Chinese Poetry Analysis

Ancient Chinese writing

The earliest known examples of Chinese script were inscribed on tortoise shells and animal bones around 1300 b.c.e., the time of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1066 b.c.e.). These objects are referred to as “oracle bones” because they were employed by shamans, or priests, to predict future events. Later in the Shang, inscriptions were made on bronze vessels. When the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty (1066-221 b.c.e.) succeeded the Shang, its bronzes were also inscribed. A series of hunting songs carved on boulders, erroneously termed “stone drums,” dates to around 400 b.c.e. In 219 b.c.e., by order of Shi Huangdi (Shih Huang Ti), the first emperor of the Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty (221-206 b.c.e.), the Chinese script underwent a standardization process. Two new types of script were devised: One, to be used for formal and official purposes, was called xiao juan (hsiao chüan); the other, intended for general use, was called li shu (clerk’s style). Because it was found that the speediest and most efficient way of writing li shu was with brush and ink, such writing soon developed into an art in itself, the art of calligraphy. By the time of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), calligraphy had achieved equality as an art with painting and poetry. Calligraphy and painting not only were seen as twin arts of the brush but also were intimately associated with poetry. This attitude is shown in the famous remark made by Su Dongpo (Su Tung-p’o) about the great Wang Wei, who was outstanding as a calligrapher, a painter, and a poet: “In his poetry there is painting, and in his painting, poetry.”

The distinctive visual properties of...

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Classical Chinese

By the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 c.e., the literati had so monopolized the Chinese script that it had broken away from the vernacular language and gone its separate way. Soon, it was recognized that writing need not be restricted to utilitarian purposes—that it was capable of producing aesthetic pleasure. This view elevated the status of belles lettres to a high position for the first time in Chinese history. In this way, wenli (wen-li; classical Chinese), or wenyan (wen-yan; literary Chinese), became the only form of the written language used everywhere for all serious purposes, quite divorced from the spoken language. Such written Chinese has no pronunciation of its own but is pronounced in as many different ways as there are dialects. All Chinese poetry considered as literature has been written in wenli, or classical Chinese, from its formulation until the advent of the Chinese literary renaissance in 1917, when it was almost entirely replaced by bai hua (pai hua), or the living language of the people, used for literary as well as practical purposes.

Regardless of the independence of wenli with respect to the sounds that are attached to it, Chinese poetry has its own peculiar sound structure, which includes metrical forms as well as rhyme and other auditory effects. In short, there is a “music” of Chinese poetry that has its own rules of versification relative to genre and purpose. Indeed, this sound structure of Chinese poetry is so peculiar to itself that it is impossible to render in translation.

Chinese versification

Chinese versification is based on two principal auditory qualities that may be attached to the Chinese word-signs. Every character is monosyllabic when sounded, and each monosyllable has a fixed pitch, called a “tone,” which is semantic—that is, gives a clue to its meaning. Hence, generally speaking, the number of syllables in a poetic line is equivalent to the number of characters in that line. The number of characters and their monosyllables, however, is not invariably equal to the number of “words” in a given line, because there are some characters that never appear alone and make up “words” of two or more characters. The regularity or the variation of the number of characters (or syllables) and the regularity or the variation of their fixed tones are the basis of Chinese poetic meter and play the major role in Chinese versification, together with some incidence of rhyme.

During the Tang (T’ang) Dynasty (618-907), classical Chinese had eight tones, which could be reduced to four pairs. By the Yuan (Yüan) Dynasty (1279-1368), the eight tones had been reduced to four. These pitches were distinguished, ranging from one to four, as level (ping, or p’ing), rising (shang), falling (qu, or ch’ü), and entering (ze, or tse). These four tones, however, were arbitrarily reduced for poetic purposes to two, the first being regarded as level while all the rest were simply considered as deflected. For example, in the demanding form of the lüshi (lü-shih; regulated poem), the requirement was that a poem be made up of eight lines of equal length with each line comprising either five or seven characters. The poet had various tone patterns from which he or she could choose, depending on whether five or seven characters was selected for the line length. The first full line might call for the following tone pattern: deflected (but level permitted), deflected, level, level, deflected. Each of the rest of the lines would have its specific tone pattern. Such regulated verse also required a particular rhyme scheme. In addition to varieties of pitch, the poet could use contrasts in the length or quantity of syllables, because the tones differ in length and movement. All this sound variation gives the recitation of a Chinese poem a singsong quality.

