Chinese poetry came into existence representing the glory of civilized brilliance and symbolizing the popular spirit and national wisdom long before the written literature appeared.
The classical poetry manifested through ballads, folklores and oral legends influenced the course of culture and created the basis of literary tradition in China. With written verses appearing years later, Chinese poetry reflected strong lyricism, imagination, outpouring of sensibility and spotlight on couplets. The glory that began with ballads lingered in artistic conception for thousands of years and exerted profound appeal that steered the development of poetry in China for centuries.
The generous feeling of expression among the Chinese people inherent since ancient times led to development of poetry depicting its exciting history. Mostly comprising of fairies and legends orally sung by street singers, poetry in China developed a variety of forms influenced by history, geography and culture of regions and dynasties. Ever since the beginning of oral poetry traditions, Chinese people remained focused on rhythm and its artistic rendering.
Shi Jing or the Book of Poetry, believed to be compiled by Confucius, is widely recognized as the anchor book or the first anthology of Chinese poetry. It contains 305 of thousands of poems popular in China from the 11th century BC to 6th century BC. The poems look more rustic and on folk lines with focus on aristocratic life style and natural surroundings. They have four-character lines and mostly resemble prose style.
Qu Yuan and Song Yu developed the Chuci style of poetry during the fourth century BC. Known as southern literally poetry, it had distinct romantic attributes. Qu’s work Li Sao is an example of better lyrical and descriptive composition of this style that was absence previously. When Qin Shi Huang ordered burning of books around 215 BC, the poetic tradition suffered significant loss.
During the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), the Chuci school of poetry led to the development of the distinct Fu style. The new format, a combination of prose and poem passages, was more descriptive in nature. It allowed poets to showcase skills and knowledge without exuding strong emotional sense. It looked more personal and short than previous poetic trends. The Fu style provided the mainstay of poetry for the next six dynasties, and even today, it remains a strong influence on the development of poetry in China.
A distinct folk poetry also emerged during the Han period. Known as Yuefu or Music Bureau, it primarily followed state efforts to compile folk poems. These literary traditions with their hallmark of five and seven-character lines also led many poets of the time to follow it. Nineteen Old Poems is regarded as the most important anthology of Han poetry of the time.
Toward the end of the Han rule, poetry entered a new phase known as Jian'an poetry. Works of Cao Cao and Xu Gan represent the best of the period. This style is marked by graceful verses, fixed length and odd number of lines. It was regarded by many as the precursor of Tang poetry. Jian'an and Han poetries flourished during the Six Dynasties.
The classical Chinese poetry of the period saw focus on relationships, love, romance and gender sensitivity. Political chaos and social violence were also reflected in the poetic renderings. The era saw many great poetic works, such as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and New Songs from the Jade Terrace.
Tang poetry was a refined form of five and seven character Han style called Shi. The period saw the peak of literary tradition in China and national poetry acquired pervasive social phenomenon. Ability to compose poems was made part of the Mandarin examination system and also recognized a social and political virtue. Rhymed and parallel structures allow poems composed with sophisticated look and superior lyrical style.
Li Bai, Wang Wei, Du Fu and other Chinese poets of the period are continued to be revered even today. Their works refined linguistics and reconstructed the middle pronunciation of Chinese language. Even today the book Tang Shi San Bai Shou or the “Three Hundred Tang Dynasty Poems” is required reading for Chinese globally for its literary value.
The Ci style of Chinese poetry became popular during the Song Dynasty though the Tang tradition lingered on. The form emerged following the intermixing of poetry, painting and calligraphy. It was marked by better lyrical format, a versatile verse form, rhyme, fixed-rhythm pattern and tempo, which taken together formed a poetic meter. Su Shi and Yang Wanli excelled in this form of poetry.
The opera verse tradition patronized by the Yuan Dynasty effected new changes in Chinese poetry. A new form called Qu style came into existence. Poems were developed according to nine musical renderings and 200 tune patterns. Rhythmic and tonal necessities defined the poetic pattern with emphasis on its musical component. The style led to emergence of dramatist-poets, such as Guan Hanqing and Qiao Ji. A new painter-poets class also came into existence and many poems were written on calligraphic formats.
The prosperity during the Ming Dynasty supported Classical Chinese poetry to thrive. Expansion of literacy added to the number and quality of poetic compositions. The period also saw revival of Song and Tang poetry styles. The Qing era saw compilation of various classical poetry styles into anthologies, such as the Three Hundred Poems and Quantangshi. It also witnessed emergence of modern Chinese opera tradition, a blend of poetry, music and drama. Celebrated poet Yuan Mei added fresh muse to the poetic tradition of the period.
Classical Chinese poetry continued its progress even after the imperial era. Mao Zedong was a great votary of this poetic tradition and gave it a nationalistic orientation. However, the new social and political culture paved the way for modern poetry. The vernacular style of the modern poetry that emerged post-1919 May Fourth Movement effected a break from the classical one.
Today’s poets mostly follow the western style incorporating end-rhymes, free verse and direct diction in sharp contrast to natural flow, parallelism and formal modes that dominated the classical traditions of poetry in China.
Learn More? Sign Up and Receive the Latest Chinese History News!