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Chinese poetry

Chinese poetry can be divided into three main periods: the early period, characterised by folk songs in simple, repetitive forms; the classical period from the Han dynasty to the fall of the Qing dynasty, in which a number of different forms were developed; and the modern period of Westernised free verse.

"Quatrain on Heavenly Moutain" by Emperor Gaozong
"Quatrain on Heavenly Moutain" by Emperor Gaozong

Early poetry

The Book of Songs (Shi Jing) was the first major collection of Chinese poems.

A second early and influential poetic anthology was the Chuci (楚辭 Songs of Chu), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semilegendary Qu Yuan (ca. 340-278 B.C.) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century B.C.). The songs in this collection are more lyrical and romantic and represent a different tradition from the earlier Classic of Poetry (Shi Jing).

Classical poetry

During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), the Chu lyrics evolved into the fu (賦), a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers.

From the Han dynasty onwards, a process similar to the origins of the Shi Jing produced the yue fu poems. Again, these were song lyrics, including original folk songs, court imitations and versions by known poets (the best known of the latter being those of Li Bai).

From the second century AD, the yue fu began to develop into shi or classical poetry- the form which was to dominate Chinese poetry until the modern era. These poems have five or seven character lines, with a caesura before the last three characters of each line. They are divided into the original gushi (old poems) and jintishi, a stricter form developed in the Tang dynasty with rules governing tone patterns and the structure of the content. The greatest writers of gushi and jintishi are often held to be Li Bai and Du Fu respectively.

Towards the end of the Tang dynasty, the ci lyric became more popular. Most closely associated with the Song dynasty, ci most often expressed feelings of desire, often in an adopted persona, but the greatest exponents of the form (such as Li Houzhu and Su Shi) used it to address a wide range of topics.

As the ci gradually became more literary and artificial after Song times, the san qu, a freer form, based on new popular songs, developed. The use of san qu songs in drama marked an important step in the development of vernacular literature.

Later classical poetry

After the Song dynasty, both shi poems and lyrics continued to be composed until the end of end of the imperial period, and to a lesser extent to this day. However, for a number of reasons, these works have always been less highly regarded than those of the Tang dynasty in particular. Firstly, Chinese literary culture remained in awe of its predecessors: in a self-fulfilling prophecy, writers and readers both expected that new works would not bear comparison with the earlier masters. Secondly, the most common response of these later poets to the tradition which they had inherited was to produce work which was ever more refined and allusive; the resulting poems tend to seem precious or just obscure to modern readers. Thirdly, the increase in population, expansion of literacy, wider dissemination of works through printing and more complete archiving vastly increased the volume of work to consider and made it difficult to identify and properly evaluate those good pieces which were produced. Finally, this period saw the rise of vernacular literature, particularly drama and novels, which increasingly became the main means of cultural expression.

Modern poetry

Modern Chinese poems (新詩 vers libre) usually do not follow any prescribed pattern.

See also


  • An Anthology of Chinese Literature by Stephen Owen
  • Chinese Poetry by Wai-lim Yip

External links

Last updated: 12-21-2004 10:13:58