent times.

12. A Chinese-American professor of poetry esthetics:

It is a good and pleasing performance, but I can not understand why it would go viral in China, especially since people there can not understand Cantonese.

13. An American professor of Chinese language and linguistics:

To answer why, I'd like to know who(m) it went "viral" with, i.e., how many NON-Cantonese speakers, how many young vs. older (but really, how many older Chinese speakers use the net?), M vs. F, etc. But leaving the dramatic reading style aside, if there were lots of non-Cantonese speakers who know any classical poetry, I'd just like to mention that when I gave my required memorized homework of Li Bo's poem at the Stanford Center way back when, I put the "ru shengs" (entering tones) back in, and my older teacher, who was educated in "Beiping" before 1949, just loved it. And I've always felt that the southern dialects are in many ways "truer" to the spoken language that Tang dynasty poetry was written in than Mandarin, 'worn smooth by the speaking of many tongues' as it is.

14. A Chinese-American specialist on Chinese language and literature who has been living as an expat in Beijing for many years:

Victor, surely you can see why, no? Seems too obvious to me: Because it's so ludicrously earnest, so unfashionably theatrical. I showed it to my kids and they instantly burst into fits of laughter.

15. A professor of Chinese literature (especially poetry) from Hong Kong:

My answer is: "I don't know," but I can speculate. More and more Mainlanders find Cantonese fascinating but for this particular clip it may be because they find it "overkilling" (to quote one comment from Youtube). I served as a judge for a yearly poetry recitation competition in Sydney for some years and found that the "overkilling" practice was quite common. It was the coach (teacher) who taught the student to do this. When I was at high school I found it 受不了 (couldn't stand it). I don't know much about mainland's poetry recitation training but the style is quite different.

16. An American professor of medieval Chinese poetry:

Don't quite know what the attraction is. Plenty of people recite Meng Haoran's (and other poets') poems in Cantonese; I have students in my seminars do it all the time. But I did find the English translation amusing, esp. the "birds in thick fog wallow"–never knew that birds could wallow.

17. An American expert on Cantonese language:

First and foremost, his recitation is in Cantonese — NOT Putonghua.

He's quite thoroughly immersed in it and enjoying delivering this poem pronounced in Cantonese. Without realizing it, he essentially counters the heavy-duty propaganda/brainwashing schoolchildren are subjected to when learning Putonghua:

a. Ài guóqí, chàng guógē, shuō Pǔtōnghuà 愛國旗,唱國歌,説普通話 (Love the flag, sing the national anthem, speak Mandarin)

b. Shuō Pǔtōnghuà, xiě guīfàn zì, zuò ge wénmíng rén 説普通話,寫規範字,做個文明人 (Speak Mandarin, write standard characters, be a civilized person)

c. Bù jiǎng fāngyán, bù jiǎng zānghuà, zuò gè hégé xiǎo gōngmín 不講方言,不講髒話,做個合格小公民 (Don't speak topolect or say things that are vulgar; be a qualified young citizen)

d. Wǒ shì Zhōngguówá, ài shuō Pǔtōnghuà 我是中國娃,愛説普通話 (I'm a Chinese child who loves to speak Mandarin)

Note how #3 has sneakily/cleverly equated speaking topolects with talking dirty/speaking obscene language.

[Hat tip Greg Ralph and thanks to Wenkan Xu, Tsu-Lin Mei, Bob Bauer, Richard Lynn, Rebecca Fu, Paul Kroll, Stephan Stiller, John Crespi, Gloria Bien, Julie Wei, Daniel Bryant, Perry Link, Zong-qi Cai, John Rohsenow, Timothy W. K. Chan, and Kaiser Kuo]


  1. Simon P said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 3:29 am

    That is just lovely. I especially adore the way he "gets into" it with a smile and dreamy look before even beginning the recital. Stuff like this gives me hope for Cantonese. And yes, poetry does sound better in Cantonese.

  2. ahkow said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 5:17 am

    His recitation style is clearly similar to the one uses in traditional (southern) Chinese opera, and similar to what a teacher (from Beijing with a drama background) used to teach us when I was in school. Other than the exaggerated, and hence funny, facial expressions, I'm inclined to say that this is just a matter of 少见多怪 (making a fuss over something out of ignorance).

  3. hkg said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 7:36 am

    For those who read Chinese, here's a comment on this recitation:

  4. Tom said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 10:05 am

    Incredible! Although I must say, the recitation style seems to be a far cry from the "intoning poetry" (yínshī 吟詩) tradition, at least as it's practiced in Taiwan. There's a really nice introduction to this method here:

  5. Mandy said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

    @Simon P

    He looks dreamy because he's waiting for his friend and listening to his footsteps or something…

    In the spoof version, the poem was changed to “孟浩然,轻轻吸我". Just brilliant!

