Introduction to the Basics of Chinese Poetry

A) An Overview

Chinese poetry is as ancient as the nation itself.  Even before written language is developed, ancient Chinese people express their emotions through folk song, which is the earliest form of poetry, characterized by repetitive chorus, lyricism and pristine conception.  Some excerpts from The Book of Songs still preserve the style of the songs from antiquity--crude and unadorned they may seem, yet they have shaped the embryo of the more sophisticated forms of poetry and created unique characteristic of Chinese poetry. 

            The perfection of written language is what causes the genesis of written verse. Written language not only liberates poets’ mind from dependence on memorization, it also facilitates the preservation and dissemination of literature.  The completion of the earliest anthology of Chinese poetry, The Book of Songs at around 500.B.C. marks the commencement poetry becoming an elevated form of literature instead of simply a primitive branch of music. Throughout history, Chinese poetry undergoes long years of evolution and diversification, which ultimately establishes itself as the pinnacle of Chinese literature.

            There are three major branches of poetry forms.  The most common form is known as shi 诗, or poem, which can be further divided into gu shi  (antique poem) 古诗 and lu shi (restrained poem) 律诗.  Antique poem is prevalent before Tang dynasty and is more liberal in style while restrained poem must comply with strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes.  Another poetic form known as ci 词, or poetic lyrics, are originally written to certain tunes, also characterized by strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes in fixed numbers of lines and words.  The last poetic form, qu曲, or verse for singing, has becomes popular in the Yuan Dynasty and is characterized by colloquialism and freer rhythm.  Of course there are many more forms of poetry which wouldn’t be mentioned in this article due to limitation in space.

B. Phonetics

            Since Chinese poetry originates from songs, the artistic value of a poem is judged heavily by its phonetic beauty.  Poets in days of yore have studied the phonetics of Chinese language painstakingly and found out several writing techniques to achieve euphony.  One of them is to create patterned, repetitive rhythm by regulating the number of syllables in a verse, like in a haiku.  In most standard poems, every verse must have the same number of syllables, often four, five and seven Therefore, poets actually choose the poetry form and rhythmic pattern of their poems before they write anything.  The linguistics characteristics of Chinese language also contribute to the uniformity of poetry forms.  Since Chinese is a monosyllabic language (which means one sinogram has only one syllable), the poets can easily control the number of syllables in a verse, which as a result control the rhythm of the poem.

             Tonal pattern also plays an important role in achieving euphony.  Since Chinese phonetics have varied tones, by deliberate selection of words poets can compose a melodious stanza formed by the rise and fall of the tones. There are four tones in Classic Chinese: level tone平, rising tone上, falling one去 and entering tone入. The four tones can be classified into two categories: level tone belongs is by itself while the others belong to the oblique tone仄category.  Unfortunately, in modern standard pronunciation the intonations have been altered: the classic level tones have ramified into the high and level tone 阴平 and the rising tone阳平; the entering tone has become obsolete except in some dialects. Nevertheless, tonal pattern is still crucial to the understanding of Chinese poetry. Here is a model for tonal patterns used frequently in restrained heptasyllabic quatrain (four verse poem with seven syllables each line), which is can also be applied to an eight-versed lushi by repeated it twice. (L for level tone平 and O for oblique tone仄, * for rhyme):





          To change into a pentasyllabic (five syllables each line) poem, all one needs to do is to delete the first two syllables from each line in the model. Notice that the rhyme is always on the level tone which is the strongest of the tones.  Usually when one read  poem, the rhyming syllable is elongated and accented.

However, one has to understand this is just a model. In reality a poem doesn’t need to comply to the model word for word, (and in some cases the pronunciation of words have changed throughout the centuries), as long as the general structure is intact. 

Rhythm and tonal patterns for ci is more sophisticated.  In poetic lyrics, since the versed are composed to a given tune, the number of verses and  the number of syllables of each verse must match the rhythm of the tune and the tonal pattern complies with its melody.  A good lyric composer is able to employ all euphonic techniques to elaborate his (or her, in case of  Li Qing Zhao) works.  Here is an example(L for level tone and O for oblique tone, * for rhyme) :

红藕香残玉簟秋.                                           LOLLOOL*
轻解罗裳,                                                    LOLL
独上兰舟。                                                    LOLL*
云中谁寄锦书来?                                        LLLOOLL
雁字回时,                                                    OOLL
月满西楼。                                                    OOLL*

花自飘零水自流。                    LOLLOOL*
一种相思,                          OOLL
两处闲愁。                          OOLL*
此情无计可消除,                    OLLOOLL
才下眉头,                          LOLL*
却上心头。                          OOLL*


In autumn, the fragrance of red lotus faded, the mat of jade was cool.

( I ) gently untie the silk skirt,

and went on the boat alone.

Who shall deliver the brocaded letter to me, through the distant cloud?

When the goose messenger returned with the letter (from my love),

 Immaculate moonlight shall fill the western chamber.


Lonely the blossoms withered and lonely the stream flowed.

This same feeling of yearning

Is shared between two departed lovers.

The melancholy has no consolation:

As soon as the frown left the face,

The heart would be assailed by sorrow.


            This lyric’s title is 一剪梅, (which is the name of the tune its written too), and is written by a renowned poetess, Li Qing Zhao李清照 (1084-1155), during the Song Dynasty. She wrote this her husband, expressing her distress of living in solitude while her husband was away.  Though the theme of “damsel in distress” was rather cliché at that time, the artistic values of一剪梅 went way beyond the works of contemporary poets, made this lyric truly a masterpiece of the time.  Li’s remarkable skill of manipulating phonetics was one of the causes of her illustrious achievement.

      Euphony is not the only criteria to evaluate the literary values of Chinese poetry, but it is one of the quintessence of Chinese literature. Poets of old days manipulate the unique characteristics of Chinese language to create various poetry forms that the very sound of them enchants readers.  Though centuries have come to pass, dynasties have risen and fallen, the voice, and the songs of ancient poets have survived ravish of time, creating an immortal resonance.