Shi: Chinese Poetry

13 12 2012

Shi (traditional Chinesesimplified ChinesepinyinshīWade-Gilesshih) is the Chinese word for “poetry” (and part of the modern Chinese compound word for a poem, traditional Chinese: 詩歌; simplified Chinese: 诗歌; pinyinshīgēShi is traditionally the most poetic of the various forms of Chinese poetry. In modern times, shi can and has been used as an umbrella term to mean poetry in any form or language, whether or not Chinese; but, it may imply or be used to refer certain classical forms of poetry, for example the folk song derived poetry of the Classic of Poetry (Shijing, 詩經 / 诗经), the classic reference ofshi. The poetry of China has tended to be especially associated in the Europe and America with the written word, the exposure to Europeans and Americans of what to them were and often are the novel implications expressed or latent in Chinese characters and the exquisite beauty displayed by some examples ofChinese calligraphy, including often the writing of poetry (shi). Often, the transmission of these aspects of Chinese was indirectly through Japanese adaptations of Chinese poetry forms, such as kanshi, or writing, particularly kanji: one example of this is Ernest Fenollosa. The unfolding of this historical process has resulted in an undue association in the west of Chinese poetry and written literature, especially the Chinese character. This has not been the case in China. Although historically and culturally, in China literature and literacy has a close association with poetry and the ability to write and to chant poems was for long considered an essential part of being scholar, poetry in China has always had a close association with the spoken, or sung, or chanted word. Thus while shi can mean poetry, it carries implications of the meaning of song or ode. In fact, the folk poetry of the illiterate masses, often in the form of songs or ballads, have been an abiding influence upon the shi of the literati, who often reworked these poems or adapted their styles, as is the case, for example with the Shijing, the Chu ci and the whole Ci genre. Indeed, shi can be divided into many categories, such as Biblical Psalms (聖經), Classical Chinese poetry (中國古典詩歌/中国古典诗歌), knight-errant poetry (詩俠); and so, in short, shi today basically overlaps with the term “poetry”.

With the above caveat, shi has sometimes been used in a contrasting sense to other Chinese terms, sometimes more or less synonymous, for poetry, for example by Burton Watson, who sees a three part division of Chinese poetic literature, into “three important forms:” shifu, and ci. Generally, however, individual poems are not classified as being a shi poem, but rather as “Fields and Gardens” poem and/or “Five-character Four-line “Curtailed” Poems” (jueju), and so on.

Shi Jing (詩經 “Classic of Poetry”) was the first major collection of Chinese poems, collecting both aristocratic poems (the “Odes”) and more rustic poems, probably derived from folksongs (the “Songs”). They are mostly composed of four-character (四言) lines.

A second, more lyrical and romantic anthology was Chu Ci (楚辭 “Songs of Chu”), made up primarily of poems ascribed to Qu Yuan and his follower Song Yu. These poems are composed of lines of irregular lengths. However, note that the word shi does not appear in the title, but rather the character 辭 (ci, equivalent to the character 詞/词, also ci), referring to the ci genre of poetry.

From the Han Dynasty onwards, a process similar to the origins of Shi Jing produced the yuefu (樂府 “Music Bureau”) poems. Many of them are composed of lines of five-character (五言) or seven-character (七言) poems. These two forms were to dominate Chinese poetry until the modern era. They are divided into the original gushi (old poems) and jintishi. The latter is a stricter form developed in the early Tang Dynasty with rules governing the structure of a poem. The greatest writers of gushi and jintishi are often held to be Li Bai and Du Fu respectively.

Hans H. Frankel categorizes Chinese poetry into nine different forms,[3] but this is different from genre categorization, and ignores modern and vernacular varieties. To distinguish the classical form from the vers libre developed in the 20th century, the former is known as jiushi (舊詩 “old poetry”, not to be confused with gushi 古詩) and the latter xinshi (新詩 “new poetry”, not to be confused with jintishi近體詩).

The term gushi (古詩 “old poetry”) can refer either to the first, mostly anonymous shi poems, or more generally to the poems written in the same form by later poets. Gushi in this latter sense are defined essentially by what they are not: i.e., they are not jintishi (regulated verse). The writer of gushi was under no formal constraints other than line length and rhyme (in every second line). The form was therefore favoured for narrative works and by writers seeking a relaxed or imaginative style; Li Bai is the most prominent of these, but most major poets wrote significant gushi.

Jintishi (近體詩 “modern-form poetry”), or regulated verse developed from the 5th century onwards. By the Tang Dynasty, a series of set tone patterns had been developed, which were intended to ensure a balance between the four tones of Middle Chinese in each couplet: the level tone, and the three oblique tones (rising, departing and entering). The Tang Dynasty was the high point of thejintishiWang Wei and Cui Hao were notable pioneers of the form, while Du Fu was its most accomplished exponent.

The basic form of jintishi is lüshi (律詩), with eight lines. In addition to the tonal constraints, this form required parallelism between the lines in the second and third couplets. The lines in these couplets had to contain contrasting content, with the characters in each line usually in the same part of speech.

Another form is the jueju (絕句), or quatrain which followed the tonal pattern of the first four lines of the lüshi. This form does not require parallelism.

The last form is pailü (排律), which extended lǜshi to unlimited length by repeating the tonal pattern and the required parallelism of the second and third couplets. Parallelism is not required for the first and the last couplets.

All forms of jintishi could be written in five- or seven- character lines. The six character-line form (六言) can be seen occasionally, but is not common. The rules on tones and parallelism are not strictly followed in all cases: when classifying poems as gushi or jintishi, commentators traditionally placed greater emphasis on following the tonal rules than on parallelism.

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