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Chinese Poetry — Eternal Resonance in Poems to Chant and Appreciate Across History

Chinese Poetry is a rhythmic, ancient form of language and has been considered the highest literary art form in history.

 

Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting are regarded as the Three Perfections by scholars — the three most elegant art forms in ancient China.

Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting on "Xi Shan Qiu Se Tu" By Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135)

Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting on "Xi Shan Qiu Se Tu" By Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135) — Taipei Palace Museum

Originating as folk songs in ancient times, Chinese poems chant people's joys and sorrows, record their life footprints, praise beautiful things, convey valuable information about history, and describe their society. 

 

Today, most Chinese people can read and resonate with these classic Chinese poems, appreciating their masterful use of words, feeling their emotions and ambitions, and perceiving their eternal wisdom.

Ceramic Pillow of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127) Decorated with Poem

Ceramic Pillow of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127) Decorated with Poem — The Western Han Nanyuewang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Book of Songs or Shijing — Origin of Chinese Poems

 

Book of Songs, also named Shijing or Classic of Poetry, is the earliest Chinese poetry anthology that includes folk songs, court hymns, and imperial sacrificial music from around the 11th century BC — 6th century BC, compiled by Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC).

 

According to Confucius, poems in the Book of Songs are about humanity's nobility and purity. 

Unearthed Jade Dragons (Yu Jue) of the Spring and Autumn Period

Jade Dragons (Yu Jue) of the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC)— Nanyang Antique Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Most of the 305 poems recorded in Shijing use the form of four-character lines and can be divided into three main types based on content: Feng (160), Ya (105), and Song (40). 

 

Feng or Airs of the States

 

Feng or Airs of the States include folk songs of 15 states around the Yellow River area in northern China, which are about courtship and love, farm work and war, struggle, and life. 

 

Ya or Court Hymns

 

Ya or Court Hymns, written mainly by nobles, are political songs used in important royal ceremonies and banquets to venerate great kings of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC) and praise their outstanding accomplishments.

 

Song or Eulogies

 

Song or Eulogies are chants that nobles used in sacrificial rites, usually accompanied by ancient dances, to worship deities and ancestors and pray for good harvests. 

Bronze Bell of the Western Zhou Dynasty with Inscriptions

Bronze Bell of the Western Zhou Dynasty with Inscriptions — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The music and dance of these poems were gone as time passed, and the lyrics that carry exceptional historical, cultural, literary, and artistic values, however, have been well preserved and chanted for thousands of years.

 

Some Famous Verses from the Book of Songs

 

  • 巧笑倩兮,美目盼兮。

 

Smiling lips are ravishing; glancing eyes are enchanting.

 

  • 有匪君子,如切如磋,如琢如磨。

 

The elegant gentleman, he constantly refines erudition and purifies virtue, like delicately carved and pondered jade articles.

 

  • 死生契阔,与子成说。执子之手,与子偕老。

 

Life, death, or apart, as we vowed. We will hold hands, and grow old till the end.

 

  • 宜言饮酒,与子偕老。琴瑟在御,莫不静好。

 

Together we cook delicate dishes and drink alcohol, till our hairs turn grey. Together we play musical instruments Qin and Se, and everything is convivial and peaceful. 

 

  • 如月之恒,如日之升。如南山之寿,不骞不崩。

 

Constant as the moon, upward as the sun. Longevous as the mountain Nanshan, which will never collapse.

Verses of Chu or Chuci — The First Collection of Romantic Poems in China

 

Compared to realistic poems in the Book of Songs or Shijing in the north, Verses of Chu or Chuci include Romanticism poems written by nobles from the south.

 

Poems in the Verses of Chu or Chuci are refined from local folk songs, mainly written by Chu State nobles Qu Yuan (about 340 BC — 278 BC) and Song Yu (about 298 BC — 222 BC), and some aristocratic scholars of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD). 

 

Forms of Chuci are more flexible; each line of Chuci poetry may contain 4 to 9 characters, while 6 and 7 are the most common styles. 

 

Besides landscapes and customs of the Chu State, Chuci Poems extensively describe trips to fantastic wonderlands, encounters with mythical creatures, deities, spirits, and beautiful local myths and legends. 

Lacquacre Cup Erbei Painted with Mythical Creatures Fenghuang, Unearthed from Chu State of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)

Lacquacre Cup Erbei Painted with Mythical Creatures Fenghuang, Unearthed from Chu State of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) — Jingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Some Famous Verses from Chuci

 

  • 登昆仑兮食玉英,与天地兮同寿,与日月兮齐光。

 

Climbing the Kunlun Mountains and eating magical jade; longevous as heaven and earth; glorious as the moon and the sun.