Music and folksongs

From the beginning, Chinese poetry has been intimately connected with music. The folk poems collected in the earliest anthology, Shijing (traditionally fifth century b.c.e.; The Book of Songs, 1937), were originally songs meant to be chanted or sung. Some were popular songs, others courtly songs or sacrificial and temple songs. The popular songs were intended to be sung to the accompaniment of music with group dancing. Early commentators on the The Book of Songs were musicians as well as literary critics.

The history of Chinese poetry shows the marked influence of folk songs. The Book of Songs established a poetic tradition that was to be followed by serious poets until the twentieth century. Its typical four-line character poem became an esteemed and standard form. Its tone of refined emotional restraint, its sympathy with human nature, and its general lack of malice toward others became a poetic ideal followed by many later poets. A number of other standard Chinese poetic forms were derived from folk songs, such as the Han yuefu (yüeh-fu), the Tang ci (tz’u), and the Yuan qu (ch’ü). All these standard forms were derived from the songs of the people, but once they became the standard fare of the literati, the words and music were divorced from each other, and the poetry was written to be read rather than sung, with little or no regard for its musical potential. The history of Chinese poetry also shows that once a form became too refined and overly artificial—too far removed from normal reality—poets would return to folk traditions for new inspiration.

The politics of poetry

Certain cultural factors peculiar to China, quite apart from the nature of its language and the relation of that language to the other arts, have also shaped Chinese poetry. Although philosophy and religion have played important roles (particularly Confucianism, but also Daoism and Buddhism), perhaps the major role has been played by government. From the time of the early Zhou Dynasty, the Chinese state took a decided interest in poetry. The government realized that the popular songs of the people could serve as an index to the ways in which the people felt about the government and their lives under it. Rulers or their emissaries would travel over the feudal states collecting popular songs and their musical scores. A department of music called the Yuefu (Yüeh-fu; “music bureau”) was established for this purpose. Although it languished for a time, it was revived by Wudi, the emperor, in 125 b.c.e. Thus, folk poems were written down and preserved, inspiring sophisticated poets to imitate them in their own work.

Because the difficulty of the Chinese written script had led to the formation of a scholar class from whose ranks the government was obliged to select its officials, teachers such as the great Confucius (551-479 b.c.e.) were engaged primarily in educating and training students as prospective government servants. Confucius believed that the study of poetry had an important role in the development of moral character, a prerequisite of just and efficient government. For this reason, he selected from the government collections of the feudal states the poems that...

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Grammar and syntax

The grammar and syntax of Chinese have also played their part in the shaping of China’s poetry. Some writers have declared that the Chinese language has no grammar and that its words may serve as any part of speech. Neither of these allegations is correct. Although Chinese has no inflection of number, case, person, tense, or gender—and more words in Chinese than in English have multiple functions—Chinese verbs do have aspects, and some words are normally nouns, whereas others are normally verbs. Although the basic pattern of the Chinese sentence is subject followed by predicate, the Chinese “subject” is the topic of the sentence, not necessarily the agent that performs the action of the verb. In addition, the subject or...

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Zhou Dynasty (1066-221 b.c.e.)

The earliest great monument of Chinese poetry is The Book of Songs, an anthology of folk poems selected and edited by Confucius. The poems themselves come from the earlier period of the Zhou Dynasty, from between 1000 and 700 b.c.e. Their collection and preservation by Confucius, China’s greatest teacher, shows the importance he attached to the study of poetry, which he believed was essential to the proper moral development of man, and since his time, The Book of Songs has been regarded as one of the great classics of Chinese literature.

