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Classical Chinese Poetry

Classical Chinese Poetry

The rich tradition of Chinese poetry began with two influential collections. In northern China, the Shijing or Classic of Poetry (approx. 10th-7th century BCE) comprises over 300 poems in a variety of styles ranging from those with a strong suggestion of folk music to ceremonial hymns. The word "shi" has the basic meaning of poem or poetry, as well as its use in criticism to describe one of China's lyrical poetic genres. Confucius is traditionally credited with editing the Shijing. Its stately lines are usually composed of four characters or four syllables (Chinese characters are monosyllabic). Many of these early poems establish the later tradition of starting with a description of nature that leads into emotionally expressive statements, known as bi, xing, or sometime bixing. Separately in southern China, the Chuci is ascribed to Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 BCE) and his follower Song Yu (fl. 3rd century BCE) and is distinguished by its more emotionally intense affect, often full of despair and descriptions of the fantastic. Metrically its six-character lines are formed into couplets separated in the middle by a strong caesura character (as the seventh character of the first line), producing a driving and dramatic rhythm. Both the Shijing and the Chuci have remained influential throughout Chinese history.

During the greater part of China's first great period of unification, begun with the short-lived Qin Dynasty (221 BCE - 206 BCE) and followed by the centuries-long Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), the shi form of poetry underwent little innovation. But a distinctively descriptive and erudite fuform (not the same fu character as that used for the bureau of music) developed that has been called "rhyme-prose," a uniquely Han offshoot of Chinese poetry's tradition. Equally noteworthy is Music Bureau poetry (yuefu), collected and presumably refined popular lyrics from folk music. The end of the Han witnesses a resurgence of the shi poetry, with the anonymous "19 Old Poems." This collection reflects the emergence of a distinctive five-character line that later became shi poetry's most common line length. From the Jian'anreign period (196 - 220 CE) onward, the five-character line became a focus for innovations in style and theme. The Cao family, rulers of the Wei Dynasty (220 - 265 CE) during the post-Han Three Kingdomsperiod, distinguished themselves as poets by writing poems filled with sympathy for the day-to-day struggles of soldiery and the common people. Taoist philosophy became a different, common theme for other poets, and a genre emphasizing true feeling emerged led by Ruan Ji (210-263). The landscape genre of Chinese nature poetry emerged under the brush of Xie Lingyun (385-433), as he innovated distinctively descriptive and complementary couplets composed of five-character lines. A farmland genre was born in obscurity by Tao Qian (365-427) also known as Tao Yuanming as he labored in his fields and then wrote extolling the influence of wine. Toward the close of this period in which many later-developed themes were first experimented with, the Xiao family of the Southern Liang Dynasty (502-557) engaged in highly refined and often denigrated court-style poetry lushly describing sensual delights as well as the description of objects.

Reunified China's Tang Dynasty (618-907) high culture set a high point for many things, including poetry. Various schools of Buddhism flourished, a successfully imported and modified cultural influence from India, as represented by the Chan or Zen beliefs of Wang Wei (701-761). His quatrains (jueju) describing natural scenes are world-famous examples of excellence, each couplet conventionally containing about two distinct images or thoughts per line. Tang poetry's big star is Li Bai (701-762) also pronounced and written as Li Bo, who worked in all major styles, both the more free old style verse (gutishi) as well as the tonally regulated new style verse (jintishi). Regardless of genre, Tang poets notably strove to perfect a style in which poetic subjects are exposed and evident, often without directly referring to the emotional thrust at hand. The poet Du Fu (712-770) excelled at regulated verse and use of the seven-character line, writing denser poems with more allusions as he aged, experiencing hardship and writing about it. A parade of great Tang poets also includes Chen Zi'ang (661-702), Wang Zhihuan (688-742), Meng Haoran (689-740), Bai Juyi(772-846), Li He (790-816), Du Mu (803-852), Wen Tingyun (812-870), (listed chronologically) and Li Shangyin(813-858), whose poetry delights in allusions that often remain obscure, and whose emphasis on the seven-character line also contributed to the emerging posthumous fame of Du Fu, now ranked alongside Li Bai. The distinctively different ci poetry form began its development during the Tang as Central Asian and other musical influences flowed through its cosmopolitan society.

China's Song Dynasty (960-1279), another reunification era after a brief period of disunity, initiated a fresh high culture. Several of its greatest poets were capable government officials as well including Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), Su Shi (1037-1101), and Wang Anshi (1021-1086). The ci form flourished as a few hundred songs became standard templates for poems with distinctive and variously set meters. The free and expressive style of Song high culture has been contrasted with majestic Tang poems by centuries of subsequent critics who engage in fierce arguments over which dynasty had the best poetry. Additional musical influences contributed to the Yuan Dynasty's (1279-1368) distinctive qu opera culture and spawned the sanquform of individual poems based on it.

Classical Chinese poetry composition became a conventional skill of the well educated throughout the Ming(1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Over a million poems have been preserved, including those by women and by many other diverse voices. Painter-poets, such as Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Tang Yin (1470-1524), Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), and Yun Shouping (1633-1690), created worthy conspicuous poems as they combined art, poetry and calligraphy with brush on paper. Poetry composition competitions were socially common, as depicted in novels, for example over dessert after a nice dinner. The Song versus Tang debate continues through the centuries. While China's later imperial period does not seem to have broken new ground for innovative approaches to poetry, picking through its vast body of preserved works remains a scholarly challenge, so new treasures may yet be restored from obscurity.

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