Get Your Premium Membership

Chinese Poetry and Literature

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

The literature of China is remarkable (1) for its antiquity, coupled with an unbroken continuity down to the present day; (2) for the variety of subjects presented, and for the exhaustive treatment which, not only each subject, but also each subdivision, each separate item, has received, as well as for the colossal scale on which so many literary monuments have been conceived and carried out; (3) for the accuracy of its historical statements, so far as it has been possible to test them; and further (4) for its ennobling standards and lofty ideals, as well as for its wholesome purity and an almost total absence of coarseness and obscenity.

No history of Chinese literature in the Chinese language has yet been produced; native scholars, however, have adopted, for bibliographical purposes, a rough division into four great classes. Under the first of these, we find the Confucian Canon, together with lexicographical, philological, and other works dealing with the elucidation of words. Under the second, histories of various kinds, officially compiled, privately written, constitutional, &c.; also biography, geography and bibliography. Under the third, philosophy, religion, e.g. Buddhism; the arts and sciences, e.g. war, law, agriculture, medicine, astronomy, painting, music and archery; also a host of general works, monographs, and treatises on a number of topics, as well as encyclopaedias. The fourth class is confined to poetry of all 223descriptions, poetical critiques, and works dealing with the all-important rhymes.

Poetry.—Proceeding chronologically, without reference to Chinese classification, we have to begin, as would naturally be expected, with the last of the above four classes. Man’s first literary utterances in China, as elsewhere, took the form of verse; and the earliest Chinese records in our possession are the national lyrics, the songs and ballads, chiefly of the feudal age, which reaches back to over a thousand years before Christ. Some pieces are indeed attributed to the 18th century B.C.; the latest bring us down to the 6th century B.C. Such is the collection entitled Shih Ching (or She King), popularly known as the Odes, which was brought together and edited by Confucius, 551-479 B.C., and is now included among the Sacred Books, forming as it does an important portion of the Confucian Canon. These Odes, once over three thousand in number, were reduced by Confucius to three hundred and eleven; hence they are frequently spoken of as “the Three Hundred.” They treat of war and love, of eating and drinking and dancing, of the virtues and vices of rulers, and of the misery and happiness of the people. They are in rhyme. Rhyme is essential to Chinese poetry; there is no such thing as blank verse. Further, the rhymes of the Odes have always been, and are still, the only recognized rhymes which can be used by a Chinese poet, anything else being regarded as mere jingle. Poetical licence, however, is tolerated; and great masters have availed themselves freely of its aid. One curious result of this is that whereas in many instances two given words may have rhymed, as no doubt they did, in the speech of three thousand years ago, they no longer rhyme to the ear in the colloquial of to-day, although still accepted as true and proper rhymes in the composition of verse.

It is noticeable at once that the Odes are mostly written in lines of four words, examples of lines consisting of any length from a single word to eight, though such do exist, being comparatively rare. These lines of four words, generally recognized as the oldest measure in Chinese poetry, are frequently grouped as quatrains, in which the first, second and fourth lines rhyme; but very often only the second and fourth lines rhyme, and sometimes there are groups of a larger number of lines in which occasional lines are found without any rhyme at all. A few stray pieces, as old as many of those found among the Odes, have been handed down and preserved, in which the metre consists of two lines of three words followed by one line of seven words. These three lines all rhyme, but the rhyme changes with each succeeding triplet. It would be difficult to persuade the English reader that this is a very effective measure, and one in which many a gloomy or pathetic tale has been told. In order to realise how a few Chinese monosyllables in juxtaposition can stir the human heart to its lowest depths, it is necessary to devote some years to the study of the language.

At the close of the 4th century B.C., a dithyrambic measure, irregular and wild, was introduced and enjoyed considerable vogue. It has indeed been freely adopted by numerous poets from that early date down to the present day; but since the 2nd century B.C. it has been displaced from pre-eminence by the seven-word and five-word measures which are now, after much refinement, the accepted standards for Chinese poetry. The origin of the seven-word metre is lost in remote antiquity; the five-word metre was elaborated under the master-hand of Mei Shêng, who died 140 B.C.Passing over seven centuries of growth, we reach the T‘ang dynasty, A.D. 618-905, the most brilliant epoch in the history of Chinese poetry. These three hundred years produced an extraordinarily large number of great poets, and an output of verse of almost incredible extent. In 1707 an anthology of the T‘ang poets was published by Imperial order; it ran to nine hundred books or sections, and contained over forty-eight thousand nine hundred separate poems. A copy of this work is in the Chinese department of the University Library at Cambridge.

It was under the T‘ang dynasty that a certain finality was reached in regard to the strict application of the tones to Chinese verse. For the purposes of poetry, all words in the language were ranged under one or the other of two tones, the even and the oblique, the former now including the two even tones, of which prior to the 11th century there was only one, and the latter including the rising, sinking and entering tones of ordinary speech. The incidence of these tones, which may be roughly described as sharps and flats, finally became fixed, just as the incidence of certain feet in Latin metres came to be governed by fixed rules. Thus, reading downward from right to left, as in Chinese, a five-word stanza may run:

Sharp Flat Flat Sharp
sharp flat flat sharp
flat sharp flat sharp
 °  °  °  °
flat sharp sharp flat
sharp flat sharp flat

A seven-word stanza may run:

Flat Sharp Sharp  
flat sharp sharp flat
sharp flat flat sharp
sharp flat flat sharp
 °  °  °  °
flat sharp flat flat
flat sharp sharp flat
sharp flat sharp sharp

The above are only two metres out of many, but enough perhaps to give to any one who will read them with a pause or quasi-caesura, as marked by ° in each specimen, a fair idea of the rhythmic lilt of Chinese poetry. To the trained ear, the effect is most pleasing; and when this scansion, so to speak, is united with rhyme and choice diction, the result is a vehicle for verse, artificial no doubt, and elaborate, but admirably adapted to the genius of the Chinese language. Moreover, in the hands of the great poets this artificiality disappears altogether. Each word seems to slip naturally into its place; and so far from having been introduced by violence for the ends of prosody, it appears to be the very best word that could have been chosen, even had there been no trammels of any kind, so effectually is the art of the poet concealed by art. From the long string of names which have shed lustre upon this glorious age of Chinese poetry, it may suffice for the present purpose to mention the following, all of the very first rank.