The Book of Songs not only possesses great aesthetic value but also is an important historical document that strongly...

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Qin and Han Dynasties (221 b.c.e.-220 c.e.)

A struggle for power went on among the feudal states during what is called the Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.). This struggle was concluded when the state of Qin succeeded in crushing all opponents to form the first unified empire in Chinese history. Prince Zheng of Qin, who ascended the throne in 221 b.c.e. as Shi Huangdi, was a man of authoritarian mold: During his reign, all literature of which he disapproved was burned, and the Chinese script was standardized.

The earliest examples of Qin poems appear in The Book of Songs, but they do not differ significantly from the rest of the poetry in the collection. Other specimens of Qin poetry appear...

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Six Dynasties and Sui Dynasty (220-618 c.e.)

With the end of the Han Dynasty, China again lapsed into disunity. Three independent kingdoms struggled with one another for power. Wei had retained much of the power it had usurped from Han, but soon it was challenged by Shu and Wu. This period of political contention is known as the Three Kingdoms period (220-265). The powerful house of Jin then arose and eliminated both Shu and Wu to found the Jin (Chin) Dynasty (265-419). By 420, China had divided itself into the South and North Dynasties; this division lasted until 589. Finally, the Sui Dynasty took over and ruled China until 618.

Despite the political confusion and social unrest resulting from the power struggles of the Six Dynasties period (220-588

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Tang and Five Dynasties (618-960)

The Tang Dynasty, founded by Li Yuan (Li Yüan) after he crushed the Sui regime, was the golden age of Chinese poetry. Li Yuan reigned as Gaozu (Kao Tsu), then voluntarily stepped down in 626 in favor of his second son, Li Shimin (Li Shih-min), who reigned as Taizong (T’ai Tsung) and was a great patron of literature. Under these rulers and their successors, a new system of land tenure was put into effect, and the competitive trade that developed on a wide scale produced a new social class, the urban bourgeoisie. Changes also took place in the realms of philosophy, religion, the arts, and literature. Orthodox Confucianism was modified by the inclusion of mystical elements, new religions such as Nestorian Christianity came on the...

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Other Tang poets

Of the other major Tang poets, Bo Juyi stands above the rest. A very successful government official, he rose to high rank under Xuanzong. He was a leader in the development of the long narrative poem called the xin yuefu (hsin yüeh-fu; “new lyric ballad”). Despite their length, his two poems “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” and “Song of the Lute” were in their day extremely popular with both commoner and aristocrat. Wang Wei, poet, painter, calligrapher, and musician, followed a political career. His devotion to the Chan (Japanese Zen) school of Buddhism is evident in both his painting and his poetry. He was noted for his mastery of the jueju form. Han Yu was a highly successful government...

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Song Dynasty (960-1279)

Under Emperor Tai Zu (T’ai Tsu), China became an empire again, with its capital at Kaifeng (K’ai-feng, then called Pien-ching, or Bianjing), just south of the Yellow River in East Central China. In 1126, the Jin Empire invaded the North China Plain, captured Kaifeng, and held the emperor prisoner. The Chinese court fled southward to establish a new capital at Hang (present Hangchow) on the lower Yanzi Plain, not far from the East China Sea. Hence, the Song is divisible into the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Southern Song (1127-1279).

Although the Song was a period of turmoil, warfare, and chaos, in many ways it was also an age of great culture and refinement. The dynasty is noted for its landscape painters as...

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Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)

The ruling class of the Southern Song had believed in negotiation, appeasement, and opportunistic alliances rather than an aggressive foreign policy and a strong national defense. Militarily weak, its treasury exhausted by the payment of exorbitant tribute, the government sought an alliance with the Mongols against their common enemy, the Jin Tartars. This policy backfired when Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, suddenly grown powerful, blatantly annexed China to the Mongol Empire. The Chinese people awakened from their long dream to find themselves under the heel of a foreign conqueror.

