Chinese Poetic Forms

“Chinese Poetic Forms: The two most important forms of Chinese are the shih (poem) and the tz’u (lyric). The shih form was first used in the Book of Songs. These songs are of varied length; the lines are usually four characters long, and are marked by the use of end rhyme, most often at the end of the even-number lines.

Around the first century AD, the four-character line was replaced by the five- and seven-character line. The T’ang dynasty (618-907) saw the development of regulated verse or lu-shih, which were shih poems that used lines of five or seven characters, were eight lines in length, made use of a single rhyme throughout, and required strict verbal and tonal parallelism. The great T’ang poet Tu Fu was a master of this particular style.

The t’zu or lyric form also began to gain popularity in the T’ang dynasty, although its heyday was during the Five Dynasties (907-960) and Sung (960-1289). Originally written to musical tunes from Central Asia, the tz’u is essentially a song form with prescribed rhyme and and tonal sequences (“tunes”) and lines of differing length. Although, by the Sung Dynasty most tz’u were not written to be sung, poets retained the tune title to indicate the metrical pattern they were using. One of the most famous tz’u writers was the woman poet Li Ch’ing-chao.

Other poetic forms include the ballad (yueh-fu) and the prose form (fu). The ballads tend to use the five- or seven-character line, but are much more flexible about total length of the poem and prosody and meter. Traditionally, this form has been used to describe the hardships and sufferings of ordinary people, or to express direct or indirect criticism of the government. A common subject of the yueh fu is the abandoned woman who languishes away while her husband is away fighting on the frontier. These can be read as love poems, as criticism of a government policy that sends men away from the fields to fight a distant enemy, or the complaint of a neglected official who feels “abandoned” by his ruler.

Fu is translated variously as ‘prose-poetry,’ ‘rhyme-prose,’ ‘verse-essay,’ or ‘rhapsody’; however, because of its strong rhythmic and metrical qualities, it is generally considered to be closer to poetry than prose. The golden age of the fu was the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Writers of fu, such as Ssu-Mar Hsiang-ju (179-117 BC), were usually officials patronized and favored by the court. They were in many cases lexicographers, a fact reflected in their long (the longest is 10,000 lines), elaborate, almost encyclopedic rhymed descriptions of the splendor of the cities, gardens, and palaces of the Han dynasty. Fu continued to be written even after the Han, many of them taking on a more philosophical tone.”

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

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