Chinese poetry

Chinese poetry
"Quatrain on Heavenly Mountain" by Emperor Gaozong

Chinese poetry is poetry written, spoken, or chanted in the Chinese language, which includes various versions of Chinese language, including Classical Chinese, Standard Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Yue Chinese, as well as many other historical and vernacular varieties of the Chinese language. In other words Chinese poetry refers to poetry written or spoken in the Chinese language. The various versions of this type of poetry, as known historically and to the general knowledge of the modern world, include two primary types, Classical Chinese poetry and Modern Chinese poetry.


Classical Chinese poetry

Hand-painted Chinese New Year's duilian (对联 "couplet"), a by-product of Chinese poetry, pasted on the sides of doors leading to people's homes, at Lijiang City, Yunnan

Classical Chinese poetry includes, perhaps first and foremost shi[1], and also other major types such as ci[2] and qu[3]. There is also a traditional Chinese literary form called fu[4], which defies categorization into English more than the other terms, but perhaps can best be described as a kind of prose-poem. During the modern period, there also has developed free verse in Western style. Traditional forms of Chinese poetry are rhymed, however the mere rhyming of text may not qualify literature as being poetry; and, as well, the lack of rhyme would not necessarily disqualify a modern work from being considered poetry, in the sense of modern Chinese poetry. For example, lines from I Ching are often rhymed, but may not be considered to be poetry, whereas modern verse may be considered to be poetry even without rhyme. A cross-cultural comparison to this might be the Pre-Socratic philosophical works in ancient Greece which were often written in verse versus free verse.

Beginnings of the tradition: Shijing and Chuci

The earliest extant anthologies are the Shi Jing and Chu Ci, from the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), respectively. Both of these have had a great impact on the subsequent poetic tradition. Earlier examples of ancient Chinese poetry may have been lost because of the vicissitudes of history, such as the burning of books by Qin Shihuang, although one of the targets of this last event was the Shi Jing, which however seems to have survived intact,


The older of these, Shi Jing'//Classic of Poetry or Book of Songs) collected both aristocratic poems ("Odes") and more rustic poetry, probably derived from folksongs ("Songs"). These poems were predominantly composed of four-character (四言) lines.


The second anthology, Chu Ci (楚辞 Songs of Chu or Songs of the South), was more lyrical and romantic, featuring the irregular line-lengths that were prevalent in the state of Chu. This collection is primarily made up of poems ascribed to Qu Yuan and his follower Song Yu. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220AD), the Chu Ci style of poetry evolved into the fu (赋/賦 "descriptive poem") style, a style marked by the mixture of verse and prose passages that was often used to display the poet's skills and knowledge rather than to convey emotional experiences. This form remained popular during the subsequent Six Dynasties period, although it became shorter and more personal. Fu remained one of the generic pillars of Chinese poetry until the Tang Dynasty, when five-character and seven-character shi poetry, began to dominate.

Han poetry

Also during the Han Dynasty, a folk-song style of poetry became popular, known as yuefu (樂府/乐府) "Music Bureau" poems, so named because of the government's role in collecting such poems, although in time some poets began composing original works in yuefu style. Many yuefu poems are composed of five-character (五言) or seven-character (七言) lines, in contrast to the four-character lines of earlier times. A characteristic form of Han Dynasty literature is the fu. The poetic period of the end of the Han Dynasty and the beginning of the Six Dynasties era is known as Jian'an poetry. An important collection of Han poetry is the "Nineteen Old Poems".

Jian'an poetry

Between and over-lapping the poetry of the latter days of the Han and the beginning period of the Six Dynasties was Jian'an poetry. Examples of surviving poetry from this period include the works of the "Three Caos": Cao Cao, Cao Pi, and Cao Zhi.

Six Dynasties poetry

The Six Dynasties era was one of various developments in poetry, both continuing and building on the traditions developed and handed down from previous poetic development and also leading up to further developments of poetry in the future. Major examples of poetry surviving from this dynamic era include the works of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, the poems of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering, the Midnight Songs poetry of the four seasons, the great "fields and garden" poet "Tao Yuanming", the Yongming epoch poets, and the poems collected in the anthology New Songs from the Jade Terrace, compiled by Xu Ling (507-83).

Tang poetry

A high point of classical Chinese poetry occurred during the Tang period. Not only was the period prolific in poets but also in poems (perhaps around 50,000 poems survive, many of them collected in the Collected Tang Poems). During the time of Tang, in China, poetry was integrated into almost every aspect of the professional and social life of the literate class, including becoming part of the Imperial examinations taken by anyone wanting a government post. By this point, poetry was being composed according to regulated tone patterns. Regulated and unregulated poetry were distinguished as "ancient-style" gushi poetry and regulated, "recent-style" jintishi poetry. Jintishi (meaning "new style poetry"), or regulated verse, is a stricter form developed in the early Tang Dynasty with rules governing the structure of a poem, in terms of line-length, number of lines, tonal patterns within the lines, the use of rhyme, and a certain level of mandatory parallelism. Good examples of the gushi and jintishi forms can be found in, respectively, the works of the poets Li Bai and Du Fu. Tang poetic forms include: lushi, a type of regulated verse with an eight-line form having five, six, or seven characters per line; ci (verse following set rhythmic patterns); and jueju (truncated verse), a four-line poem with five, six, or seven characters per line. Good examples of the jueju verse form can be found in the poems of Wang Wei. Over time, some Tang poetry became more realistic, more narrative and more critical of social norms; for example, these traits can be seen in the works of Bai Juyi. The poetry of the Tang Dynasty remains influential today. Other Late Tang poetry developed a more allusive and surreal character, as can be seen, for example, in the works of Li He and Li Shangyin.