Mêng Hao-jan, A.D. 689-740, failed to succeed at the public competitive examinations, and retired to the mountains where he led the life of a recluse. Later on, he obtained an official post; but he was of a timid disposition, and once when the emperor, attracted by his fame, came to visit him, he hid himself under the bed. His hiding-place was revealed by Wang Wei, a brother poet who was present. The latter, A.D. 699-759, in addition to being a first-rank poet, was also a landscape-painter of great distinction. He was further a firm believer in Buddhism; and after losing his wife and mother, he turned his mountain home into a Buddhist monastery. Of all poets, not one has made his name more widely known than Li Po, or Li T‘ai-po, A.D. 705-762, popularly known as the Banished Angel, so heavenly were the poems he dashed off, always under the influence of wine. He is said to have met his death, after a tipsy frolic, by leaning out of a boat to embrace the reflection of the moon. Tu Fu, A.D. 712-770, is generally ranked with Li Po, the two being jointly spoken of as the chief poets of their age. The former had indeed such a high opinion of his own poetry that he prescribed it for malarial fever. He led a chequered and wandering life, and died from the effects of eating roast beef and drinking white wine to excess, immediately after a long fast. Po Chü-i, A.D. 772-846, was a very prolific poet. He held several high official posts, but found time for a considerable output of some of the finest poetry in the language. His poems were collected by Imperial command, and engraved upon tablets of stone. In one of them he anticipates by eight centuries the famous ode by Malherbe, À Du Perrier, sur la mort de sa fille.

The T‘ang dynasty with all its glories had not long passed away before another imperial house arose, under which poetry flourished again in full vigour. The poets of the Sung dynasty, A.D. 960-1260, were many and varied in style; but their work, much of it of the very highest order, was becoming perhaps a trifle more formal and precise. Life seemed to be taken more seriously than under the gay and pleasure-loving T‘angs. The long list of Sung poets includes such names as Ssu-ma Kuang, Ou-yang Hsiu and Wang An-shih, to be mentioned by and by, the first two as historians and the last as political reformer. A still more familiar name in popular estimation is that of Su Tung-p‘o, A.D. 103-1101, partly known for his romantic career, now in court favour, now banished to the wilds, but still more renowned as a brilliant poet and writer of fascinating essays.

The Mongols, A.D. 1260-1368, who succeeded the Sungs, and the Mings who followed the Sungs and bring us down to the year 1644, helped indeed, especially the Mings, to swell the volume of Chinese verse, but without reaching the high level of the two great poetical periods above-mentioned. Then came the present dynasty of Manchu Tatars, of whom the same tale must be told, in spite of two highly-cultured emperors, K‘ang Hsi and Ch‘ien Lung, both of them poets and one of them author of a collection containing no fewer than 33,950 pieces, most of which, it must be said, are but four-line stanzas, of no literary value whatever. It may be stated in this connexion that whereas China has never produced an epic in verse, it is not true that all Chinese poems are quite short, running only to ten or a dozen lines at the most. Many pieces run to several hundred lines, though the Chinese poet does not usually affect length, one of his highest efforts being the four-line stanza, known as the “stop-short,” in which “the words stop while the sense goes on,” expanding in the mind of the reader by the suggestive art of the poet. The “stop-short” is the converse of the epigram, which ends in a satisfying turn of thought to which the rest of the composition is intended to lead up; it aims at producing an impression which, so far from being final, is merely the prelude to a long series of visions and of feelings. The last of the four lines is called the “surprise line”; but the revelation it gives is never a complete one: the words stop, but the sense goes on. Just as in the pictorial art of China, 224so in her poetic art is suggestiveness the great end and aim of the artist. Beginners are taught that the three canons of verse composition are lucidity, simplicity and correctness of diction. Yet some critics have boldly declared for obscurity of expression, alleging that the piquancy of a thought is enhanced by its skilful concealment. For the foreign student, it is not necessary to accentuate the obscurity and difficulty even of poems in which the motive is simple enough. The constant introduction of classical allusions, often in the vaguest terms, and the almost unlimited licence as to the order of words, offer quite sufficient obstacles to easy and rapid comprehension. Poetry has been defined by one Chinese writer as “clothing with words the emotions which surge through the heart.” The chief moods of the Chinese poet are a pure delight in the varying phenomena of nature, and a boundless sympathy with the woes and sufferings of humanity. Erotic poetry is not absent, but it is not a feature proportionate in extent to the great body of Chinese verse; it is always restrained, and never lapses from a high level of purity and decorum. In his love for hill and stream which he peoples with genii, and for tree and flower which he endows with sentient souls, the Chinese poet is perhaps seen at his very best; his views of life are somewhat too deeply tinged with melancholy, and often loaded with an overwhelming sadness “at the doubtful doom of human kind.” In his lighter moods he draws inspiration, and in his darker moods consolation from the wine-cup. Hard-drinking, not to say drunkenness, seems to have been universal among Chinese poets, and a considerable amount of talent has been expended upon the glorification of wine. From Taoist, and especially from Buddhist sources, many poets have obtained glimpses to make them less forlorn; but it cannot be said that there is any definitely religious poetry in the Chinese language.