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Poetry Guide: Shi

Shi (詩) is the Chinese word for "poem "; it can also be used to mean Chinese poetry other than lyrics, or (most commonly) the classical form of poetry developed in the late Han dynasty and which reached its zenith in the Tang dynasty.


From the 2nd century AD, the yue fu began to develop into shi - the form which was to dominate Chinese poetry until the modern era. The writers of these poems took the five character line of the yue fu and used it to express more complex ideas. The shi poem was generally an expression of the poet's own persona rather than the adopted characters of the yue fu; many were romantic nature poems heavily influenced by Taoism. A later variant, the seven-character line, expanded the possibilities of the form yet further. In each case, there is a caesura before the last three characters of each line, producing groupings of two and three or four and three characters respectively.


The term gushi (古詩 "old poems") can refer either to the first, mostly anonymous shi poems, or more generally to the poems written in the same form by later poets. Gushi in this latter sense are defined essentially by what they are not: i.e., they are not jintishi (regulated verse). The writer of gushi was under no formal constraints other than line length and rhyme (in every second line). The form was therefore favoured for narrative works and by writers seeking a relaxed or imaginative style; Li Bai is the most prominent of these, but most major poets wrote significant gushi.


Jintishi, (近體詩) or regulated verse, developed from the 5th century onwards. By the Tang dynasty, a series of set tonal patterns had been developed, which were intended to ensure a balance between the four tones of classical Chinese in each couplet : the level tone, and the three deflected tones (rising, falling and entering). The Tang dynasty was the high point of the jintishi. Wang Wei and Cui Hao were notable pioneers of the form, while Du Fu was its most accomplished exponent.

The basic form of jintishi was the lüshi (律詩), with eight lines. In addition to the tonal constraints, this form required parallelism between the lines in the second and third couplets. The lines in these couplets had to contain contrasting content, with the words in each line in the same grammatical relationship.

Another form was the jueju or quatrain (絕詩), which followed the tonal pattern of the first four lines of the lüshi. This form did not require parallelism.

The last form was pailü (排律), which extended lǜshi to unlimited length by repeating the tonal pattern and the required parallelism of the second and third couplets. Parallelism was not required for the first and the last couplets.

All forms of jintishi could be written in five or seven character lines. The rules on tones and parallelism were not strictly followed in all cases: when classifying poems as gushi or jintishi, commentators traditionally placed greater emphasis on following the tonal rules than on parallelism.

Examples of Tang poetry

On the Guqin zither...

The above poems are from 【唐詩三百首】 Tangshi Sanbai Shou [Three Hundred Tang Poems].