Du Fu

BEATS is an advocacy group for British East Asians and South East Asians working in theatre and in the screen industry. British East and South East Asians in arts and culture are underrepresented, marginalised and maligned. It is our mission to hold the entertainment industries to account when they perpetuate racism towards British East Asians and South East Asians by refusing us platforms and representation. 

The documentary Du Fu: China’s Greatest Poet, which was screened by BBC Four on 6 March erased British Chinese from their own culture and denied them an opportunity to be platformed.

The programme was presented by Michael Wood and Du Fu’s poems were read by Sir Ian McKellen. We recognise Michael Wood’s passion for and knowledge of Chinese culture but surely it’s time for people of East Asian heritage to be central in their own culture. The choice of Sir Ian McKellen to read Du Fu’s poems was particularly at odds with the subject matter. We have the utmost respect for Sir Ian, but we have to ask why wasn’t an actor (or actors) of East Asian descent chosen to do this?

The programme makers will no doubt argue that there is no British East Asian actor with the profile of Sir Ian. As Dr. Jami Rogers’ recent research, commissioned by the Equity Race Equality Committee, has revealed, British East and South East Asians are severely underrepresented on UK television. Dr Rogers’ analysis, alongside copious research by Dr. Diana Yeh and other academics such as Dr. Simone Knox and Dr. Ross Forman, proves what British East and Southeast Asian actors already knew: that opportunities are virtually non-existent, and consist of thinly drawn, tokenistic, lazy stereotypes and little else.

Nevertheless, there ARE British East and South East Asian actors with a substantive body of work, including in classical theatre. Why an actor (or multiple actors) from that heritage couldn’t be given this platform instead of being effectively erased from their own culture is difficult to fathom in a progressive publicly subsidised broadcast serving a diverse equal opportunities multicultural Britain. 

We would also question the programme’s title. Whether Du Fu was “China’s Greatest Poet” is of course a matter of opinion but in this context this title tokenises a rich history and culture even more. The diverse and complex place we now know as “China” has produced a myriad of great poets and writers (including a great many female ones) and no doubt will continue to do so. To present one as the uncontested “greatest” is, in our opinion, reductive Orientalism.

British East Asians and South East Asians pay licence fees like everyone else and the BBC has a duty to represent us but instead continues to marginalise our community. With the recent surge in coronavirus-fuelled racism toward East Asian and South East Asians, public backed arts and culture institutions need to meaningfully consider how their actions allow structural racism to persist and fail to address societal prejudice and discrimination.