A group of young Hong Kong poetry fans are adding a modern touch to classical poems, writes Lai Ying-kit
Cheung Ka-ka only uses a small part of her notebook to jot things down in class. She devotes most of the pages to scribbling short, incomplete sentences about her thoughts on daily life.
The fragmented lines, she says, will be useful one day. Cheung, a first-year student at City University, is a member of a poetry group that writes Chinese poems using classic formats that date back more than 1,000 years.
Every month, Xinsong Poetry members meet after class to share their latest works and discuss the literary form that's close to their hearts. At a recent meeting, six students each presented an ode to a historical figure of their choice. They talked about how they came up with their ideas. Cheung, who has just started writing classical poetry, wrote a piece on Mulan.
Another student, Liu Wai-hung, used his poem to discuss the roller-coaster career of Han Xin. Han was a talented general who led a series of military campaigns central to the founding of the Han dynasty. The general's career came to a tragic end when the empress found him to be a threat. She accused him of treason and executed him.
'I was saddened by Han Xin's story. He might have avoided his tragic death if he had listened to his adviser and rebelled against the emperor. But he didn't,' Liu says.
For writers like Cheung, who are new to classical poetry, the strict rules on its form are the most challenging.
'Sometimes I spend a long time thinking of just one word to fit the rhythm,' she says. 'I have also extensively read works from those times so I can follow the style and choice of words.'
The poetic forms which the group follows have been around for thousands of years. They were most popular during the Tang dynasty. Many famous poets, such as Li Bai and Tu Fu, emerged from that era.
The best-known poetry form from that time is Shi, which comprises lines of five or seven characters. The poems can be four or eight lines.
'The most difficult part is that sentences have to rhyme at certain intervals in the last words, while the intonation of each character in a sentence must be in line with a certain format,' said student poet Eva Yu Kam-fa, who has been writing classical poems for three years.
But these Cantonese-speaking students have an advantage over Putonghua speakers when it comes to writing such poems. Classical poems sound more realistic in Cantonese, which is more similar to the dialect spoken during the Tang dynasty.
Despite having to follow strict forms and building a vast bank of ancient words, the students say classical poetry is much more attractive compared to prose and novels.
Cheung says: 'There's beauty in the symmetry of classical poems. When you read it aloud, you can sense the unique rhythm. You cannot find this in other literary forms.'
Though the group's aim is to retain the flair of classical poetry, they are adding a modern touch by injecting a dose of daily life into it.
In the past year, they have written poems on Christmas celebrations, the cyber world and local current affairs.
'Chinese poetry allows us to express our feelings. Just because it's an ancient literary form doesn't mean we can't write about modern topics,' Cheung adds.