The Musicalization of Poetry

Shuen-fu Lin [tooltip content= “Voices of the Song Lyric in China, Pauline Yu (editor) (University of California Press, 1994) “] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

The importance of the song lyric in the long history of the relationship between Chinese poetry and music resides in the particular characteristics of the music to which the lyric was set and in the fact that it represents the culmination of generations of poets’ attempts to use the distinctive features of the Chinese language to create a kind of music in poetry—what has been called the “musicalization” of poetry by Chinese literary historians.[19] The musicalization of poetry can be said to have begun in the fifth century, when for the first time educated Chinese became fully aware that their language possessed tonal features—that is, the tones p’ing (level), shang (rising), ch’ü (departing), and ju (entering).[20] The discovery subsequently led fifth-century poets to experiment with employing tones for euphonic effects. Prior to this, the tones no doubt had some bearing on the rhythm of poetry (because Chinese had probably always been a tonal language), but only on an unconscious level. By contrast, the experiments of the fifth-century poets were a self-conscious attempt to create an “intrinsic music” within the written texts themselves. Interestingly, this intrinsic music was first created in the form of poetry—shih —that lacked a corresponding musical setting, or “extrinsic music.” Shih poetry had emerged in the first century B.C. and was in fact originally associated with folk songs, but it was not until the second century A.D. that it became popular among literati poets, who began to use it as a mode for self-expression in isolation from its original musical setting. The shih poem is constructed almost entirely of end-stopped lines of equal length (of either five or seven characters each), which are further organized into basic units of couplets, with rhyme occurring at the end of each even-numbered line. It was within this regular and rigid form that the self-conscious poets of the fifth century tried to create a kind of music with the newly discovered tonal features of their native language.