Chinese Poetry, 2nd ed., Revised: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres

Chinese Poetry, 2nd ed., Revised: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres

by Wai-lim Yip

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This is the first paperback edition of a classic anthology of Chinese poetry. Spanning two thousand years—from the Book of Songs (circa 600 B.C.) to the chü form of the Yuan Dynasty (1260–1368)—these 150 poems cover all major genres that students of Chinese poetry must learn. Newly designed, the unique format of this volume will enhance its… See more details below


This is the first paperback edition of a classic anthology of Chinese poetry. Spanning two thousand years—from the Book of Songs (circa 600 B.C.) to the chü form of the Yuan Dynasty (1260–1368)—these 150 poems cover all major genres that students of Chinese poetry must learn. Newly designed, the unique format of this volume will enhance its reputation as the definitive introduction to Chinese poetry, while its introductory essay on issues of Chinese aesthetics will continue to be an essential text on the problems of translating such works into English. Each poem is printed with the original Chinese characters in calligraphic form, coordinated with word-for-word annotations, and followed by an English translation. Correcting more than a century of distortion of the classical Chinese by translators unconcerned with the intricacies and aesthetics of the Chinese language, these masterful translations by Wai-lim Yip, a noted and honored translator and scholar, allow English readers to enter more easily into the dynamic of the original poems. Each section of the volume is introduced by a short essay on the mode or genre of poem about to be presented and is followed by a comprehensive bibliography.

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Chinese Poetry

An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres

By Wai-lim Yip

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8209-6



Shih Ching (The Classic of Poetry) or The Book of Songs (compiled sometime after 600 B.C.) represents the earliest specimens of ancient Chinese poetry. Confucius is supposed to have made this selection of 300-odd pieces from an original collection of 3,000. Most of these songs are communal in origin, connected with courtship, marriage, and ceremonial activities in seasonal festivals (nos. 1, 23, 95 in the present selection) and retain much of the formulaic character of oral poetry: From line to stanza, from stanza to stanzas; elementary procedures of reduplications, repetitions, variations, and symmetry; within the poem, ready-made phrases, borrowed lines and even stanzas, stock images, and situations; thematically, in place of individualistic sentiments, communal events presented in an impersonal manner showing little or no soul-cry of the ego, no deliberate, premeditated threads of development. And yet, when compared to other specimens of primitive poetry, such as those by the Semang (see Bowra, Primitive Song, p. 66), these songs display a greater degree of artistic manipulation: they are more formalized and there are more sophisticated stanzaic divisions and contrapuntal correspondence to keep pace with music and dance movements (which are now lost). These traces of workmanship affirm the fact that they have been retouched, sometimes with meticulous care, by poet-musicians.

In his Analects, Confucius assigned a utilitarian and didactic function to the Book of Songs:

For the Songs will help you to incite people's emotions, to observe their feelings, to keep company, to express your grievances. They may be used at home in the service of one's father; abroad, in the service of one's prince. Moreover, they will widen your acquaintance with the names of birds, beasts, plants and trees. [XVII.9]

If out of the three hundred Songs, I had to take one phrase to cover all my teaching, I would say, "Let there be no evil in your thoughts." [II.2; translation by Waley]

This view, much expanded and exploited by later statesmen-Confucianists, had deviated into an imposing amount of moralistic interpretations that greatly distorted the very natural and naive beauty of these rustic love songs. Song No. 23 (see text), for instance, which is an animated pastiche of a lovely rustic seducement song, is encumbered with the following didactic purposefulness. Let me quote Marcel Granet's translation of the orthodox notes to this poem in full:

Preface: The Dead Doe (shows) abhorrence of the failure to observe the rites. The kingdom was in a state of great disorder (at the end of the Yin dynasty). Ruffianism prevailed and manners became demoralized. When the civilizing influence of King Wen made itself felt although the period was still one of disorder, yet the absence of rites was deplored.

Failure to observe the rites: no intermediary employed and no ceremonial presents sent (wild geese and lengths of silk), marriages consummated by force. (Cheng.)

In times of distress ceremonial presents decreased in value. (Instead of the deer-skin which should have been sent), (I li, Marriage), the girl hopes that some of the flesh of a deer that has been killed and divided by the hunters may be sent to her wrapped in couch-grass. (Mao and Cheng.) (Chou li, Biot, i, 208.) Presents of food must be presented on a bed of herbs. (Li chi, Chueh li, Couvreur, i. 45.) The couch-grass, being white, was used because of its purity. (Mao.) Cf. I ching.

