Zong-Qi Cai  [tooltip content= “How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology, Columbia University Press, 2007”] [source][/tooltip]


“Zhongnan Mountain”

Listening to the sound recording of selected poems, we shall take note of a few prominent features of Chinese prosody. First of all, Chinese rhyme is simpler than English rhyme. Whereas English rhyme requires a matching of vowels and succeeding consonants of accented syllables (for example, “pan” and “can”), Chinese rhyme often involves the matching of vowels only. There are far fewer ending consonants in Chinese than in English: n and ng in Chinese of all periods and unaspirated p, t, and k for entering tones in ancient and medieval Chinese. Rhyme in Chinese does not necessarily require the matching of identical vowels; sometimes vowels of similar phonetic value suffice.

End rhyme is the most important rhyme in Chinese poetry, as in English poetry. The rhyming scheme varies considerably from genre to genre. Shi, sao, and fu poems usually rhyme on even-number lines, and often the same rhyme is employed for most, if not all, of a poem (probably owing to an abundance of homonyms). In tonally regulated shi poetry, rhyme does not change and is required to be in level tone. In the ci and qu genres, however, rhyme sometimes changes two or more times in a poem

and occurs with less predictable frequency—sometimes in almost every line

other times at extended intervals. Moreover, rhyme can be in level

or oblique tone

or in both.

All these rhyming features represent a radical break from the entrenched rhyming habit and may be attributed to the influence of new music from Central Asia.

Chinese tonal meter operates through an ordered alternation of two broad tonal categories—level and oblique tones—within lines of a prescribed number of syllables or characters, and it is therefore regarded by some as “tonal-syllabic.” Level tones include the first two tones of modern Chinese; the oblique tones consist of the third and fourth tones of modern Chinese plus the entering tone of medieval Chinese…

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.