“Quatrain on Heavenly Mountain,” a poem by the Song emperor Gaozong (1107–1187). Throughout history many Chinese leaders were accomplished poets, including Mao Zedong.
Poetry has been the most celebrated and vibrant form of writing in China for more than three thousand years. Although China’s poets wrote in relatively stable, classical forms, they explored a vast range of situations, feelings, and concerns. More recently Chinese poets have experimented with vernacular language and Western poetic techniques.
For more than three thousand years, poetry has been the vehicle for the highest levels of literary art in China. To memorize large numbers of poems was necessary if one were to be considered learned. Even today students commit to memory selected works of major historical poets for recitation. Consequently, the past still exerts its influence on writers of the twenty-first century, despite its associations with old China’s political elite.
The Roots of Chinese Poetry
China’s earliest poetry was compiled into the Shijing ?? (most often called The Book of Songs in English) around 600 BCE, which some would argue was written by Confucius (551–479 BCE). The collection has regularly been considered a source of proper moral conduct as well as of inspiration for later writers. Its imagery is rich, and its range of subjects broad, from the founding myths of the royal house, through the banquets of the nobility, to the daily cares and joys of the common people. Some of these short poems seem very much like folk songs. Their immediacy has moved readers through the ages. A second major collection appeared about six hundred years later. Called Chuci ?? (Songs of the South), it preserved poetry generally associated with the lands south of the Yangzi (Chang ?) River. Older sections of the text are associated with the court minister Qu Yuan ?? (fourth–third centuries BCE); exiled due to the slander of jealous rivals, he wrote of his loyalty and longing for recognition in the form of a lengthy allegory. Other poets represented in the collection take Qu Yuan’s life as their subject, but some of the more interesting poems clearly refer to religious rituals of the period, using rhythms quite different from those of the northern tradition.
Inspired, most likely, by the long compositions in the Chuci, poets of China’s first great dynasty, the Han (206 BCE–220 CE), wrote lengthy fu ? (rhyme prose or rhapsodies) that incorporated lush descriptions of objects, buildings, landscapes, human activities such as hunting, and even emotional states in alternating prose and rhymed verse. The greatest of these writers was Sima Xiangru ???? (179–118 BCE), who recounted the pleasures of his king. Other Han writers, such as Yang Xiong ?? (53 BCE–18 CE), insisted that fu should serve to criticize excesses, not encourage them.
Fu were meant to be read aloud. Their varying cadences, alliteration, and complex rhyming schemes were designed to delight the ear. Virtually all other Chinese poetry was lyrical, often intended literally to be sung. By the end of the Han dynasty, writers drew on the subjects of folk songs, love, separation, and death to begin a new tradition of occasional verse that continues to this day. Most of these poems, called generally shi ? (lyrical verse), have lines of all the same length. The most common form is the five-syllable line, which in monosyllabic Chinese originally meant five-word lines. Shi poems were often written in couplets, with the second lines of all the couplets rhyming with one another. Most are relatively short. During the Tang period (618–907 CE), strictly regulated verse forms developed. These forms, called jinti shi ??? (modern-style verse), prescribed even the tonal patterns of syllables in each line. These “modern” forms were generally either four or eight lines and written alongside the freer, earlier gushi ?? (ancient-style) forms. Both forms continued to be written through the Qing (1644–1912) period.
A new form, the ci ?, or song lyric, developed among Tang-period entertainers in response to popular music imported from Central Asia. Instead of all lines having the same length, these new poems were written to fit the varying lines of Central Asian melodies. (Later, when the music had been forgotten, poets—even those of the twentieth century, such as Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, an accomplished poet as well—would fill in the patterns of line length, tonal sequence, and rhyme scheme remembered from early poems that had been written to fit these named, then lost, melodies.) From the late Tang onward, poets generally composed ci that fit those original patterns. But efforts were made to update the melodies used for writing new song lyrics, called qu ?, when arias for the theater became the primary venue for sung verse during Mongol rule in the Yuan (1279–1368) and subsequent dynasties. Some poets viewed the ci as inadequate for serious composition, but for others the full range of poetic topics was written into both shi and ci. Poetry in the ci form reached its first peak of development during the Song period (960–1279) and its second during the seventeenth century in the hands of Ming poets, such as Chen Zilong ??? (1608–1647), and Qing poets, including the Manchu writer Nalan Xingde ???? (1655–1685).
