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Chinese Poetry

Translated by Dylan W.H. Sung from the Japanese source,
pages 1246-1251 of the
This translation is copyrighted © Dylan W.H. Sung 1998.

The History of Chinese Poetry

Chinese poetry ( ) certainly has one of the longest continuous histories of any written language on Earth, outstanding both with quality, quantity and form.

Roughly around the 20th Century BC, there was an already magnificent corpus of poetry being sung. The very earliest poems that survive to this day, are found in the Shi1 Jing1 ( ), being sung during approximately the Second Millenium BC until the 6th Century BC, had already been collected into an anthology. 305 chapters of verse have been retained. They were sung in the Yellow River (Huang2 He2 ) Basin of China as popular songs. Most had four characters per line as a basic meter (Si2 Yan2 ), which were repeated over again giving an impression of a simplistic appearance, but allowing for easy chanting.

The next form to become established is found in Chu3 Ci2 ( ), an anthology of ballads written along YangTze River (Chang2 Jiang1 ) in what is now the northern Hunan geographical region. It is mostly exemplified by the writings of the Prince and poet of the Kingdom of Chu (Chu3 Guo2 ), Qu1 Yuan2 ( ), during the historical period known as the Warring States 403-221 BC. At this time, three characters per line as the basis (San1 Yan2 ) was popularly used for long poetical narrative, being reflected in Northern and Southern compositions, its contents holding illusory qualities. It flourished about the 4th Century BC until Early Han (Qian2 Han4 ) nearly two hundred years later.

From the end of Early Han, around the 1st Century BC, a new metrical form of five characters per line (Wu3 Yan2 ) poetry was established, and lasted until the waning years of Later Han (Hou4 Han4 ) in the reign of Jian4 An1 ( ) 214-221AD. The turbulence gave rise to a welcomed opportunity for change. From then on, rhetoric in poetry was cultivatied and matured into the mainstream literary styles.

One consequence of the eloquent use of rhetoric in the poetry was that, when sung and heard, it was pleasing to the overall senses. This movement gave rise to the beginning of the modern poetical form. In addition, the seven character per line poetical meter (Qi1 Yan2 ) began to rise to popularity by the end of the Six Kingdoms (Liu4 Chao2 period. (Six character per line poetry (Liu4 Yan2 )surving is rare. A few examples by Wang2 Wei3 () are extant.)

Post Sui (Sui2 Chao2 ) reunification, brings us to the beginning of Tang2 Chao2 ( ) in the early Eigth Century, when the forms Jue2 Ju4 ( ), Lü4 Shi1 ( ) became fixed; seven character per line verse and five character per line verse shoulder most of the arrangements, here we arrive at all the Chinese Poetical forms and so order them logically. From Tang onwards, all the forms of poetical forms have been inherited. All suceeding dynastic periods cultivated these special forms.

Poetical Form

We can now summarise the categorisation of poetical forms existing in the Tang Dynasty.

All Poetic Styles
Modern Poetic FormAncient Poetic Form
Lü4 Shi1
Jue2 Ju4
Gu3 Shi1
Pai2 Lü4
Ba1 Ju4
Si4 Ju4
Shi2 Ju4
10 or more
(increasing as even number of)
lines in length
8 lines in length4 lines in length bearing in mind that these were
mainly sung, they are free from any
enforced number of lines in length

In all, there are six main categories, , , the two types of , , and . So, Jue Ju and Lü Shi became rigid forms during the Tang Dynasty, and together they have become known as the Modern Poetic Style.

1. Jue Ju

Around the end of Western Jin ( ) in the latter 3rd Century AD, five syllable poems of four lines ( ) flourished. Within four to five centuries, it was possible for suggestively erotic poetic themes or Yan Ye( ) such as JiYeGe and its genre, to appear. Seven syllable Jue Ju ( ) appeared at the beginning of the Tang era, by the middle of the Eigth Century, it had become fundamental to poetic works.

At the time around the end of Eastern Jin (late Fourth Century in JiangNan , modern China) ZiYeGe is a song sung about a girl who is called ZiYe. The above Chinese character poem is roughly translated as:

late into the day, her locks are uncombed
strands of hair cover her shoulders
relaxed atop her gentleman's knees
where then, would she be unpitied?

