A new website which features an interactive map showing where and when famous Chinese poets from the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties lived has taken the Internet by storm.
Created by several Chinese historians, the Poet Life Map received more than 2.2 million views in the two days after its launch at the end of March.
"I think it's brilliant. What a shame that I discovered that many Tang poets had been to more places than I have," Tan Hao, a Shanghai-based media worker, told the Global Times on Wednesday.
Look to the past
"Our goal is to create a chronological and geographical literature map for teaching and research purposes," Wang Zhaopeng, a professor at the South-Central University for Nationalities and head of the project, told news website The Paper on Monday.
For researchers of literature or history, a major challenge they face is that information about ancient poets or poetry as related to a particular place tends to be scattered among countless text materials.
With this map, researchers can select a particular city or region and see a list of all the great poets and writers who once lived there as well as information concerning what works they wrote during their stay there.
Yu Shicun, a Beijing-based Chinese culture scholar, told the Global Times on Thursday that he once proposed a similar idea, so he was surprised that someone actually managed to make it a reality.
"They have really paid attention to detail. It's perfect," Yu said.
According to Yu, in addition to helping Chinese scholars with their research, the map can also help give foreigners a better understanding of China.
"A few years ago, when I was chatting with a Vatican bishop, he told me that he thought modern Shanghai looks the same as New York; that it lacked any Chinese characteristics," Yu said.
"Actually, most Chinese cities now have been modernized in a very similar way. This type of map can actually help when it comes to introducing the spirit of these cities by helping foreigners realize that the spirit of China isn't how much cement we have used, but rather the achievements and stories of our ancestors."
Wang explained that the project took five years and involved over 100 participants.
"Now that we've made some progress, I think the map will not only prove useful for research but also help trigger people's interest in ancient Chinese poetry," Wang said.
Information at a click
Heading to the website (http://sou-yun.com/poetlifemap.html), one can find a map of China covered in markers. Clicking on a particular marker will reveal a text box with information about the region's poetry history.
For example, clicking on Hangzhou in East China's Zhejiang Province reveals that "from 667 to 1315, a total of 93 poets once lived here and 1,841 poems were written here."
Additionally, the map keeps track of when a particular poet stayed in the place and at what age, such as "731, Du Fu [712-770], 19 years old" for Hangzhou.
For the sake of convenience, a list of China's most famous poets and the dates of their birth and death is on the left side of the map. Clicking on one of these names allows users to see the path they traveled across China during their lifetime. Clicking on a location reveals the works the poets wrote there.
"Currently we only have information on 150 poets from the Tang and Song dynasties. Over time we plan to add an additional 500 poets," said Wang.
Talking about what inspired him and his team to create the map, Wang recalled that while attending an academic conference, senior academician, Xiao Peng, asked the group, "Could we create a map of ancient Chinese poets and see what places they liked the most?" Although the question was meant in jest, Wang found the concept extremely interesting.
"You can feel how inconvenient it is when carrying out research. To understand a poet's life story, you have to search historical materials and at the same time pour through historical maps. I thought it was a great idea to combine them into one," Wang noted.
Following the footsteps
Wang explained that in addition to adding more poets to the website, he also has more ideas about how to present the information.
His team is currently working to add historical maps in order to help users better understand the geography that existed during a poet's lifetime. In addition, they are planning on expanding information beyond poets to other literati who lived prior to the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC) and during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, as well as modern times.
"The map can also provide inspiration for travelers who want to go on a cultural vacation," Wang said, explaining that vacationers can use the map to follow in the footsteps of their favorite poets or writers, even if they went overseas.
"In the future, users will be able to follow Lu Xun to Japan and follow Ba Jin to France," Wang said.
Lu (1881-1936) and Ba (1904-2005) are both leading figures in contemporary Chinese literature history.