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Chinese Poetry: the Birth of Literature

Updated: 2018-08-07 14:57:35

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Poetry is the earliest form of Chinese literature that originated from folk songs before the written Chinese language even existed. The earliest anthology of ancient poems, Shi Jing (Book of Poetry), which is prized by scholars for its literary and historic significance, dates back to between the 11th and 6th century BC. Conventionally, Chinese poetry is divided into four classes -- shi or poetry, ci, ge or songs, and fu.

 History of Poetic Culture

Rhyme had always been an essential part of Chinese poetry. TheShiverse form (poetry) evolved fromShi Jing-- a collection of poems written in four-word verses. Instead of glorifying gods and heroes as was the case in early poems of other cultures, these poems expressed the daily lives of the peasants: their sorrows and joys, occupations and festivities. Characterized by simplicity of language and emotion, they marked the beginning of Chinese poetry.

Qu Yuan, a poet of the Chu State (4th century BC), wroteChuci(Elegies of Chu), pioneering a unique form of classical Chinese poetry, both romantic and mythological. Next cameYuefu(the Great Ballads), a general term for folk songs and ballads of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD).

The heyday of poetry, like so many other Chinese art forms, came in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) -- a period of general peace and prosperity. More than 50,000 poems written by 2,200 poets during these 300 years are still known today. Li Bai (701-762), "the Immortal", and Du Fu (712-770), "the sage", are the twin pinnacles of Chinese poetry.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), while poetry in five- and seven- syllable lines (wuyanandqiyan) and other classical forms was generally regarded as somewhat inferior,Ciflourished. Sorrows of widows and divorced women or others who have been separated from their husbands comprised the main theme ofCiin its initial stages of development. In time, themes became increasingly diverse along with changes in society.

In modern Chinese arts, politics and patriotic sentiment inevitably took precedence. The May 4th Movement of 1919 called on science and democracy to give birth to "new poetry" -- an entirely new genre that broke out of the rigid form, language and meter of classical poetry.

The Goddessby Guo Moruo (1892-1987) -- an ardent call for social reform and rebellion against the decadent, old regime -- is identified as the beginning of the movement from classical poetry to new poetry. By the early 1940s a whole generation of powerful poets had emerged.


Chinese poetry comes in three forms:

Gushi(old poetry) is arranged in five, six or seven-syllable lines, or long and short verses. As a rule, the rhymes can be changed in almost any place -- from even to inflected tones, or vice versa. Much more liberty is permitted with the tonal order within a line, which is decided by individual temperament.

Lushi(code verse) appeared in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and must contain two or more of so-called parallel couplets. In addition to parallelism in content there is also a phonetic parallelism or a parallelism of tones. Even tones are combined with inflected ones, and vice versa.

Jueju(curtailed verse) only has four lines of five or seven syllables, each with the least words way and a high tone.

The Tang Dynasty produced a new poetic form calledCithat was written to music with strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes in fixed numbers of lines and words.Cican be defined as "a song without a tune".Ci, which reached its greatest popularity in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), is an intricate tonal pattern to which the writer sets characters.

The third class of poetic literature isGe(songs and poems written to folk melodies) which differs from poetry only in its musical or melodic origin. The difference betweenGeandCiis insignificant: instrumental music always accompaniesCi, butGewas mostly vocal.

The Fu verse form is a prose poem or descriptive poem. Often it is simply a cluster of parallel couplets of varying lengths.

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