Chinese poetry is among the oldest of recorded literature and while most other cultures’ earliest verse is in epics or hymns to gods, the Chinese began with lyrical poetry. The ancient Chinese “song book”, The Classic of Poetry dates back to 1000 BC and is a collection of 305 songs from the culture of the Chou people. Its verse touches on love, war, royalty, hunting, mourning and betrayal among many other subjects. Through the 5th century BC this book of songs served as the educational text for the Chou upper class. Confucius (551-479 BC) referred to the book in his advice to his disciples, “By the Poems you can stir people and you can observe things through them, you can express your resentment in them and you can show sociable feeling.” It was from the beginning felt that “values of natural balance can appear in the humblest of forms.” *
From the Book of Songs:
She cast a quince to me,
a costly garnet I returned;
it was no equal return,
but by this love will last.
Unlike the familiar free verse of the Li Po translations by Ezra Pound, much of Chinese poetry tends to be rhymed and metered with specific characteristics. The meter appears to be governed by character count which includes words, syllables, tone and pitch.
The phonetic tones and pitch criteria of Chinese poetry are in long tones, maintenance of a single pitch, or deflected tones which are relatively short with the pitch moving up or down. The deflected tone is said to be either, rising, falling or entering. The tonal and pitch features of Chinese poetry is impossible to achieve in English.
In addition, the basic rhythmic unit of a Chinese poem is the single character (zi), which is pronounced as one syllable. The Chinese language consists primarily of zi, mono syllabic words, limiting the English imitator to only a portion of the English vocabulary if one was to count syllables. Most English descriptions of Chinese poetic patterns use the words “syllable count”, but I prefer the term “character count” which loosens the spectrum of syllable count to possible word count, making English use of the forms more compatible. “Character” translated as “word” allows the use of multisyllabic English words.
Qi, Cheng, Zhuan, Jie -Chinese is a standard in the development of Chinese verse since the 3rd century AD. Although it is not confined to the Old Poetry alone but some variation can be found in Lu Shi and Jue Ju as well. It is the basic structural composition of the Chinese quatrain.
L1 Qi (beginning) sets scene
L2 Cheng (development) expands image and mood
L3 Zhuan (returning) contrasts with start
L4 Jie (finishing) ponders meaning.
Here is a popular Japanese folk lyric which best demonstrates the use of qi-cheng-zhuan-jie which the Japanese refer to as Shichigon-zekku,
Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto.
The elder is twenty, the younger, eighteen.
A soldier may kill with his sword.
But these girls slay men with their eyes.
Note: Ancient Japanese poetry was first written in classical Chinese. Therefore it is only logical that early Japanese poetry mimicked the elements found in Chinese poetry. The Japanese call poetry written by Japanese poets in Chinese,kanshi 漢詩. The most common form of kanshi is written using Qi, Cheng, Zhuan,Jie or in Japanese, Shichigon-zekku. Kanshi is the most popular form of Japanese chanted (shigin) poetry.
Chinese Poetry falls into three categories:
- Gushi or Old Poetry, sometimes called the “People’s Poetry”. Gushi has structural patterns which appeared before the Tang Dynasty. The poetry includes parallelism only when deliberately chosen by the poet, flexible rhyme and a sort of free verse attitude toward tonal order within the line.
Gushi forms include:
- Shi Jing
- Chu Ci
- Wu Yan
- Fu 賦
- Lu Shi 詩: (code verse – shi meaning poetry) is a genre of Chinese poetry that carries two or more parallels of content and phonetic tone. It values match and balance and tends to be responsive not imaginative. There are hundreds of code verses but I could only find clear descriptions of a few which I share. Here are a few common to the Tang dynasty 618-907 AD that favor the quatrain. There are also a couple of forms I found in the po-e-try dic-tion-ar-y by John Drury, identified in English words whose criteria did not quite match up with the forms already described under Lu Shi code verse but is very close. It is very possible they are simply different interpretations of the same stanzaic forms identified in Chinese terms and I include them here.
- Ch’I Yen Shih
- Ssu Yen Shih
- Wu Yen Shih
- Chueh Chu
- Ancient Verse
- Four Syllable Verse
- Jue Ju is the third genre of Chinese poetry which is more concerned with setting a mood than telling a story. It is done in high tone with intensity like a soloist inserted in a symphonic piece.
- There are a couple of forms that don’t really fall under any of the above three categories:
- Traditional Mongolian Meter
Norton Anthology of World Literature Volume A page 813
Tribute by dedalus to the great Chinese poet Li Po.
With great appreciation for Judi’s many years of work on the PMO site.