Song poetry

By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), another form had proven it could provide the flexibility that new poets needed: the ci (词/詞) lyric—new lyrics written according to the set rhythms of existing tunes. Each of the tunes had music that has often been lost, but having its own meter. Thus, each ci poem is labeled "To the tune of [Tune Name]" (调寄[词牌]/調寄[詞牌]) and fits the meter and rhyme of the tune (much in the same way that Christian hymn writers set new lyrics to pre-existing tunes). The titles of ci poems are not necessarily related to their subject matter, and many poems may share a title. In terms of their content, ci poetry most often expressed feelings of desire, often in an adopted persona. However, great exponents of the form, such as the Southern Tang poet Li Houzhu and the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi, used the ci form to address a wide range of topics.

Yuan poetry

Major developments of poetry during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) included the development of types of poetry written to fixed-tone patterns, such as for the Yuan opera librettos. After the Song Dynasty, the set rhythms of the ci came to be reflected in the set-rhythm pieces of Chinese Sanqu poetry (散曲), a freer form based on new popular songs and dramatic arias, that developed and lasted into the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th centuries). Examples can be seen in the work of playwrights Ma Zhiyuan 馬致遠 (c. 1270-1330) and Guan Hanqing 關漢卿 (c. 1300).

Ming, Ming-Qing Transition, and Qing poetry

Both shi and ci continued to be composed until the end of the imperial period. Notable poetry was written during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912). The overlapping period of the Ming-Qing Transition is notable in terms of its poetic characteristics.

Post-imperial Classical Chinese poetry

Both shi and ci continued to be composed past the end of the imperial period; one example being Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Communist Party of China, who wrote Classical Chinese poetry in his own calligraphic style.

Modern (postclassical) poetry

Modern Chinese poetry (新诗/新詞 "new poetry") refers to the modern vernacular style of poetry, as opposed to the traditional poetry written in Classical Chinese language. Usually Modern Chinese poetry does not follow prescribed patterns. Poetry was revolutionized after 1919's May Fourth Movement, when writers (like Hu Shih) tried to use vernacular styles closer to what was being spoken (baihua) rather than previously prescribed forms. Early 20th-century poets like Xu Zhimo, Guo Moruo and Wen Yiduo sought to break Chinese poetry from past conventions by adopting Western models. For example, Xu consciously follows the style of the Romantic poets with end-rhymes.

In the post-revolutionary Communist era, poets like Ai Qing used more liberal running lines and direct diction, which were vastly popular and widely imitated.

In the contemporary poetic scene, the most important and influential poets are in the group known as Misty Poets, who use oblique allusions and hermetic references. The most important Misty Poets include Shu Ting, Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Duo Duo, and Yang Lian, most of whom were exiled after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. A special case is the mystic poet Hai Zi, who became very famous after his suicide.

However, even today, modern poetry is still not widely accepted. There are arguments and contradiction as to whether modern poetry counts as poetry. Due to the special structure of Chinese writing and Chinese grammar, modern poetry, or five verse poetry, may seem like a simple short vernacular essay since they lack some of the structure traditionally used to define poetry.


Chinese poetry early on influenced poets in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. For example, the Kanshi and Shichigon-zekku poetry of Japan. Later on, it would be a big influence in the rest of the world, ranging from Beat poetry to Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.

See also

General articles

Articles on the poetry of particular (dynastic) periods

  • Han poetry
  • Jian'an poetry
  • Six Dynasties poetry
  • Tang poetry
  • Song poetry

Articles on poetry works and collections

Articles on individual poets, poems, and translators

translators of poetry

Articles on poetic modes, genres, and forms

Articles on technical factors of poetry

Articles on influence outside of China


  1. ^ 詩/诗
  2. ^ 詞/词
  3. ^
  4. ^ 賦/赋


  • Cai, Zong-qi, ed. (2008). How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231139411
  • Davis, A. R. (Albert Richard), Editor and Introduction, The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse. (Baltimore: Penguin Books (1970).
  • Holland, Gill (1986). Keep an Eye on South Mountain: Translations of Chinese Poetry.
  • Liu, James J.Y. (1966). The Art of Chinese Poetry. ISBN 0226486877
  • Lupke, Christopher (2008). New Perspectives on Contemporary Chinese Poetry.
  • Owen, Stephen (1996). An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911.
  • Yip, Wai-lim (1997). Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres . Durham and London: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-1946-2

External links

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