 

  • 路漫漫其修远兮,吾将上下而求索。

 

The road ahead is long and narrow; I shall search for the greater truth in heaven and down to earth. 

Fu, Yuefu, and Nineteen Old Poems — Rhapsody and Poetry of the Golden Han Empire

Fu or Rhapsody

 

Fu or Rhapsody is a form that evolved out of the Verses of Chu or Chuci, written by nobles and scholars and is respected as the orthodox literature of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD). 

 

Fu or Rhapsody is a combination of prose and classical Chinese poetry. The number of characters in each line varies, and the requirement of parallelism is not very strict, but with melodic rhymes like poetry. 

 

Flourished during the reign period of Emperor Wudi (156 BC — 87 BC), Fu or Rhapsody mainly praises fabulous palaces and grand hunting activities of the royals, using ornate words.

 

Later, more content was added to Fu, such as describing travel experiences and landscapes, expressing emotions, and discussing history and society. 

 

Meanwhile, some Fu works applied more regulated rhythms, some focused on parallelism, and some were written as beautiful prose. 

Noble's Banquet on Grave Mural of Dahuting Tomb of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220).

Noble's Banquet on Grave Mural of Dahuting Tomb of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220).

Yuefu Poetry

 

Yuefu is the Music Bureau established in 112 BC under the command of Emperor Wudi (156 BC — 87 BC) to collect folk songs and scholars' poems, compose music, and perform on important occasions, such as worship ceremonies and royal banquets. 

 

Their collected and composed lyrics are Yuefu Poetry, also called Yuefu. 

 

Mainly folksongs from the civilian world, Yuefu Poems are realistic and narrative and record stories of ordinary people from different social statuses. 

 

Beautiful love, treacherous betrayal, heartbroken separation, desperate struggle from poverty and disease, pain and misery of labor services and wars, luxurious palace and lifestyles of nobles, the courageous pursuit of love and dream, beautiful landscapes, and diligent people are all described in Yuefu Poetry, with masterful use of words and melodic rhymes. 

Silver Belt Hook Unearthed from Tomb of King Liu Fei (168 BC — 128 BC)

Silver Belt Hook Unearthed from Tomb of King Liu Fei (168 BC — 128 BC), Inscribed "Infinite Happiness, Unforgettable Love" — Nanjing Museum

Nineteen Old Poems

 

The Nineteen Old Poems are 19 Five-Character poems chosen from Yuefu Poetry, compiled by Prince Xiao Tong (501 — 531). 

 

Since then, poem writing entered the world of the nobles and scholars, which set a foundation for the glorious golden age of Chinese poetry in the Tang (618 — 907) and Song (960 — 1279) dynasties. 

 

The writers and exact writing time are unknown, but these poems are respected as a bright beginning chapter of Chinese Five-Character Line Poems (Wuyan Shi), with great literary and cultural values. 

 

These 19 poems talk about deep philosophy and sincere emotions regarding life, happiness, relationships, and wisdom, using extremely explicit yet refined characters.

 

The eternal joys and sorrows of humankind endow souls with these Nineteen Old Poems, in which people across history can find resonance and enlightenment. 

Pottery Figurine of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) Playing Musical Instrument Xiao

Pottery Figurine of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) Playing Musical Instrument Xiao — Chengdu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Some Famous Verses of Han Poetry

 

  • 人生天地间,忽如远行客。

Living in the eternal heaven and earth, we are travelers in a rush from a long distance.

  • 生年不满百,常怀千岁忧。

 

Few can live for over a hundred years long, yet worry about things a thousand years away.

 

  • 只缘感君一回顾,从此思君朝与暮。

 

You glanced back once; I pine day and night since.  

  • 思君令人老,岁月忽已晚。

Pining for you left me haggard; suddenly another year departed.

  • 愿得一心人,白首不相离。

 

Wish to have true love with a loyal heart, with hair turn grey we will never be apart.

Tang Dynasty Poetry or Tang Shi — Heyday of Chinese Poems

 

Poems written in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) have been regarded as the most glorious and highest level, and Tang Dynasty poets are considered the most influential poets in Chinese literature. 

 

Some important reasons for Tang Poetry being the high point, including the ruling class and scholars' fondness, were when some emperors regulated poetry writing in Imperial Examinations. 

 

Most importantly, Tang was a prosperous, wealthy, open-minded, unified, confident, and strong empire considered the golden age in Chinese history. 

