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Chinese Poetry: the Birth of Literature

Poetry is the earliest form of Chinese literature that originated from folk songs before the written Chinese language even existed. The earliest anthology of ancient poems, Shi Jing (Book of Poetry), which is prized by scholars for its literary and historic significance, dates back to between the 11th and 6th century BC. Conventionally, Chinese poetry is divided into four classes -- shi or poetry, ci, ge or songs, and fu.

History of Poetic Culture

Rhyme had always been an essential part of Chinese poetry. TheShiverse form (poetry) evolved fromShi Jing-- a collection of poems written in four-word verses. Instead of glorifying gods and heroes as was the case in early poems of other cultures, these poems expressed the daily lives of the peasants: their sorrows and joys, occupations and festivities. Characterized by simplicity of language and emotion, they marked the beginning of Chinese poetry.

Qu Yuan, a poet of the Chu State (4th century BC), wroteChuci(Elegies of Chu), pioneering a unique form of classical Chinese poetry, both romantic and mythological. Next cameYuefu(the Great Ballads), a general term for folk songs and ballads of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD).

The heyday of poetry, like so many other Chinese art forms, came in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) -- a period of general peace and prosperity. More than 50,000 poems written by 2,200 poets during these 300 years are still known today. Li Bai (701-762), "the Immortal", and Du Fu (712-770), "the sage", are the twin pinnacles of Chinese poetry.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), while poetry in five- and seven- syllable lines (wuyanandqiyan) and other classical forms was generally regarded as somewhat inferior,Ciflourished. Sorrows of widows and divorced women or others who have been separated from their husbands comprised the main theme ofCiin its initial stages of development. In time, themes became increasingly diverse along with changes in society.

In modern Chinese arts, politics and patriotic sentiment inevitably took precedence. The May 4th Movement of 1919 called on science and democracy to give birth to "new poetry" -- an entirely new genre that broke out of the rigid form, language and meter of classical poetry.

The Goddessby Guo Moruo (1892-1987) -- an ardent call for social reform and rebellion against the decadent, old regime -- is identified as the beginning of the movement from classical poetry to new poetry. By the early 1940s a whole generation of powerful poets had emerged.


Chinese poetry comes in three forms:

Gushi(old poetry) is arranged in five, six or seven-syllable lines, or long and short verses. As a rule, the rhymes can be changed in almost any place -- from even to inflected tones, or vice versa. Much more liberty is permitted with the tonal order within a line, which is decided by individual temperament.

Lushi(code verse) appeared in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and must contain two or more of so-called parallel couplets. In addition to parallelism in content there is also a phonetic parallelism or a parallelism of tones. Even tones are combined with inflected ones, and vice versa.

Jueju(curtailed verse) only has four lines of five or seven syllables, each with the least words way and a high tone.

The Tang Dynasty produced a new poetic form calledCithat was written to music with strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes in fixed numbers of lines and words.Cican be defined as "a song without a tune".Ci, which reached its greatest popularity in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), is an intricate tonal pattern to which the writer sets characters.

The third class of poetic literature isGe(songs and poems written to folk melodies) which differs from poetry only in its musical or melodic origin. The difference betweenGeandCiis insignificant: instrumental music always accompaniesCi, butGewas mostly vocal.

The Fu verse form is a prose poem or descriptive poem. Often it is simply a cluster of parallel couplets of varying lengths.

Lyric Poetry

Ci(Lyric Poetry) is a new form of poetry that sprung up in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and Five Dynasties Period (907-979), which can be performed with music.

Chinese music experienced significant changes in the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907). With communication of politics, military affairs, business, missionaries and culture, etc., foreign and ethnical music was introduced to the Central Plains in great quantity, which was not only popular among ordinary people, but also in the upper class and palace. It gradually blended with Chinese traditional music of the Han nationality, which gave birth toYanyue(referring generally to all music and dances entertaining banquets). Also known as Popular Music,Yanyuewas the most widespread and popular music with great vitality compared withYayue(Elegant Music). There were 222 melodies ofYanyueplayed with lyrics at dinnertime in the Tang Dynasty. The length of every line of the lyrics varied with the change of rhythms of the melody and these lyrics were the proper form ofCi(Lyric Poetry).

There are many tonal patterns and rhyme schemes ofCipoetry. A book in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) collected 660 tonal patterns. With successive additions, there are more than 1,000 tonal patterns in total, but among them only about 100 are frequently used.

Quziciin the Tang Dynasty first prevailed among ordinary people, but the literati began to compose the Lyric Poetry for music since the mid Tang Dynasty.Ciat that time had to be in line with strict rules of both tonal patterns of the music and rhymes of the poetry. From the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a lot ofCicomposers were not specialized in music, and thus they composedCionly in accordance with rules and forms of poems. Therefore,Cigradually could not be played with music, and became an important form of Chinese traditional poetry.


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