Music and poetry

Francois Cheng [tooltip content= “Chinese Poetic Writing: With an Anthology of Tang Poetry (Indiana Univ Press, 1982)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

Poetry was united to music in a particularly durable fashion in China. It should be recalled that the first two collections of poetry in Chinese literature, the Shih Ching (“Classic of Poetry”) and the Ch’u Tz’a (“Songs of Ch’u”), were both collections of songs, the one of songs of secular inspiration and the other of sacred. From the Han dynasty on, even when poetry acquired an autonomous status, the tradition of popular song, the yiieh-fu, was never interrupted, while on the other hand, all poems composed by poets, in whatever form or style, were chanted aloud. Toward the end of the T’ang, around the ninth century, the flourishing of the tz’fi (sung lyric poetry) genre made concrete once again the symbiosis of poetry and music. This genre has remained in vogue into our own time.

The deep relationship between poetry and music influenced the very vision of the ‘world by which each of the two arts was inspired. Poets tended toward a musical vision of the universe, and musicians in turn sought to produce a poetic vision. The importance of music in the education of the traditional man of letters is well known; a musical instrument was an indispensable element of such a person’s property. Numerous poets, among them Wang Wei and Wen T’ing-ytin of the T’ang and Li Ch’ing-chao and Chiang K’uei of the Sung, were refined musicians; others among the greatest poets, including Li Po, Tu Fu, Han Yi_i, Po Cha-i, Li Ho, and Su Tung-p’o, wrote famous poems to extol the playing of a musician, or to preserve the resonances created within themselves by a memorable concert. On the musicians’ side, many musical pieces were based on, and took their titles from, existing poems.

In addition to the general relationship between music and poetry, the musicality of the language itself, as a vehicle of poetry, should also be emphasized. The Chinese language, from a phonic point of view, is essentially monosyllabic, in the sense that each minimal word, or mo-neme, is composed of one syllable. Monosyllabism was favored, after a fashion, by the writing system itself, where ideograms, with identical and invariable dimensions, tend to have a minimal sound as well. The very fact that each syllable constitutes a living unity, a unity of sound and meaning, engenders specific phonic effects. In addition, in Chinese the number of differentiated syllables is limited (for example, in modern Chinese there are only four differentiated syllables), and therefore each syllable has a unique value. Each sound then has an autonomy and a resonance weighted with deep significance. This autonomy in turn permits an extremely dense rhythm (for example, the pentasyl-labic line) within which a contrastive play of the Essential Numbers (two and three, representing yin and yang) is established. Finally, each sound in Chinese may be marked by different tones, and the tonal system, which existed to help remove some of the ambiguity produced by homophony, was fully exploited in poetry in the form of tonal counterpoint. The ensemble of phonic traits inherent in the language thus created a very original musicality.

This musicality is eplored in greater detail elsewhere [link] ; here it should be sufficient to point out that it did have some influence on the conception of sound in music per se, and did have some bearing on musical interpretation.

Francois Cheng
Chinese Poetic Writing: With an Anthology of Tang Poetry
Indiana University Press, 1982


The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.