Gilding Silver Cup of the Tang Dynasty

Gilding Silver Cup of the Tang Dynasty — Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Forms of Tang Dynasty Poetry

 

Based on the number of characters in each line, Tang Poems mainly have two types, the Five-Character and Seven-Character. 

 

According to the length and rhymes of poems, common Tang Poems include three types:

 

  • Guti Shi, or Pre-Tang Poetry: Flexible length, changeable rhymes.

 

  • Jueju, or Chinese Quatrain: Four lines, one rhyme for each poem.

 

  • Lvshi, or Regulated Verse: Eight lines, one rhyme for each poem. 

 

Moreover, Jueju and Lvshi have strict tones and parallelism requirements.

Cyan Glaze Porcelain Bottle of the Tang Dynasty with Tang Poetry

Cyan Glaze Porcelain Bottle of the Tang Dynasty with Tang Poetry — Changsha Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Major Genres of Tang Dynasty Poetry

 

Landscape Poetry

 

Mainly about magnificent mountains and lakes, picturesque towns, tranquil night views with radiant moonlight and starry sky, hermits' peaceful and relaxing life, and so on. 

 

  • 春水碧于天,画船听雨眠。Wei Zhuang (about 836 — 910)

 

Emerald spring river shines under the sky of blue deep; on a painted boat I listen to rain and sleep.  

 

 

Frontier Poetry

 

Frontier poems of Tang regard wars, lives, and exotic customs around the northwest border area, as well as magnificent scenes there, like the magnificent snow mountains, grand rivers, and endless deserts.

  • 男儿何不带吴钩,收取关山五十州。Li He (790 — 816)

 

Why not take weapons and join the army, to take back our lost land.

 Tri-colored Glazed (Sancai) Pottery Horse of the Tang Dynasty

 Tri-colored Glazed (Sancai) Pottery Horse of the Tang Dynasty — Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Romanticism Poetry

 

Poems with fancy imagination, beautiful fantasy, mystical wonderland, unstrained and elegant, usually about expressing emotions and describing magnificent natural scenes. 

 

  • 大鹏一日同风起,扶摇直上九万里。Li Bai (701 — 762)

The mythical bird Peng will take off with the wind someday, soaring tens of thousands of miles away. 

Realism Poetry

 

Mainly about ordinary people's suffering and struggle with poverty and war, especially during and after the destructive An-Shi Rebellion in the reign period of Emperor Li Longji (685 — 762) and the decline and chaos in the late Tang Dynasty.  

 

  • 我里百余家,世乱各东西。存者无消息,死者为尘泥。Du Fu (712 — 770)

 

Hundreds of families in my hometown had been scattered around (after the An-Shi Rebellion); the survivors were lost somewhere, and the dead ones were turned into dust. 

Song Dynasty Poetry or Song Ci — A New Peak and Lyrical Style in Chinese Poetry

Ci appeared no later than the Sui Dynasty (589 — 619) and originally were lyrics of songs sung by ordinary people.

 

In the mid-Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), some famous poets wrote lyrics for well-known musical tunes when the Ci form was introduced to scholars and nobles.

 

Decades later, Ci poetry thrived in the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) and became an independent poetry form, considered the highest literary achievement of this era. 

 

Hence, Song Dynasty Poetry refers to Ci Poems written during the wealthy Song Dynasty, another summit of ancient Chinese poetry.

Unearthed Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Song Dynasty

Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Song Dynasty — Zhuji Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

As a type of lyric poetry, Ci poems are usually named after their original tunes (Cipai), each of which has strict and regulated requirements regarding rhymes, tones, and line lengths. 

 

 

Main Genres of Song Dynasty Poetry Ci

 

Wanyue

 

Wanyue genre includes Ci poems that are graceful and restrained, using delicate words to express subtle feelings and emotions, mainly regarding love and romance. 

 

  • 衣带渐宽终不悔,为伊消得人憔悴。Liu Yong  (about 984 — 1053)

 

Clothes and belts are loosening, yet no regret; pining for you, I willingly grew thin and pallid.

 

  • 天涯地角有穷时,只有相思无尽处。Yan Shu  (991 — 1055)

 

Grand heaven and earth all have extent, yet only lovesickness has no end. 

Embroidery Silk of the Song Dynasty

Embroidery Silk of the Song Dynasty — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Haofang

 

Haofang genre includes Ci poems that are heroic, courageous, and unconstrained, mostly about life wisdom and political ambitions, later showing concerns about national affairs and wars, especially after the empire suffered considerable losses in the Incident of Jingkang.

