Wednesday, November 21, 2007


This is a response to a query underneath a recent posting.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) asks: "Is Chinese poetry frequently defined by an even number of zi in each line?"

Hello Steg,
The short answer is yes it is.

Generally speaking, Chinese poetry is divided into two categories.
Shi: 詩 - verse, often specifically verse of matched lines either in four or eight line sets, and Tsu: 辭 - lyric, usually in a set pattern of lines of different lengths, often based on songs. The first term however also applies to the material in the Book of Songs (詩 經 - Shi Ching), not all of which has matched lines.

The Shi Ching has some of the oldest verse in the Chinese language, and allegedly speaks of high moral values - although the lubricious boasting of a gallant that he has made love to three (!) damsels in one of the poems is almost impossible to read without twinkling eyes, and the wooing of another maiden, which cunningly uses bird-motifs to suggest the unsuggestable ("kwan kwan go the ospreys, kwan kwan"), is anything but puritan in tone.

From the Chou dynasty (周 朝 - Ch'ou chiu, 1122 bce to 256 bce) onward the definition of verse became more and more rigid - eventually verse with even numbers of lines and matching syllable count was considered shi, all else was by default tsu. Tsu could be sung, and often was. Shi could be chanted, but sounds a little ridiculous if sung.

[This is a value judgment! I think it sounds ridiculous if sung - others, who are wrong, disagree.]

唐 詩
The T'ang dynasty (唐 朝 - T'ang chiu, 618 ce to 906 ce) saw the greatest development of matched verse, in which there are the same number of zi per line, with either five or seven syllable lines throughout. There is usually a symmetry of sentence form, tonal contrast (level tones versus oblique) alternating within each line and contrasting in the next, a match or contrast of theme-words, and a progression of images and ideas that make the reader continue the thought or emotion beyond the end of the poem.

Because of the set patterns they are the easiest poems to memorize, and often the hardest to translate well (due to the terse nature of the Chinese language).

In many T'ang examples the poets, while expert at structure, play somewhat fast and loose with the constraints of the form for greater effect. Their poems (古 詩 - "ancient verse") have the correct line lengths, and full rhyme every second line. But their expressiveness lies in the almost perversely casual approach to the conventions of the form. There is seldom perfect parallelism, tone balance is frequently implied rather than perfected, pattern matching is nearly non-existent.

律 詩 , 絕 句
The ideal form is the full eight lines with parallelism and symmetry, which is known as regulated verse: 律 詩 (Lu Shi). The poets Li Po and Tu Fu are, famously, often anarchically heretical in their approach to this form, and often produce clever quatrains instead: 絕 句 (Jue Ju) or broken sentences.

新 詩
Since the revolution that overthrew the Manchu Dynasty (清 朝 - Ching chiu, 1644 - 1911, also called 大清 - Taai Ching, "great clarity"), poetic conventions have been relaxed. One hesitates to call much modern verse by the term 'poetry', though clearly it still is 'literature'. The term 'new poem' (新 詩) is frequently used; even the bohemians of the past would vociferously complain that 'this does not compute'.

楚 辭
Final note: While the Shi Ching represents what the Confucian school considered proper poetry that would serve to instruct the ruler in the emotional needs of his people, the Songs of Chu (楚 辭 Chu Tsu) are of nearly equal age, and present an entirely different background and set of reference points.

[Chu was a large kingdom that at the beginning of the Chinese era was far beyond the borders of civilization (occupying a broad geographic zone overlapping modern central-southern China), but which by the early classic period (about two and a half millennia ago) was entirely Sinicised - like Chou, their barbarian edges had worn off, and elements of their culture and thought-realm had expanded the Chinese horizon.]

This collection of chants, allegedly written by a righteous Confucian, reflects a belief-system quite different from the proper Chinese heartland - a world in which the unstilled spirits of the deceased are by ritual and offering conjured back by their emotional kin to their proper place , where they find security, and can influence the lives of their descendants. How odd! To a proper Confucian of the time, ancestral spirits did NOT roam about at all, but occasionally manifested themselves decorously within the sanctuary of the family temple.

