On November 6, the basement of Northwest Labs was bustling with a crowd of student performers eager to participate in the second annual Chinese Poetry Recitation Competition. The contest, organized by the Chinese Language Program within Harvard’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, brought together students from basic, intermediate, and advanced courses to engage with traditional and contemporary verse. This year’s competition featured a dazzling display of PowerPoint slides complete with musical accompaniment introducing categories and poems. As faculty members trickled into the auditorium, students busied themselves with last-minute preparations, rehearsing timing, enunciation, and emotive gesturing before taking to the stage.
With a decorative sweep of a pen brush on the auditorium screen to welcome the audience, the contest began promptly at 3:30 p.m. MCs Douglas Muhlestein and Jasmine Griffin, fourth year advanced-level students in the Chinese Language Program, delighted audience members with enthusiastic opening remarks, witticisms, and announcements throughout the performances. Professors David Wang, Mark Elliott, Wai-yee Li, Jennifer Liu, and Xiaofei Tian comprised the panel of judges and ranked the presentations based on skill in memorization, pronunciation, and energy. Recitations ranged from contemplative meditations on nature to verses penned by love-struck authors. Advanced students were asked to explain the meaning behind their poems and responded with lively anecdotes detailing why certain pieces were chosen. Elliott noted, “[the advanced students’] ability to extemporize in Chinese and summarize the gist of their poems, sometimes in just one line, was both inspiring and entertaining.”