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Poetry Guide: Chinese Poetry

"Quatrain on Heavenly Mountain" by Emperor Gaozong "Quatrain on Heavenly Mountain" by Emperor Gaozong

Chinese poetry can be divided into three main periods: the early period, characterised by folk songs in simple, repetitive forms; the classical period from the Han dynasty to the fall of the Qing dynasty, in which a number of different forms were developed; and the modern period of Westernised free verse.

Early poetry

The Shi Jing (literally "Classic of Poetry", also called "Book of Songs") was the first major collection of Chinese poems, collecting both aristocratic poems (Odes) and more rustic poetry, probably derived from folksongs (Songs).

A second, more lyrical and romantic anthology was the Chuci (楚辭 Songs of Chu), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semilegendary Qu Yuan (ca. 340-278 B.C.) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century B.C.).

Classical poetry

During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), the Chu lyrics evolved into the fu (賦), a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers.

From the Han dynasty onwards, a process similar to the origins of the Shi Jing produced the yue fu poems. Again, these were song lyrics, including original folk songs, court imitations and versions by known poets (the best known of the latter being those of Li Bai).

From the second century AD, the yue fu began to develop into shi or classical poetry- the form which was to dominate Chinese poetry until the modern era. These poems have five or seven character lines, with a caesura before the last three characters of each line. They are divided into the original gushi (old poems) and jintishi, a stricter form developed in the Tang dynasty with rules governing tone patterns and the structure of the content. The greatest writers of gushi and jintishi are often held to be Li Bai and Du Fu respectively.

Towards the end of the Tang dynasty, the ci lyric became more popular. Most closely associated with the Song dynasty, ci most often expressed feelings of desire, often in an adopted persona, but the greatest exponents of the form (such as Li Houzhu and Su Shi) used it to address a wide range of topics.

As the ci gradually became more literary and artificial after Song times, the san qu, a freer form, based on new popular songs, developed. The use of san qu songs in drama marked an important step in the development of vernacular literature.

Later classical poetry

After the Song dynasty, both shi poems and lyrics continued to be composed until the end of the imperial period, and to a lesser extent to this day. However, for a number of reasons, these works have always been less highly regarded than those of the Tang dynasty in particular. Firstly, Chinese literary culture remained in awe of its predecessors: in a self-fulfilling prophecy, writers and readers both expected that new works would not bear comparison with the earlier masters. Secondly, the most common response of these later poets to the tradition which they had inherited was to produce work which was ever more refined and allusive; the resulting poems tend to seem precious or just obscure to modern readers. Thirdly, the increase in population, expansion of literacy, wider dissemination of works through printing and more complete archiving vastly increased the volume of work to consider and made it difficult to identify and properly evaluate those good pieces which were produced. Finally, this period saw the rise of vernacular literature, particularly drama and novels, which increasingly became the main means of cultural expression.

Modern poetry

Modern Chinese poems (新詩, vers libre) usually do not follow any prescribed pattern. Poetry was revolutionized after the May Fourth Movement when writers try to use vernacular styles closer to what was being spoken rather than previously prescribed forms. Early twentieth-century poets like Xu Zhimo, Guo Moruo and Wen Yiduo sought to break Chinese poetry from past conventions by adopting Western models; for example Xu consciously follows the style of the Romantic poets with end-rhymes.

In the post-revolutionary Communist era, poets like Ai Qing used more liberal running lines and direct diction, which were vastly popular and widely imitated.

In the contemporary poetic scene, the most important and influential poets are the group known as Misty Poets, who use allusion and hermetic references. The most important Misty Poets include Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Duo Duo, and Yang Lian were all exiled after the Tiananmen Square Massacre.


Further reading

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