The Songs of Chu represents a more unbridled concept of the world, and contains much that is either totemic or shamanistic. Chu, though sinicised, was still a marshy southern borderland, with different manners and mores. Not quite 'us', don’t you know.

The modern native of Chu would, of course, disagree with the opinion above. After all, what could possibly be MORE civilized than Suchou, Shanghai, Hangchou....... It is davka those northerners who should worry about their lack of civilization, not the south.

The Cantonese, further south than any of the others, wholeheartedly agree. The ultimate South (粤 Yueh - boundarial zone, 嶺 南 Ling Nan - South of the Passes; both are ancient terms for Kwantung), has ALWAYS been the heart of Chinese civilization, and all of those northern people (including Chu) are just goofy. Punkt.



Often verses were composed by literati at parting, when one of them would be sent out to a distant posting and his friends would see him off. They would not meet again for years, decades even, and it was unlikely that all of them would ever be together in the same place again. So on the morning of the departure, all would ride for a while together, and have wine at a landmark or bosky wine-shop before saying farewell.

Li Po (李白) says goodbye to Meng Hao-Ran (孟浩然) at the Yellow Crane Tower in this verse: 送孟浩然之廣陵 (Song Meng Hao-Ran zhi Guang Ling - seeing off Meng Hao-Ran to Guang Ling)


Gu-ren xi ci Huang He Lou,
Yin hua san yueh xia Yang Zhou;
Gu fan yuan ying bi kong jin,
Wei jian Zhang Jiang tian ji liu.

Translation (paraphrasis):
My old friend heads west at the Yellow Crane Tower,
Amid the early spring smoke-drifts below Yang Chou;
A solitary sail, a distant image, swallowed by the blue expanse,
Finally, I can only see the great river flowing to the horizon.

Note the suggestion of tears in the last line - the conceit is that he waited till the sail disappeared from sight, it is more likely that his eyes were too wet to see clearly long before then.

Wang Wei (王維) describes a similar occasion in Wei Cheng Chu (渭城曲 - Wei City lyric):


Wei-Cheng zhao-yu yi qing chen,
Ke she qing qing liu se xin;
Quan jun geng jin yi bei jiu,
Xi chu Yang Guan wu gu-ren.

Translation (paraphrasis):
Wei city, morning rain settles the dancing dust,
At a rustic inn all is green, the willows newly tipped;
I urge you to drain one more cup of wine,
West of Yang Guan there will be no old friends.

Almost anytime the term guan (關 - barrier gate, pass) is used, exile outside of civilization is meant. The barrier gates were the exits into the wilds beyond China, the Tatar lands, the Jurchen forests, the wild and thoroughly repulsive frontier zone. The contrast of guan with gu-ren (故 人 - familiar person, intimate friend) could not be more striking - 'west of the gate into the waste-land there will be none with whom you will have anything at all in common, so please, prolong this moment with just one more glass, and remember us and Wei city as it is now, in springtime'.

Travel is a constant theme in literati writings - as the official class of the empire, they were often on the road to and from postings, or on official business.

Here's Zhang Hu (張祜) being grouchy over having missed the last ferry across the river in Ti Jin Ling Du (題金陵渡 - 'On the theme of waiting for the ferry to Jin Ling').


Jin Ling jin du xiao shan lou,
Yi xiu xing ren zi ke chou;
Chao luo yeh jiang xie yueh li,
Liang san xing huo shi Gua zhou.

Translation (paraphrasis):
Waiting for the ferry at Jin Ling ford in a rustic shelter,
A lonesome traveler manages to make himself thoroughly miserable;
Sopping wet at the river, barely any moon light,
And yet I can see the flickering lights of Gua Chow across the water!

Du Mu (杜牧), similarly stuck on the wrong side of the river, gets testy over backwaters and local apathy, in Po Jin Huai (泊秦淮 - moored at the confluence of the Jin and Huai rivers). Or maybe he's lamenting what has passed.


Yin lung han sui yueh lung sa,
Yeh po Jin Huai jin jiu-jia;
Shang nu bu zhi wang guo hen,
Ge jiang you chang hou ting hua.

