Words set to music, or song lyrics, were a major poetic form in China between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. Words held sway over melodies. Often the music served as a sort of template to which the poet fit the words. Song lyrics covered the whole range of the poet’s experience and were often quite personal.
The song lyric (ci) is one of the major poetic genres in China that had a close connection with musical performance throughout its development. One of the earliest terms used to identify the genre was words set to music (quzi ci). This term points to the song lyric’s origins in the new music from central Asia that began entering China during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and soon became all the rage at the cosmopolitan Tang court and in urban culture. Lyrics were set to this so-called banquet music (yanyue). The earliest extant song lyrics are folk compositions preserved in manuscripts discovered in the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang in Gansu Province. The later history of the song lyric genre, however, is largely a product of literati authors and their interaction with popular culture.
The first literati experiments occurred during the ninth century during the late Tang dynasty; the form evolved in the hands of different literati authors into a major form of written poetic literature from the tenth to the thirteenth century during the Song dynasty (960–1279) and gradually declined after the conquest of China by the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368).
Two other phrases used to refer to the song lyric highlight formal features and the problem of the genre’s status. A second phrase used to designate the song lyric was long and short lines (changduan ju). This phrase points out a defining formal feature of song lyrics: its frequent use of uneven line lengths and strictly determined rhyme and tone schemes. Although the song lyric frequently had lines of varying length, it was far from free verse. Song lyrics were identified by their tune titles, which referred to a common tune matrix to which different poets would fill in the words (tianci). These tune patterns determined the number of characters per line, the placement of rhymes, and the tonal pattern. Uneven lines of song lyrics accommodated a large number of colloquial elements and empty, or function, words (xuci) and tended to employ more continuous syntax than shi poetry did.
The long and short lines must have reflected the structure of the new music. They were also thought to be more suitable for narrating the twists and turns of subtle emotional states with which the genre was often preoccupied. Finally, song lyrics were also often referred to by a third phrase, the remains of shi or the unspent energy of shi (shiyu). In generic terms song lyrics were often defined against the established genre of shi poetry as the “other” of shi. Shi was the serious poetic genre long thought to be the proper vehicle for conveying one’s intent, to reveal the poet’s character and even to demonstrate one’s fitness for public office in the civil service. By contrast, early song lyrics were associated with women and the entertainment quarters, where courtesans sang the popular new music. The writer of ci could borrow the voices of the singing girl and her allied personae. Song lyrics also allowed more room for a poet to describe his or her private life, separate and independent from the more public aspects of identity that were the proper domain of shi. This feminine connection would play an important role in setting the ci’s thematic range and would make problematic its legitimacy as a genre for serious literary pursuit during its early development. At the same time, the predominance of the female voice also led to a complex poetics of voice, impersonation, and performance.
Five Dynasties Writers: Courts of Shu and the Southern Tang
The earliest substantial corpus of song lyrics by literati authors comes from the Five Dynasties period (907–960 CE). During this time of political division the song lyric was largely a tale of two southern kingdoms, with a prominent collection known as Collection among the Flowers (Huajian ji) compiled in the court of the southwestern kingdom of Shu and important works written by the rulers of the southeastern kingdom of Southern Tang. This collection came largely to define the generic identity of the song lyric as delicate and subtle in tone, linked with the boudoir setting and closely associated with the female poetic voice. The collection contains some song lyrics in which male writers wrote objective descriptions of female figures, epitomized by the song lyrics of Wen Tingyun (812–866) and others in which writers borrowed the female voice in a kind of literary ventriloquism. At the same time in the Southern Tang court, the second and last ruler, Li Yu (961–975), crafted concise song lyrics that harnessed the power of immense natural images to convey the intensity of his sorrow when his kingdom was conquered by the Song dynasty. Although Song literati criticized this failed ruler in official statements, his song lyric’s departure from the boudoir setting, use of a male autobiographical voice, and introduction of vast natural imagery as correlates to feelings associated with the state and country created a precedent for later writers of similar disposition. Literati song lyrics of this period were composed predominately in the shorter xiaoling form, which bore a closer resemblance in structure and length to shorter forms of shi poetry with which literati writers were well acquainted.