3 and 4. The young girl thinks longingly of the spring because it is not lawful for her to await the autumn. (Mao.) Mao thinks that the girl had reached 20, the limit of the marriage age. She cannot wait for the autumn-winter season (according to Mao, the proper marriage season), but thinks longingly of the spring, the time when marriages could take place summarily, in which rites and ceremonial presents are not essential.

Cheng is of opinion that the second month of spring was the recognized time for the completion of marriages. The girl thinks of the time when, in accordance with the rites, it will be permissible for her to unite with the boy. It was necessary for the boy first of all to send an intermediary to ask for her hand (line 4). Cheng believes that the preliminary betrothal ceremonies took place in autumn. Cf. L. 1 and 2.

5 and 6. A bundle of firewood wrapped in white reeds like the deer-flesh, also served as a ceremonial present [again the theory of the decreased value of the ritual gifts during times of disorder (Cheng.)]

8. Virtue like jade. Owing to its whiteness and its strength jade is symbolic of the girl's virtue.

9. A descriptive auxiliary is here used to depict an attitude in which there is no violence.

10. A sash attached to the girdle. (Mao.) This sash is an important item of feminine dress. On the birth of a girl such a sash was hung at the door. Li chi, Wei tse, Couvreur, i, 663. When the girl set out on the wedding journey (Shih ching, Pin feng, 4; Couvreur, 167), her mother fastened a sash to her girdle when she gave her parting instructions (I li, Marriage note). On the marriage night the matron in charge of the girl presented it to her after she had undressed

(I li Marriage). She used it to cleanse herself (Cheng, note on I li Marriage). To touch the sash denotes the consummation of the marriage.

11. More particularly a large hound in the grass. (Mao.) The dogs bark when violence is offered to anyone in defiance of the rites. (Mao.) Marcel Granet, p. 118-119 (see Bibliography).

The deification of Confucius since the Han Dynasty had made the Book of Songs a must for every scholar-poet in the imperial examination through which statesmanship was to be achieved. It had also left these interpretations unchallenged for more than sixteen centuries to come. This formidable phenomenon had, in turn, created a double life or identity for the Book of Songs. Both the original imaginative process of arresting the essential, vivid and immediate details of an experience and the later Confucian interpretations imposed upon these poems went into the creative consciousness of the scholar-poets—a curious sort of cultural transformation.




The collection Ch'u Tz'u (songs from the state of Ch'u in southern China) came to us through Wang I (d. A.D. 158), whose compilation and notes form the only reliable source of information on their existence. As a result, little is certain about the authorship of many of the poems therein, although most scholars believe that a number of them, particularly "Li Sao" ("Encountering Sorrow"), must have been written by Ch'ü Yuan (329–299 B.C.), a loyal minister of Ch'u driven to drown himself by his slanderers in court.

A brief examination of "Li Sao," after which all other Ch'u songs were modeled, will yield some striking differences from the northern collection Shih Ching. First of all, unlike the impersonal voices of the Songs, this poem begins with an unmistakable, intensely personal expression characterized by the venting of the poet's own predicament and his imaginative flight in search of models of integrity and beauty. Again, whereas in the Songs the anonymous poets simply use the objects most directly related to their communal experience for their "spontaneous connections and correspondences," Ch'ü Yuan, or the author of other Ch'u songs, employs a substantial amount of deliberate symbolism and allegory such as those of fragrant herbs representing virtues and the imaginative flight where different models of integrity are encountered representing quest and ideals. Even the "Nine Songs," a group of folk songs connected with shamanistic ritual performances, take on the personal stamp of Ch'ü Yuan whose purported editorship and retouching of these materials brought in extremely ornate diction and rhetorical devices alien to folk composition.

Another difference between the two collections is metrical: The Songs are dominantly four-character lines and the Ch'u songs are dominantly six-character lines plus the sound hsi (serving as a ceasura-apostrophe) placed either among or at the end of the lines in patterns like XXX hsi XX or XXXXXX hsi. The former resembles more static regulated drumbeats and the latter, surges of waves.

One interesting thing about the Ch'u songs is the flight or excursion theme that bears some likeness to the epistemological search in Western poetry and yields also a similar discursive explanatory procedure. But in spite of the tremendous influence these songs had upon later poets in imagery, diction, and metrics, this procedure has never really played a central role in the poetry to come, except perhaps in the fu form (rhymeprose).




