~ Chinese ~

News round-up: FACT symposium, Tang Dynasty poetry films and more

FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), which describes itself as “the UK’s leading media arts centre, based in Liverpool,” will be hosting a day-long symposium on February 5: Send and Receive – Poetry, Film and Technology in the 21st Century. I’m not sure why it’s scheduled for a weekday rather than the weekend, but it certainly sounds interesting. The topic is somewhat reminiscent of the colloquium discussion at the most recent ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. Hopefully they will avoid some of the pitfalls we ran into there by defining their terms (such as “platform”) a bit more clearly.

FACT, in association with the University of Liverpool, PoetryFilm and The Poetry Society, is pleased to invite you to imagine the future of poetry at our symposium Send & Receive: Poetry, Film & Technology in the 21st Century. With presentations from artists, scientists and thought leaders, the day examines innovative platforms involved in contemporary poetic practices.

How has the digital age changed the way in which poetry is written, performed, communicated and received? Further exploring themes demonstrated in Torque Symposium: An act of Reading, the day will focus on the prevalent difficulties, dialogues and collaborative possibilities that new technological avenues have revealed in the world of poetry.

The symposium will include three distinct discussion areas, with audiences invited to join facilitated discussions after each segment. Confirmed speakers include George Szirtes (poet and translator), Deryn Rees Jones (poet and director of Centre for New and International Writing), Zata Kitowski (Director PoetryFilm), Marco Bertamini and Georg Meyer (Visual Perception Labs UoL), Suzie Hanna (animator) and Jason Nelson (hypermedia poet and artist, Australia).

More information TBA soon.


A news story from October, recently posted to the ZEBRA Facebook group by Thomas Zandegiacomo Del Bel, also caught my attention this week, about a very ambitious plan by CCTV and the China Central Newreels Corporation to make 108 short films based on Tang Dynasty poems. I can’t embed the English-language newscast video here; click through for that, because it includes brief scenes from a couple of the films. Here’s a bit of the transcript:

“I think film communicates Chinese traditional culture in a very powerful and vivid way. I think it will really help young people appreciate the beauty of Chinese poetry,” said President of Beijing Film Academy Zhang Huijun.

The production team carefully selected 108 poems to be adapted into short films. It explores the works through story-telling and recreating the life of the time. Each film is about 15 minutes long and involves top Chinese actors and directors.

“We selected the best poems. We also selected them based on whether it is easy to make them into a story. That is vital for the short film,” said deputy director of China Central Television Gao Feng.

The initiative aims to promote China’s rich heritage in literature, especially among the younger generation. 70 of the total 108 short films have already been completed, with the rest scheduled to be finished before the end of this year.

The organizers have also invited 108 young singers to perform the theme songs for the films. They are also planning to produce picture-story books based on the poems. The goal is to eventually promote the entire collection of poems from the Tang dynasty.

By “the entire collection,” I suppose they are are referring to the famous and ubiquitous anthology of 300 Tang poems, though that would of course involve also making films out of short lyrical poems lacking in strong narrative elements.

I must say the emphasis on story-telling, popular appeal, and “recreating the life of the time” worries me. I don’t want to pass judgement before seeing any of the films, but experience with big-budget poetry films made elsewhere makes me fear that these films will add little or nothing to the poems and risk achieving the opposite of the project’s stated goal: rather than making poetry more appealing, they will communicate the message that it needs to be sexed up and turned into glossy period drama in order to hold anyone’s attention.

I hope I’m wrong, and that these films do challenge audiences and help translate ancient poems into a new idiom. Because Classical Chinese texts do in fact need to be translated in some way in order to be comprehensible to a speaker of a modern Chinese language such as Mandarin. It’s easy to see how film could assist in that regard, because the Chinese characters are a strong bridge to the ancient language. Calligraphy or type animations similar to what Nissmah Roshdy did with classical Arabic in The Dice Player could help bring the texts across without resorting to actual translation into Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. Alternatively or in addition, subtitling into modern languages could be used with the original language in the voiceover. Traditional poetry recitation, a stylized and beautiful art, could be incorporated into the soundtracks.

As for the imagery, I do think it’s a mistake to leave out all contemporary references, which might well serve as further bridges, adding depth and nuance. One element of Classical Chinese poetry that’s in danger of being lost even to modern Chinese intellectuals is their wealth of allusions to older poems and other texts — the vast libraries that were committed to memory under the Confucian educational system. I wonder if it might not be possible to somehow work a few of those allusions in through film collage techniques? At the very least, filmmakers could strive for a roughly equivalent level of allusive depth by incorporating references to well-known movies, pop songs and the like. I’m simply worried that too conservative an approach risks dishonoring the spirit of the texts. It would be as if Tang Dynasty poets composed only gushi and never experimented with the then-daring jintishi. If they’d been that allergic to innovation, we wouldn’t still be reading their poems today.


The January issue of Poetry brings news of a poetry film still in production, an English-language documentary tentatively titled Las Chavas focusing on girls on a Honduran orphanage who are learning to write poetry in English and Spanish, with the aid of an American Episcopal priest and the poet Richard Blanco. A brief essay is followed by a selection of the girls’ poems. Check it out. Honduras has always punched well above its weight where poetry is concerned, so I’ll be looking forward to the film.


The Athens-based collective + the Institute [for Experimental Arts], sponsors of the annual International Film Poetry Festival, have launched a new website to replace their old Blogspot site. It’s certainly easier to navigate, not to mention better looking. The Festivals link in the header takes one to a gallery-style archive of posts about the poetry film festival.