Captain takes poetry to new heights

Captain takes poetry to new heights

Ma Baoli is seen in the cockpit in Dalian, northeast China’s Liaoning Province, Feb. 4, 2023.  (Xinhua/Jin Liangkuai)

GUANGZHOU, Feb. 13 (Xinhua) — On Feb. 4, passengers aboard a China Southern Airlines flight settled into their seats and listened while the captain began a poetic broadcast in honor of spring.

The date was significant, being “Li Chun,” or the Beginning of Spring, the first solar term on the Chinese Lunar Calendar.

Through speakers, Ma Baoli recited several lines from a poem by a Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet: “Spring returns at the end of the year with little frost, plants are the first to know when the season comes. Feeling the growing of life in front of my eyes, the east wind rattles the green water.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking,” said Ma. “This day unveils the prologue of spring, with flights shuttling, high-speed trains speeding, lights glowing and traffic flowing,” he said, besides broadcasting basic flight information.

Ma, a captain with China Southern Airlines, appeared recently in a Chinese poetry competition that was jointly launched by the China Media Group and the Ministry of Education.

On Feb. 3, the 35-year-old won first place in the final, which was broadcast nationwide. Second place was taken by Zhu Yanjun, a migrant worker from northwest China’s Gansu Province.

Ma’s recitations and calmness under pressure aroused widespread respect among netizens.

“After watching the competition, I’ll now be choosing Ma’s airline exclusively to see if I can get onto a flight with the champion pilot and listen to one of his poetic broadcasts,” said a user on China’s Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo.

It’s the first national award that Ma has won in the field of poetry. However, his poetic journey goes back much further.

Ma was born in 1988 in the rural areas in the city of Pizhou, east China’s Jiangsu Province, where his parents eked out a living by farming and fishing.

Growing up in a family of four, he witnessed his father painting pastoral scenes, reciting ancient Chinese poetry and listening to music. Although his father never went beyond junior high school, he attached great importance to Ma’s education.

On the whitewashed walls of their modest brick house, his father drew a leafless tree and a river with a pencil. Ma learned a verse from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) that corresponded with the image: “Withered vines hanging on old branches, returning crows croaking at dusk. A few houses hidden past a narrow bridge, and below the bridge a quiet creek running.”

These early experiences enriched his childhood and served as the foundation for his adult passion for poetry.

Ma Baoli (2nd L) plays an ancient poetry citing game with his children at home in Dalian, northeast China’s Liaoning Province, Feb. 3, 2023.  (Xinhua/Fang Xin)

“When I was a child, our family suffered financial hardships and there were few books in our home,” he said. “However, my father’s wall drawings were like the picture books that the children read today, and they gave me the initial inspiration of the artistic conception and images of Chinese poetry. They piqued my interest.”

During middle school, Ma’s love for traditional Chinese culture became more intense, propelling him to extend his reading list from textbooks to extracurricular books, such as the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” one of the four classical novels in Chinese literature. He also memorized various words and phrases found in the novels.

“Many people find it difficult to recite such expressions, but I know what it feels like to gradually get a thorough understanding of what I read. The number of the poems I know is growing, and it’s getting easier for me to understand and remember,” he said.

In about 2004, he watched an aircraft industry-themed TV series, called “Triumph in the Skies,” and this prompted him to pursue a career as a pilot.

Ma was admitted to Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2007. He joined the Dalian branch of China Southern Airlines after graduation and was promoted to captain in 2016 at the age of 28.

In 2020, he became a flight instructor and he has since accumulated more than 8,400 hours of safe flight.

However, his tight schedule has never eroded his passion for Chinese poetry and culture. Instead, he has integrated this creative content into his daily work.

After broadcasting the basic flight information, he occasionally regales passengers with poetry relating to the places they are flying over. “I want to serve my passengers in a more interesting way.”

Additionally, he has developed a series of lessons called “poetry on safety,” to step up flight safety among other pilots.

“Classical poetry records Chinese people’s work and life, local conditions and customs, ambition and integrity, and historical changes over thousands of years, which gives me continuous nourishment and strength,” he said.

Under his influence, his daughters, aged six and nine, have developed a great interest in poetry and traditional Chinese culture. During his spare time, he transcribes poems onto a chalkboard hung on the wall at home, and they appreciate the text together. The children can now recite quite a few poems, and the younger one participated in the same televised competition as her father.

Ma said he is glad to see his children appreciating the beauty of Chinese poetry, benefiting from this cultural tradition. 

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