How did the rulers of ancient China learn of the hopes and fears, joys and disappointments of the common people? Since the Ch'in Dynasty (221–205 B.C.) or earlier, there existed an official organ calledYüeh Fu, "Music Bureau," which collected ballad-songs from different provinces and through which reactions to the government could be detected. Shih Ching was believed to have come into existence in a similar manner. But it was not until 125 B.C., when Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty revived this organization, that the term Yüeh Fu ceased to become merely the designation of an imperial office. Yüeh-fu has since come to mean the collection of poems and the name of a genre.

These popular ballad-songs were originally preserved with their accompanying music that is now lost. Many of the traces of their musical relationship can still be found in repetitions, borrowed stanzas, and cliché formulas scattered among these written texts. Compare the two variations of "The East Gate" in the present selection: a change of music in different dynasties demands additional words to fill out the measure. Examples abound in the original Yüeh-fu collection. Note also whole lines borrowed from other songs. The last two lines in "Sad Song" ("All swallowed in thought: no speech / Inside the guts, wheels grind and turn") appear intact in "Old Song." Other lines in the latter, ("Home: each day farther away / Girdle: each day becomes looser") appear, with only slight variations, in No. 1 of the "Nineteen Ancient Songs" ("Separation: each day farther away / My girdle: each day becomes looser"), "Nineteen Ancient Poems" being a group of works apparently crystallized from influences of other current examples of Yüeh-fu. These same lines might have been taken from other earlier uncollected ballad-songs.

Although both were of folk origin, the Yüeh-fu ballad-songs differ from those in Shih Ching in many noticeable ways. Many of the Yüehfu songs appear more independent as lyrics than those in Shih Ching in the sense that the latter was under greater subordination to musical pressure. In the repetition of stanzas in Shih Ching, we find only minimal variations in meaning. In contrast, fewer stanzaic repetitions of this kind are found in the Yüeh-fu and when such repetitions happen, much more meaningful variations are introduced and they tend to build up progressively toward a climax. This fact, no doubt, indicates also that the songs must have been very consciously worked over by poet-musicians.

Another obvious difference is in the line length. The Yüeh-fu songs are predominantly five-character lines, the beginning of the fundamental line length for the poetry of many centuries to come. A comparison with the predominantly four-character lines in Shih Ching will reveal that the four-character line-structure does not have the same compactness and variety of function of the five-character line-structure because the extra fifth character, when placed between the other four characters or at the end, would help to connect, modify, and complicate the relationship between the remaining two pairs of characters that often form compounds. While, in this historical juncture, there was little effort to hammer and sharpen this extra fifth character to yield a multiple suggestiveness or to form what was later to be called the "eye" of the line, the rise of the five-character line-structure was an important stylistic turn in Chinese poetry. Following the steady "hammering" of the third, fourth-, and fifth-century poets, the T'ang and Sung writers had made a great art of this added character.

The group designated as "Nineteen Ancient Poems" was probably composed between the two Han Dynasties (Former Han 206 B.C.–A.D. 25; Later Han A.D. 25–220) by poet-musicians who turned the Yüeh-fu lines into his own artistic manipulation. Already, we find compact and concise buildup of line-power of a kind admired by many later poets, and upon which they modeled their poetry, including the T'ang master Li Po.

Thematically, the Yüeh-fu songs are also distinctively different. Here are some of the recurring motifs: sorrow in separation caused by war; exile and poverty, victimized by the wreckage of time; bleakness of the frontier; return of an old man from war finding everything in ruins; tortuous trip; miseries brought about by war; return of a wanderer—all oriented toward social problems. Little communal ceremonial living is reflected, although the southern Yüeh-fu, mostly love poems, would spill a trickle every now and then of the charm of unretouched songs.

The extensive imitation of these songs has given rise to what is appropriately called literary Yüeh-fuy the sophisticated use of which parallels the literary use of the English ballads. A chart of the approximate development of the Yüeh-fu maybe useful here:


206 B.C–A.D. 220 2 Hans original
A.D. 220–316
Wei, Chin imitation (literary)
Six Dynasties imitation (literary) original
Sui, T'ang imitation


Excerpted from Chinese Poetry by Wai-lim Yip. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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