The 1,000-year-old poem shaking a nation

Smoke signals: Zhang Jie’s ancient lines about book burning are a warning to tyrants.

Can one verse topple a government? One of China’s most powerful tycoons is living in fear today after he was accused of criticising the government by posting a classic poem on social media.

It is often said that there is no money in poetry. This week, Wang Xing learnt that the hard way. The CEO of Meituan watched his net worth plummet by £1.8bn after he posted a poem on his social media platform.

The poem, Zhang Jie’s The Book Burning Pit, is a classic of late Tang dynasty poetry, and sharing it might not seem like a commercial risk. But what mattered was how it was interpreted.

Wang’s company, which owns the largest gig economy platform in China, is currently under investigation for “anti-competitive practices”. The investigation is seen as part of a broader battle between Chinese premier Xi Jinping and the country’s billionaires, including Jack Ma.

So when Wang posted the poem, which describes the attempt of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang to suppress dissent by burning books, interpreters saw it as an attack on the government.

Wang quickly backpedalled, saying he had not intended any criticism. But the market had already punished him for picking a fight they thought he would lose.

Meituan’s shares lost £18bn over two days, almost twice the total GDP of China’s neighbour Mongolia.

The Chinese Communist Party has policed Chinese poetry for a long time. In 1978, after the repression of the Cultural Revolution, the party briefly permitted the posting of letters onto a “democracy wall” in Beijing. Some writers took to posting new literary journals, complete with poems. The party soon put an end to the practice.

One such poem, Bei Dao’s The Answer, became an unofficial anthem for those who defied the government. It includes the lines “If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet count me as one thousand and one.”

Dao was exiled from China in 1989. He is one of many poets around the world who have been seen as a threat by governments. The USSR executed the poet Ossip Mandelstam after he privately circulated a poem mocking the country’s leader, Stalin.

In 1967 a US court introduced one of the Black radical poet Amiri Baraka’s poems as evidence against him in a trial following a riot in New Jersey.

Poets have also been involved in helping countries achieve independence from empires. WB Yeats became a senator in the Irish Free State. Former French colony Senegal was led to independence by a poet, Leopold Senghor. And poets such as Audre Lorde have been vital to the spread of feminist and anti-racist ideas around the world.

Ironically, the last line of the poem Wang posted is modest about the power of poetry. It says that the emperor’s censorship failed because the rebels did not read books.

China’s first communist ruler, Mao Zedong once sent a copy of the poem to another party member to remind him that power did not reside in books. Nevertheless, he and his successors have continued to keep an eye on poets.

Can a poem topple a government?

Poetic licence

Yes, say some. “Poets”, Percy Shelley once wrote, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. They introduce the ideas that change the world. Shelley’s own poem, The Mask of Anarchy, was taken up by England’s Chartist movement for democracy and worker’s rights. The poem’s last line, “Ye are many, they are few” echoes in protests and political campaign slogans. Poems give voice to struggles, which is why tyrants persecute poets.

No say others. The poet WH Auden responded that the unacknowledged legislators of the world are not the poets but the secret police. He preferred to argue that poetry “makes nothing happen”. Poetry does not serve a political end and is better off for that. For a poem to have an impact it has to be taken up by people who will turn it into a slogan and who may even miss the point.

You Decide

  1. If I am upset by something you write, does it matter whether or not you intended the meaning I took from it?
  2. Knowledge of poetry was crucial to getting a job in the Imperial Chinese civil service. Why should the same test be used now?

Activities

  1. After watching the video about the life of a Chinese delivery rider, work in pairs on a poem from the perspective of a rider during the lunchtime rush.
  2. In groups of three, stage a debate where one of you is a poet, one a politician and one a tech billionaire. Then make the case for why you are the most important. Use ideas from the links to support your arguments.

Some People Say...

“Everywhere men speak in whispers. I brood on the uselessness of letters.”

Du Fu (712 – 770), Chinese Poet, trans. Kenneth Rexroth

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that China has one of the oldest and greatest poetic traditions in the world. The first Chinese poet who is named as the author of a poem was Qu Yuan in the third century BC, but hundreds of years before that, there was already an anthology of Chinese poetic classics. This collection was said to be edited by Confucius, who is considered the central philosopher and political thinker in Chinese culture.
What do we not know?
One area of debate is about whether Chinese poetry is particularly hard to translate into English. Because Chinese characters represent concepts rather than sounds, some argue that the effect of written Chinese poetry is impossible to replicate. Famous attempts at translating Chinese poetry, such as those by Ezra Pound are often criticised for misunderstanding crucial aspects of the poems. Others counter that such challenges are the same kinds of difficulties faced when translating anything.

Word Watch

There is no money in poetry
This saying is attributed to Robert Graves, who countered it with the statement: “but there’s no poetry in money either”.
Tang dynasty
This period, from 618 – 907AD is often thought of as a golden age of Chinese civilisation. Arguably China’s two greatest poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, lived and wrote then.
Gig economy
Meituan runs a platform similar to Deliveroo, connecting independent delivery contractors to customers, who can buy countless services. It serves more than 500 million customers.
Jack Ma
Ma is the owner of Ant, another huge tech company. He has largely had to retire from public life after making an enemy of Xi.
Qin Shi Huang
China’s first emperor. The poem by Zhang Jie refers to his attempt to establish control by banning nearly all books in 213BC.
Cultural Revolution
In 1966, Mao Zedong initiated a purge called the cultural revolution. At least 400,000 people were killed over ten years.
Evidence
Baraka was charged with illegal possession of firearms. His poems were read as proof that he was involved in armed violence, while he claimed he was beaten and framed by police.
Irish Free State
The Irish won independence from Britain in 1921. The northern six counties remained in the United Kingdom and the Irish Free State became the modern Republic of Ireland in 1937.

Subjects

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