Journalists at Premier Wen Jiabao's press conference yesterday might have felt that they hadn't done enough homework - they were plugged into political and social affairs all right, but not quite clued into ancient Chinese literature.
Premier Wen Jiabao gestures while answering a question on a press conference after the closing ceremony of the First Session of the 11th National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, March 18, 2008. The annual NPC session closed on Tuesday. [Xinhua]
During the two-hour conference, the premier turned repeatedly to the country's literary canon - prose and poetry penned by historic personages - to make a point.
He opened the question-and-answer session by quoting Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): Action is rooted in the present, judgment will be made by posterity.
As Wen explained to a Hong Kong reporter on how he feels about his second term as premier: He wants to grasp the present and focus his attention on his current term.
To illustrate his resolve to reform the country's political, economic and social system, Wen cited Wang Anshi, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) literary master and reformer: A true reformer should fear neither heaven, nor convention nor gossip.
Despite being misunderstood by many of his contemporaries, Wang remained a staunch champion of social reform throughout his life. The premier, who believes firmly in change, has quoted him on a number of other occasions, almost as if he had found in him his alter ego.
Wen, who is reputed to have a strong memory, quoted ancient poems almost as often as he did facts and figures; and the public, who were watching the live broadcast in their millions, seemed to appreciate his literary bent.
Explanations of ancient poems quoted by the premier soon appeared on the Internet, sometimes in question-and-answer format. More than anything, people seem to have found someone who understands the true value of tradition while at the same time not being afraid to imbue it with new meaning.
The premier was equally felicitous with relatively modern quotes. Answering a question from a Taiwan reporter on cross-Straits relations, Wen cited a poem by Lu Xun (1881-1936), a literary giant: "We remain brothers after a time of adversity. Meeting again we seal our animosity with a smile."
One of the most emotional moments came when Wen reiterated the promise he made five years ago upon becoming premier. It was from a poem by Lin Zexu, a national hero who fought against opium sales by Britain in the 19th century.
Lin was later exiled by the Qing government and before embarking on his long journey, he wrote: "I live and die for the sake of my country, and will never take or evade any responsibility simply because it will do me good or harm."
Wen said: "That was the promise I made five years ago. And I stick to it."