  6. HIHI said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 11:06 pm

    His recitation style is clearly similar to the one uses in traditional (southern) Chinese opera

    that's northern opera

    this is not lovely

  7. Swifty said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 11:13 pm

    (20140123 光明頂-中學恢復教範文 (陶傑 鮑偉聰))

    I personally dislike and would not agree this is the traditional and proper way of Chinese poem recitation. Listen to what others say in the above URL. If the above style is the main stream, it would not have become such a big fuss, another very typical example of how the beautiful Chinese language is tortured to become a zombie after 1949.

  8. Bob said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 11:52 am

    I suppose Student Leung was one of the finalists of a poetry recital completion. His "intoning" had to be the result of coaching by his teachers.
    The real issue ought to be why this clip was widely circulated in a land where few people could understand what he was saying(Cantonese in the Putonghua mainland China); non could read the traditional Chinese subtitle.

  9. parse said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 11:59 am

    It reminds me of the poetry recitations in the 1993 film Fong Sai Yuk, where the reactions of actress Josephine Siao *(playing Fong Sai Yuk's mother) to her husband's romantic couplets were key points of comedy in a film that delightfully mixes martial arts, star-crossed lovers, mistaken identity and gender play.

  10. Simon P said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

    Well, even if he does recite, as we say in Sweden, "rather than well", instead of criticizing his performance, I choose to applaud his passion.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 3:53 pm


    I agree with the gist of your remarks. The people on the mainland probably think that his language and style of recitation are more alien than American rap and pop. Just think of the opinion of the 9th individual surveyed above. She is a graduate of the Chinese Department of Peking University, and specializes in medieval poetry, the very type that Student Leung is reciting, yet she can see no redeeming features in his delivery. And still, the same as several others quoted above who are not taken by his dramatic recitation, she recognizes his passion. So it seems that his language and rhetorical recitation are difficult for people outside his tradition to accept, but his devotion to the *idea* of a classical past — which he actually preserves far better than they — strikes a chord in their heart.

  12. Kuiwon said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 7:16 pm

    I have recited Classical Chinese poems using Korean pronunciations a few times in front of family members and family friends. I have never recited it like that, nor have I seen other Koreans (on TV) recite it like that.

    Here's a six year Korean child reciting a poem:

  13. Miguel Viterbo said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

    I haven't seen on the article nor in the comments the link to the actual video that went viral. It's certainly not the spoof version mentioned by "A graduate student from Hong Kong" Answer #7), which has only 50k views.

    This one has more than 1 million views now:

  14. Mandy said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 6:44 pm

    @Miguel Viterbo

    If you want to judge mainland Chinese sentiments, you have to go to weibo, not youtube (it's blocked in the PRC). On weibo, the spoof version received many more "forwarding" than the "regular" version.

    Also, if you look at the comments on the youtube video (the one with the 1 million views), how many of them do you think are actually from mainland Chinese living in the PRC?

    In any case, whichever version(s) you look at, people are amused by the same thing…

  15. Victor Mair said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 10:15 pm

    @Miguel Viterbo

    Thanks very much for providing the link to the complete YouTube video of Student Leung's recitation. That's the same one from which we embedded the first portion at the beginning of this post.

    Since, as Mandy points out, YouTube is blocked on the Mainland, the recitation must have gone viral through other means, perhaps on YouKu or on other video sharing services. Even with VPNs, which the government does its best to disrupt, it is difficult (next to impossible) for a YouTube video to go viral in China directly from YouTube itself.

  16. Philip Lawton said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    As much as I hate to ever read comments on YouTube videos, when trying to work out why something went viral, I think it's interesting to note many people gave this video a thumbs-down, rather than a thumbs-up, and that a lot of these comments (from people with names that sound, to me, Chinese, although of course they could be living anywhere) seem very negative: making fun of him. With that in mind, my hypothesis would be young people sharing the video with a comment like: "OMG! Look at this guy reading poetry like a freak! So weird!" or "Wow, you have to be brave to get up and read a poem like this guy did."

    (I speak only of the original, and not the of auto-tuned comedy version)

  17. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

    @Philip Lawton

    What you say goes along pretty well with what respondent #14 in the survey said. Unfortunately, I think that you're both probably right.

  18. Wentao said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 8:16 pm

    I am no expert in medieval poetry but I am pretty sure that if anything like this goes viral on mainland internet, it is not because of appreciation, but of ridicule.

    吟诗 is a completely lost tradition in mainland, at least among younger generations (that dominate the internet). We do memorize and recite a large amount of classical literature in school, but the emphasis is on correction orthography (默写) and certainly not on delivery in speech. Therefore most people find the deliberation and exaggeration laughably ludicrous. To be honest even myself cannot be exempt from this: I cannot appreciate his physical and facial expressions. My first reaction to Leung tongxue's recitation is the same as Lang Lang's over-the-top piano-playing: good to hear but painful to watch.

  19. Wentao said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 8:18 pm

    (Please excuse me for the typos, I'm on my phone.)

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