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.


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.