Northern Song Writers
After the Song dynasty unification of the empire in 960, song lyrics began to be composed by members of the newly risen scholar-official class. Some prominent figures, such as Yan Shu (991–1055) and Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072), continued to write banquet songs almost exclusively in the xiaoling form. The main dynamic behind changes in the song lyric was the interaction between popular and literati elite cultures and the effort to employ popular styles, adapt them, or to create a refined style. The form at the heart of this cultural intersection was the manci, a longer form of the song lyric formerly eschewed by literati writers because of its technical challenges and association with popular culture. The appeal of the manci lay in its capacity for more expansive and continuous narration of thoughts and feelings.
Three important writers exemplify these trends in the manci. Liu Yong (c. 987–1055) was the first literati writer to take up the manci form. His manci revolved around two overlapping themes: romances with singing girls in the city and the sorrows of the official traveler on the road. His use of colloquial diction and direct treatment of the theme of love, although incredibly popular in urban entertainment quarters, drew much criticism from contemporary literati. The great renaissance man, Su Shi (1037–1101), is credited with elevating the form by using song lyrics as shi poetry, that is, by using the song lyric to address a broad range of topics associated with the poet’s public persona and incorporating diction and allusions from shi poetry. The short prefaces that he appended to more than 43 percent of his song lyrics also firmly grounded the reading of his song lyrics within an autobiographical context. Su Shi adapted Liu Yong’s popular and generic blues song of the road to write manci about his personal sense of displacement in official travel and political exile.
Zhou Bangyan (1056–1121), director of the Music Bureau at the
court of Emperor Huizong (reigned 1100–1126), also incorporated diction and allusions from shi poetry into his manci but achieved a different effect. The heavy use of citation and allusion in his song lyrics created an ambiguous and unstable focus in which the poet becomes a disembodied presence. In his manci we see the shift of the organizing core of his song lyrics away from the persona of the poet and toward the creation of a highly refined mood often centered on an object.
Southern Song Writers
After the collapse of the Northern Song dynasty and the relocation of the capital to Hangzhou in 1127, the song lyric developed along two distinct, although often overlapping, directions following the innovations of Su Shi and Zhou Bangyan. Each of these innovators’ styles was shaped by two different groups, the first by a group of activist scholar-official writers and the second by a new class of professional musicians. During the early Southern Song dynasty a group of scholar-official writers confronting the collapse of the central government and mass migration to the south began to consciously write song lyrics in the manner of Su Shi. Su Shi’s precedent, which had transformed the song lyric into a vehicle for confronting the sense of displacement in travel through a strong, personal voice, responded exactly to the needs of writers, such as Ye Mengde (1077–1159), who were forced to flee south while defending the reestablished state. In the next generation, Xin Qiji (1140–1207) exemplified the trend toward expressing a personal voice and mourning the tragedy of the communal past among scholar-official writers. During the second half of the Southern Song dynasty, however, the mainstream of song lyric writing was defined by an emphasis on musical craft, as seen in the manci of Jiang Kui (1155–1221) and Wu Wenying (1200–1260). These works were written by a class of professional musician-poets whose members were unable or uninterested in obtaining scholar official status and instead relied on the patronage relationships, often within the political elite of the flourishing commercial center and capital of Hangzhou. The opulence and refinement of the material culture of Hangzhou are reflected in their song lyrics on objects, which focused on small and delicate objects, often located within one of the famed gardens of Hangzhou, that evoked a stream of memories and associations.
Although the song lyric declined during the Yuan dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) experienced a revival of interest in song lyric writing and criticism. Early Republican China (1912–1927) also experienced renewed interest in the song lyric by a number of maverick writers, such as the female revolutionary Qiu Jin (1877–1907) and the world traveler Lu Bicheng (1883–1943), who drew on the full range of styles and voices developed during the heyday of the genre from the ninth to the thirteenth century.
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