 

  • 三十功名尘与土,八千里路云和月。Yue Fei (1103 — 1142)

 

Three decades of fights and honors are insignificant like dust, thousands of miles of marches under clouds and moonlight. 

 

  • 壮岁旌旗拥万夫,锦襜突骑渡江初。Xin Qiji (1140 — 1207)

 

Used to lead thousands of elite cavalrymen across the river and fight, in my young age that has gone by.

Sanqu and Zaju of Yuan Dynasty — Poetic Verses and Opera with Enchanting Stories

 

Yuan Dynasty Poetry includes two types, the Sanqu and Zaju. 

 

  • Sanqu is a poetic form that resembles Ci poetry but has relatively flexible regulations regarding rhymes and line lengths and was developed among ordinary people. 

 

 

Zaju is a type of opera with poetic verses and fascinating stories, which set a solid foundation for the thriving of operas and novels in the next Ming (1368 — 1644) and Qing (1636 — 1912) dynasties.

Porcelain Pillow of the Yuan Dynasty with the Story of "The Journey to the West"

Porcelain Pillow of the Yuan Dynasty with Story "The Journey to the West" — Guangdong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Some Famous Verses of Yuan Poetry

 

  • 问世间,情是何物,直教生死相许。Yuan Haowen (1190 — 1257)

 

Ask the world what love is, to make life and death togetherness the vow.

 

  • 平生不会相思,才会相思,便害相思。Xu Zaisi  (about 1280 — 1330)

 

I knew nothing about lovesick in the past; the moment I understood, I suffered deeply without end.

 

  • 伤心秦汉经行处,宫阙万间都做了土。兴,百姓苦;亡,百姓苦。Zhang Yanghao (1270 — 1329)

Sad that the palaces of Qin and Han are all ruins despite used to be fabulous and grand. 

Thriving or declining, sufferings are all on ordinary people.

Greatest Chinese Poets in History

 

Besides folk songs and poetry written by ordinary people, there are some eminent and influential poets throughout history. 

 

Their poems have been appreciated and worshiped for thousands of years, and some have been given poetic titles mainly based on their literary accomplishments and characteristics. 

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135) of the Song Dynasty, Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135), Presenting the Banquet of Intelligent Scholars — Taipei Palace Museum

Li Bai and Du Fu are respected as two of the greatest Chinese poets in history: Li Bai is as passionate and bright as the sun, and Du Fu is as profound as the moon.

 

Immortal Poet — Li Bai 

 

Li Bai (701 — 762) is regarded as the brightest Romanticism poet in Chinese history, with legendary life experiences. 

Some Famous Verses from Li Bai's Poems

  • 长风破浪会有时,直挂云帆济沧海。

 

A time will come to ride the wind and cleave the waves; I'll set my cloud-white sail and cross the sea which raves. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

 

  • 天生我材必有用,千金散尽还复来。

 

Heaven has made our talents; we're not made in vain; a thousand gold coins spent, more will turn up again. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

 

  • 今人不见古时月,今月曾经照古人。

 

Modern eyes miss ancient moons, yet this moon once lit people of ancient times.

Great Wall of China Under the Moon

Moon Shining on the Great Wall, Photo from Official Site of Jinshanling Great Wall.

Saint Poet — Du Fu

 

Du Fu (712 — 770) is one of the greatest realistic poets whose poems show great compassion for the sufferings and struggles of ordinary people.

 

 

Some Famous Verses from Du Fu's Poems

 

  • 露从今夜白,月是故乡明。

Dew turns into frost since tonight, the moon viewed at home is more bright. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong) 

  • 星垂平野阔,月涌大江流。

The boundless plain fringed with stars hanging low, the moon surges with the river on the flow. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

  • 无边落木萧萧下,不尽长江滚滚来。

 

The boundless forest sheds its leaves shower by shower; the endless (Yangtze) river rolls its waves hour after hour. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

Stone Arch Bridge of Ming Dynasty on Poyang Lake, Photo by Zhu Xingyong.

Stone Arch Bridge of Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) on Poyang Lake of Yangtze River BasinPhoto by Zhu Xingyong.

Demon Poet or King Poet — Bai Juyi

 

Bai Juyi (772 — 846) was another great realistic Tang Dynasty poet. 

 

Demon Poet was the title he used to call himself for his extremely, almost paranoid passion for writing poems.

 

King Poet was the title given by later generations for his extraordinary accomplishments in poetry.