China’s great poets are legion, but those of the Tang dynasty are generally considered the best. The great triad of Du Fu ?? (712–770), Li Bai ?? (or Li Bo, 701–762), and Wang Wei ?? (701–761) are considered to embody the teachings of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, respectively. Other poets brought a personal voice to their poems, such as the reclusive Tao Qian ?? (Tao Yuanming ??? 365–427) and the failed statesman Su Shi ?? (Su Dongpo ??, 1037–1101). Many were exceptionally capable craftsmen, but China’s literary history is crowded by people who dashed off poems to commemorate special occasions (banquets, birthdays, leave taking).
Although most of the best-known poets were men, China produced a striking number of distinguished women poets. Perhaps the most famous is Li Qingzhao ??? (1083–c.1149?) who, widowed early when her husband (and constant literary companion) died, left a legacy of haunting poems of love and loss. The Ming and Qing periods produced literary societies of women whose many members seldom, if ever, met but who maintained long correspondences in verse as the vehicle to convey their deepest feelings.
A large percentage of Chinese poetry has been devoted to love, given the system of arranged marriages that persisted for so many centuries. But poems in China have conveyed the most profound as well as the most lighthearted of emotions, have captured the daily lives and aspirations of many, and have narrated significant (and insignificant) events over more than two millennia. The poems of Song-period poets Su Shi (1037–1101) and Mei Yaochen ??? (1002–1060) exemplify this range of experience. Religious thoughts have motivated many poets, but because there is no fundamental division between religious and secular lives, the material world is present even in religious poetry, especially in poems by Wang Wei and Shen Zhou ?? (1427–1509). Li Bai is well known for his wine poems (“Bring the Wine,” Jiang jin jiu ???). Du Fu wrote ma
ny poems that describe people’s suffering in times of war and famine (“The Old Man With No Family to Take Leave Of,” Shihao li ???).
During the high tide of their “literary revolution” of the 1920s, China’s poets experimented widely with European images, rhythms, and literary trends. The strongest influence initially was that of romanticism, as seen in the work of Guo Moruo ??? (1892–1978). During the 1930s younger poets were more attracted by imagism and symbolism. Although war with Japan (1937–1945, fought also in the context of World War II in Asia) and subsequent civil strife brought attention to China’s rich body of traditional folk songs as the vehicle for new, patriotic content, postwar poets produced a remarkable body of modernist verse. This tradition was later continued on Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s. In the People’s Republic, leftist political movements enforced the production of verse simple enough to be appreciated by unlettered farmers and workers, but this provoked a strenuous reaction after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Within a few years menglong ?? (misty) poets appeared. In contrast to their predecessors, who produced public poetry, these younger poets developed very personal styles and levels of significance. China’s poets began to experiment freely with a variety of styles, influenced by both twentieth-century trends abroad and their own literary heritage; such experiments continue as poets of a new generation come of age in the twenty-first century.
Many readers have felt that these engagements with other literatures were less than successful, in some cases reflecting the cadences of other languages more than of Chinese, especially because twentieth-century poets often wrote free verse in colloquial language. This was a dramatic shift from the indigenous poetic tradition in which verse was carefully structured in a few conventional forms. Similarly, the diction of classical verse was rich and seldom utilized true spoken language.
Poetry has been not only the greatest of Chinese art forms but also one of the clearest mirrors for reflecting the experience of the Chinese people over an enormous span of time. Enormous numbers of poem survive, more than fifty thousand from the Tang period alone, along with hundreds of thousands of poems from later periods.
Source: Hegel, Robert E.. (2009). Poetry. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1774–1777. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Ming dynasty poem by Wang Wen. Poetry in the ci (song lyric) form reached its first peak of development during the Song period (960–1279) and its second during the seventeenth century in the hands of Ming poets.
Poetry (Sh?g? ??)|Sh?g? ?? (Poetry)