To the imperialistic Mongols, China was simply a colony for exploitation. Ignoring Chinese tradition and customs, they did...

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Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

The last years of the Yuan Dynasty were plagued by rebellions, the work of military adventurers and quasi-religious leaders; behind the scenes were the wealthy gentry, ambitious for political power. A Buddhist monk named Zhu Yuanzhang (Chu Yüan-chang), crafty and ruthless, was able to best all opponents and oust the Mongols at the same time. He became the founder of the Ming Dynasty and reigned as Hongwu (Hung Wu) from 1368 to 1399. An absolute monarch, he tightened the hold of the government on the everyday life of the nation.

Free of Mongol domination, the Chinese people welcomed native rule and reacted strongly against foreign practices. The emperor himself led this pro-Chinese movement by reviving ancient Chinese...

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Barnstone, Tony, and Chou Ping, eds. The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, The Full 3,000-Year Tradition. New York: Anchor Books, 2004. This massive anthology is an excellent source for the study of Chinese poetry, collecting more than six hundred poems written over the past three thousand years.

Birrell, Anne, trans. Chinese Love Poetry: New Songs from a Jade Terrace, a Medieval Anthology. 2d ed. London: Penguin, 1995. Collects poems from the Chinese medieval period; Birrell adds an introduction, notes, and a map.

Cai, Zong-qi, ed. How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided...

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Qing (or Manchu) Dynasty (1644-1911)

In 1644, China was invaded by the Manchus, a nomadic Mongolian people. Unlike the Mongols, the Manchus were interested in China for its own sake, not merely as a colony to be exploited. They admired Chinese culture and gradually became completely assimilated, losing their own cultural distinctiveness. The second Qing emperor, Kangxi (Ka’ang Hsi), was not only a strong military leader and an able administrator but also a scholar and a lover of the arts and literature. From an early age, he had loved the Chinese language, Chinese literature, and Confucian philosophy. He encouraged Chinese scholarship to such a degree that scholarship became the dominating force of his time. Because of him, a great dictionary of more than forty...

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Post-Qing Period (1911-1949)

In 1905, the civil-service examination system was abolished, and modern education along Western lines was introduced into China. Large numbers of students went abroad to study—to Japan, to North America, and to Europe. Depending on where they studied, they absorbed the influences of various foreign authors. They returned to their homeland with all sorts of Western ideas. In 1917, Hu Shi (Hu Shih), a philosopher trained in the United States, and Chen Duxiu (Ch’en Tu-hsiu) launched a radical literary movement advocating that literature be written exclusively in bai hua, the vernacular, and no longer in wenli, or classical Chinese. Furthermore, old genres, diction, and themes were to be abandoned, and a new value...

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The Maoist Era (1949-1976)

Though his regime was harshly repressive of poetic creativity, Mao himself fancied his own poetic abilities and took a general interest in the state of Chinese poetry. The delicacy, precision, and suggestiveness of traditional Chinese poetry made an uneasy fit with the sloganeering and propaganda of the Maoist belief system, but Mao nonetheless produced many fervid poems that inevitably received much comment from Chinese literary organs. In Maoist ideology, the cultural sphere was an important vehicle for disseminating the ideology of the state. However, the modernist poets of the Guomindang era were not entirely silenced under Mao. Guo Moruo (1892-1978), who wrote in free verse, bridged several generations and was a living link...

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The Post-Mao Era

The literary generation immediately following the Cultural Revolution produced what is known as scar literature (shanghen wenxue), whose main purpose was to provide a testimony to the ravages of the immediate past. Scar literature emerged particularly after the death of Mao in 1976 and after the April 5, 1976, protests occasioned by the death of Mao’s colleague Zhou Enlai. Although, as far as politically possible, it excoriated the crimes of the government, scar literature was still overwhelmingly public in orientation, and it continued, if perhaps only in the mode of trauma, the idea that literature is a rendition of external reality.

Around 1978, several poets decided to go a step further than scar...

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