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Chinese poetry is the most highly regarded literary genre in China. Traditionally, it is divided into shi (詩), ci (詞) and qu (曲). There is also a kind of prose-poem called fu (賦). During the modern period, there also has developed free verse in Western style. All traditional forms of Chinese poetry are rhymed, but not all rhymed texts in ancient China are classified as poetry - for instance, lines from I Ching are often rhymed, but it is not considered poetry. (Compare the Pre-Socratic philosophical works in ancient Greece which are in the form of poetry.)

Early poetry

There could have been a number of important anthologies of early poetry in ancient China, but since the burning of books by Qin Shihuang, the earliest extant anthologies are the Shi Jing and Chu Ci, dating to the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, respectively.

Shi Jing (詩經 "Classic of Poetry") was the first major surviving collection of Chinese poems, collecting both aristocratic poems (Odes) and more rustic poetry, probably derived from folksongs (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, in the style prevalent in the state of Chu.

Classical poetry

During the Han Dynasty, the Chu Ci-type of lyrics evolved into fu. During the Six Dynasties, fu remained a major poetic genre, and together with shi formed the twin generic pillars of Chinese poetry until shi began to dominate during the Tang dynasty.

From the Han Dynasty onwards, a process similar to the origins of Shi Jing produced the yue fu (樂府 "Music Bureau") poems. Many of them are composed of lines of five-character (五言) or seven-character (七言). These two forms of shi were to dominate Chinese poetry until the modern era. They are divided into the original gushi 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.

Towards the end of the Tang dynasty, the ci lyric became more popular. Ci are literally new lyrics made up to fit to pre-existing tunes. Each of the tunes had music that was often lost, but retained a metre unique to the tune. Thus, each ci written is labelled "To the tune of [Tune Name]" (調寄[詞牌]), fits the metre and rhyme of the tune, and may or may not have been sung. Most closely associated with the Song Dynasty, ci most often expressed feelings of desire, often in an adopted persona, but the greatest exponents of the form (such as Li Houzhu and Su Shi) used it to address a wide range of topics.

As the ci gradually became more literary and artificial after Song times, Chinese Sanqu poetry (散曲), a freer form, based on new popular songs, developed.

Later classical poetry

After the Song Dynasty, both shi and ci continued to be composed until the end of the imperial period, and to a lesser extent to this day. However, for a number of reasons, these works have always been less highly regarded than those of the Tang dynasty in particular.

Firstly, Chinese literary culture remained in awe of its predecessors: in a self-fulfilling prophecy, writers and readers both expected that new works would not bear comparison with the earlier masters. Secondly, the most common response of these later poets to the tradition which they had inherited was to produce work which was ever more refined and allusive; the resulting poems tend to seem precious or just obscure to modern readers. Thirdly, the increase in population, expansion of literacy, wider dissemination of works through printing and more complete archiving vastly increased the volume of work to consider and made it difficult to identify and properly evaluate those good pieces which were produced. Finally the 1920s saw the rise of vernacular literature, particularly opera and novels, which increasingly became the main means of cultural expression.

Modern poetry

Modern Chinese poems (新詩 "new poetry") usually do not follow any prescribed pattern. Poetry was revolutionized after the May Fourth Movement when writers try 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 1989marker. A special case is the mystic poet Hai Zi, who became very famous after his suicide.

See also


  • Stephen Owen (1996). An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911.
  • J. Gill Holland (1986). Keep an Eye on South Mountain: Translations of Chinese Poetry.
  • James J.Y. Liu (1966). The Art of Chinese Poetry.
  • Wai-lim Yip (1997). Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres .

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