 

Some Famous Verses from Bai Juyi's Poems

 

  • 相恨不如潮有信,相思始觉海非深。

 

Hate you are not as predictable and regular as the tide; deeply miss you realizing the sea is not that profound.

 

  • 在天愿作比翼鸟,在地愿为连理枝。天长地久有时尽,此恨绵绵无绝期。

In the sky, wishing to be inseparable love birds; on the earth, wishing to be eternally intertwined branches. Heaven and earth may have their bounds, yet the regret of parting has no end.

This poem was about the love story of Emperor Li Longji (685 — 762) and Lady Yang (719 — 756).

  • 山寺月中寻桂子,郡亭枕上看潮头。

 

Amidst the mountain temple, seeking laurel blooms in moonlight; at the county pavilion, appreciating the magnificent tides. 

Wuyi Gong or Huixian Guan on Mount Wuyi

Wuyi Gong or Huixian Guan on Mount Wuyi, Photo by Chanjuan.

Buddha Poet — Wang Wei

 

Wang Wei (701 — 761) is one of the best representative poets of the landscape genre and an essential founder of Traditional Landscape Painting

 

His poems, calligraphy, and paintings are refreshing, elegant, and harmoniously integrated with profound Buddhist ideas.

 

Some Famous Verses from Wang Wei's Poems

 

  • 大漠孤烟直,长河落日圆。

In boundless desert lonely smokes rise straight; over endless river the sun sinks round. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

  • 行到水穷处,坐看云起时。

 

Walking till where the stream end; therefore I sit and watch the clouds ascend.

Ink and Wash or Mobi Style Chinese Landscape Painting "Jianggan Xueji Tu" by Wang Wei (701 — 761).

Landscape Painting "Jianggan Xueji Tu" by Wang Wei

Genius Poet — Wang Bo

 

Wang Bo (650 — 676) was extremely talented at writing poets and Pianwen, a type of parallel prose.

 

In his short life, he left many brilliant poems and prose and the most extraordinary Pianwen prose, "Tengwangge Xu", in Chinese history. 

 

Some Famous Verses from Wang Bo's Poems

 

  • 海内存知己,天涯若比邻。

Wherever in the world, with bosom friendship in the heart; we'll be as close as neighbors even when apart.

  • 老当益壮,宁移白首之心?穷且益坚,不坠青云之志。

 

Aged and more vigorous, how can one change their dreams for oldness? Destitute yet firmer, and never abandon one's soaring ambition.

Main Building of Pavilion of Prince Teng or Tengwang Ge.

Main Building of Tengwangge or Pavilion of Prince Teng in Nanchang City.

Sage Poet — Wang Changling

 

Wang Changling (698 — 757) is famous for his Frontier Poetry, which praises the bravery and ambition of the Tang Empire's generals and soldiers, their heroic fights, and their admirable loyalty. 

 

Some Famous Verses from Wang Changling's Poems

 

  • 秦时明月汉时关,万里长征人未还。但使龙城飞将在,不教胡马度阴山。

 

The moon of Qin is shining on the passes of Han; our soldiers haven't returned from the long expedition.

 

If the great general (Wei Qing) were guarding the country, no enemies would dare to cross the mountain in the frontier region. 

阳关遗址 孙志成.jpg

Remains of the Yang Pass or Yangguan Pass of Han Dynasty in Dunhuang, Photo by Sun Zhicheng.

Spirit Poet — Su Shi

 

Su Shi (1037 — 1101) was an almighty scholar who mastered poetry, Ci poems, essays, prose, painting, and calligraphy. 

 

Some Famous Verses from Su Shi's Poems

 

  • 休对故人思故国,且将新火试新茶。诗酒趁年华。Su Shi (1037 — 1101)

 

Cease dwelling on old friends and homeland's memories; brew new tea with a fresh flame. Enjoy poetry and wine while in our primes.

 

  • 人生如逆旅,我亦是行人。

 

Life is a hotel to sojourn; I too am a passing traveler. 

  • 人有悲欢离合,月有阴晴圆缺,此事古难全。

 

People would experience joy and sorrow, parting and reunion; as the moon would dim, shine, wax, and wane; imperfection has been the eternality. 

  • 水光潋滟晴方好,山色空蒙雨亦奇。

The brimming waves delight the eyes on sunny days, the dimming hills present rare views in rainy haze. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

Historic Bridge on West Lake

Mountains and Historic Bridge on West Lake, Photo by Zuiaihangzhou.

Examples of Chinese Poems About Different Themes
 

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