Translation (paraphrasis):
Mist enfolds cold water, moonlight delimits sand,
Moored at night in Jin Huai near a wine shop;
The trollop does not know the despair of a destroyed nation,
Across the river she still sings 'The Back Court Blossom'.

Shang-nu (商 女) refers to wine-shop girls, whose cheerful company would spur the clientele to drink more and prolong the moment (sometimes into the wee hours, sometimes into upstairs chambers). In the past, Du Mu probably enjoyed their presence, yet here he is clearly disgusted with the superficiality of it all - don't they know what happened? How can they still sing gay songs of the capitol, now that the Tatars have sacked it and the nation is undone!

Returning in dreams to familiar places also crops up as a theme in the writings of scholars.
Zhang Bi (張泌) revisits the mansion of the Xie family in Ji-ren (寄人 - traveler)


Bie meng yi yi dao Xie jia,
Xiao lang hui ta qu lan xie;
Duo qing zhi you chun ting yueh,
You wei li ren zhao luo hua.

Translation (paraphrasis):
In my dreams I still go to the Xie mansion,
Wandering along the lesser veranda with the curved railing;
Emotional, because of the spring moonlight in the courtyard,
Which, for this exile alone, is adrift in fallen flowers.

There was little chance that he would ever see the moon-silvered petal-drifts in the courtyard of the Xie mansion again. One can well understand the depth of his feeling on revisiting it in his dreams.

One scholar who did manage to return home after a life in distant postings was He Zhi-Zhang (賀知章), who says of his return to his home village in Hui Xiang Ou-Shu (回鄉偶書 - Return Home Incidental Scribble):


Shao-xiao li jia lao da hui,
Xiang yin wu gai bin mao shuai;
Er-tong xiang jian bu xiang shi,
Xiao wen 'ge cong he chu lai?'

Translation (paraphrasis):
Very young when I left home, I return as an old man,
My accent has not changed, though the hair on my temples has thinned;
The children and I look at each other, without any recognition,
Smiling, they ask "visitor, where do you come from?"

But at least he did return, and no doubt became a familiar face again in his village. This was for many an unrealizable dream. The fate of the literate is often eternal exile - if not dislocation, anomie.

Note: All poets cited above lived during the T'ang dynasty, when the Chinese Empire was at an all time high of both prosperity and territory. Chinese civilization had both a provincial aspect, frequently subcultural, and a metropolitan aspect, which for want of a better word can be described as 'supracultural'. The scholars who staffed the chancelleries and departments had their roots in their own local culture, but in their literacy and education exemplified the values of the supraculture. One can take the scholar out of Kansas, but one cannot cut Kansas out of the scholar.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

wow, cool! thanks for all the information... makes me want to learn Chinese.

... or at least pester you to add tone marks to the transliterations ;-)

— the blogger not known as 葺

The back of the hill said...


Steg, if I do add the tone marks, I will probably post it on Mis-Dakdek. Along with more annotation, more commentary.

But, as you will understand, that will probably not happen in what remains of this year. My work days at present are fraught.

Anonymous said...

Tone marks?

Anonymous said...

Guter Beitrag, nur Absatz zwei muss ich widersprechen!

The back of the hill said...

Herr Anonymo,

Thanks for the compliment, but I fear that it was ein unnitsleche tirche ab initio.... your contribution appears to be a phishing comment. Absatz zwei?

You will discover that if you attempt to place any spam here, it will not be published. I have no interest in furthering the commercial enterprise of anyone, in whatever language.

PS. Unnitsleche tirche is a yiddishism: wasted effort.

Chey ve chayom, as they say, chey ve chayom.

Anonymous said...

Good post. Cantonese pronunciation?

The back of the hill said...

For future reference, this is this specific post's clickable and paste-able link:

Three other short poems are featured in a recent article (May 16, 2012), here:

The pronunciation of the verses in the recent three post is represented with Cantonese pronunciation. Which has cropped up more and more frequently on the blog in recent years, as it is what I am most familiar with.

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