However they may even be thought coquettish. In Japan, dodo-itsu , and ha-uta , are purposeful terms used.

Resent on the Jade Stairway
by Xiè Tiâo, Southern Qí 479-520 AD

as evening's mansions draws its pearly curtains
a wandering firefly catches its breath again to flutter to and fro
the long night has sealed her gauze like dress
the onlooker wonders: what is the use of all this?

The antics of the wandering firefly which pauses now and then for breath, symbolises a palace maiden heavily breathing, in her heart, she resents being a tool just to be used. Even a hundred years later, ZeYeGe's erotic themes are still favoured. Within popular ballads, there was an expansion seen in elegant and refined poetical genres.

Three Nights Searching for Lî Jiû's Village
by Cháng Jiàn, Mid Tang 608-907, c. 800 AD

The rain has ceased where the Willows stand, from the quay we sail east
Calmly for 3 days the little boat has rocked and swayed along
His home and hearth stands beside the bank of blooming peach blossoms
We arrive before it by the flowing waters of the stream

Under the old lunar calendar, the third day of the third lunar month, (also known as Shang Si4), was when the poet was looking for his friend's home. The darkness of the rain has subsided over the willow's luxuriance beside the quayside where the small boat sets sail eastwards. Calmly for a three day period, the small boat rocks and sways as it goes along. His friend's home will be besides the riverbank where the peach blossoms flower. The poet is brought directly to the front door by the flowing steam.

By the middle of the Eighth Century, the seven syllables per line Jue Ju ( ) was the most popular style to compose in.

Forever peaceful three days refers to the a period of reign in Eastern Jin ( ), (approximately the middle of the Fourth Century), where Wang Xi Zhi's ( ) and contemporaries of the type works, gathered; the "Beginning of Late Spring of the Ninth Year of Yong3 He2 Reign" was the setting for the peaceful three day period.

Also, the bank of peach blossoms, and flowing waters, alludes to Eastern Jin's (at the beginning of the fifth century) Tao2 Yuan1 Ming2 's ( ) Tao2 Hua1 Yuan2 Ji4 ( ), leaving the bustle of everyday life and travelling to the image of the country village scene. These provided authentic precendents taking previous known works and terminology, and expanding it within the poem, adding abundant layers of meaning. Achieving an increase of two characters per line poetry, from five character per line poetry, greatly increased the world of poetry.

Four Line Poetry - Qi3 Cheng2 Zhuan3 Jie2

When four characters per line became the form of Jue2 Ju4, Qi3 Cheng2 Zhuan3 Jie2 , literally, beginning, development, returning and finishing (the names given to the four lines respectively) became the established construction method for the majority of works. We shall explain the form using the following example:

A Spring Morning
Written in the Mid Tang phase by Meng4 Hao4 Ran2

Springtime! Unable to sleep in the morning
Everywhere the call of birds are heard
All the night long the sound of wind and rain
How many blooms have fallen?

The beginning phrase talks about the feelings whilst trying to doze in Spring, in the morning unable to feel refreshed, is the jist of the opening. The developing phrase tells of the permeating birdsong from all around, which expands the reasoning for the mood set in the opening phrase. The returning phrase is better thought of as a contrast, during the night the wind blew and it rained, and this morning it has cleared.

The opening and developing phrases have a central theme or atmosphere of light and brightness connected to the morning. The third phrase, (the turning) or contrast to the poem's start, builds upon this by referring to the previous Night of Wind and Rain, which is, an unexpected change to a darker mood. So, following this analysis, the concluding phrase ponders how many flowers have had its petals dislodged this morning within the garden, which not only links the petal's dispersal to the previous night's storm in the contrasting phrase, but also returns us to the bright mood generated in the opening and developing phrases.

In this way, after reciting the opening scene, where it then undergoes a stage of development; the scene shifts in the contrast, the lastly, the whole poem is brought to a conclusion, which is aptly described by the method of Qi3 Cheng2 Zhuan3 Jie2 .

The composing of four syllable per line poetry moreover, is effective at imparting a sense of the experiences of things, by considering the scene.

Sorry folks, this is going to remain unfinished for a long time...

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This page was created on Thursday 12th February 1998
and last updated Friday 20.2.1998.

© Dylan W.H.S. 1996-1998
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