- An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art
About [Location: HOME > Literature > Index of Terms > fu]

Chinese Literature
fu 賦, rhapsodies

The Four Categories of Literature
Fu 賦, commonly translated as "rhapsody" or "prose poetry", is a genre in traditional Chinese literature. The original meaning of the word fu was (besides "collecting taxes") reciting a text loudly, as can be seen in several statements in the history Zuozhuan 左傳. The bibliographic treatise Yiwenzhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 explains the word fu as "reciting, but not singing" (bu ge er song 不歌而誦). Educated persons of the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) were expected to practise propriety according to the meaning of the Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs". The Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) scholar Mao Chang 毛萇 (Mao Junior 小毛公) said that expertise in fu "spreading out" the meaning of the Songs was a requirement to become a grand master (dafu 大夫). In the Confucian Classic Zhouli 周禮 "Rites of the Zhou", the "six types of poems" (liu shi 六詩) are mentioned which are called "six expressions" (liu yi 六義) in the great preface of the Shijing. The Han period commentator Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 remarks that these six types were called feng 風 "airs", fu 賦 "extended", bi 比 "parables", xing 興 "moody introductions", ya 雅 "odes" and song 頌 "hymns". The term fu is explained with the meaning of "to spread out, to decorate" (puchen 鋪陳), in the sense of "describing the present politics in detail to make clear good and evil". All these explanations are not directly pointing at a concrete literary genre, but its use as a certain form of poem in the Shijing already paved the way for the later meaning. In his preface to his rhapsody Liangdu fu 兩都賦, the Han period writer and historian Ban Gu 班固 therefore says that fu was a branch of the ancient Songs (gu Shi zhi liu 古《詩》之流).
The late Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) philosopher Xunzi 荀子 wrote a chapter called Fu pian 賦篇 in which he says that a fu text might describe clouds (yun 雲), silkworms (can 蠶), rituals (li 禮), knowledge (zhi 知), or exhortations (zhen 箴). The bibliography Yiwenzhi says that these five were titles of rhapsodies written by Xunzi. The rhapsodies described by Xunzi consisted of four-syllable verses but were written half in prose, and a half in poetic style, with occasional rhymes. They were written in pairs of questions and answers that were often constructed like riddles (yinyu 隱語) and an indirect language.
The earliest real "rhapsodies" were the poems of the collection Chuci 楚辭, often translated as "Songs from the South" whose earliest texts like the Lisao 離騷 "Sorrow of parting" or the Jiuge 九歌 "Nine songs" were written during the late Warring States period. When the whole corpus was compiled by Liu Xiang 劉向 and Liu Xin 劉歆 during the late Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), they called them "rhapsodies of Qu Yuan" (Qu Yuan fu 屈原賦) and of Song Yu (Song Yu fu 宋玉賦). The poems of the Chuci collection are not rhapsodies in the proper sense, but they can be seen as the forerunners of the famous Han period rhapsodies.
The literary history Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 from the Liang period 梁 (502-557) points out the special character of rhapsodies. It is said that "rhapsody" (fu) means "to spread out" (pu 鋪), namely "to pave colours and to spread words" (pu cai chi wen 鋪采摛文). It is a genre that is used to express a certain purpose (xie zhi 寫志). Compared to the older genre of shi poetry 詩 the fu "rhapsodies" were much more descriptive and illustrative, discursive and peripatetic. This style is first found in the poems of Qu Yuan and Song Yu. Han period rhapsodies describe landscapes, palaces, gardens, details of a hunt, precious objects and strange animals, flowers and trees, fishes and birds, chariots and standards used during imperial activities. The Jin period 晉 (265-420) writer Lu Ji 陸機, who wrote a rhapsody called Wenfu 文賦 "The rhapsody about literature", therefore says that shi poems went back to emotions and expressed them in an extravagant way, but rhapsodies were based on objects and made them brilliant. Actually, this is only half the truth because rhapsodies, too, have the aim to express a certain sentiment or feeling. Qu Yuan, for instance, had deep sorrows about the future of his home country Chu 楚. The Jin period scholar Huangfu Mi 皇甫謐, author of the rhapsody Sandu fu 三都賦, explains in his preface that during the late Warring States period the old way of the kings was lost, and ancient styles were forgotten, so that the thinkers of that time could not but express their feelings and critiques in rhapsodies. This statement can be supported by the postface (Sima Qian's 司馬遷 autobiography) in the history Shiji 史記, where it is clearly said that the morale of rhapsodies was to bring forward criticism towards the emperor and the court.
Rhapsodies are not only overwhelming in their formal description of scenes and objects, but also in picturing the inner order of things. For both purposes, a flowery language was used, whose words were finely balanced and brought into a poetry-like pattern.
In the history of the Chinese rhapsody, there are several styles that can be discerned, namely the elegiac rhapsody (saofu 騷賦 or saoti fu 騷體賦), the Han rhapsody (Hanfu 漢賦), the couplet rhapsody (pianfu 駢賦), the rhymed rhapsody (lüfu 律賦), and the prose rhapsody (wenfu 文賦). Another classification speaks of the gufu "ancient rhapsodies" that includes the elegiac rhapsodies (saofu) and the Han period types of the dafu 大賦 "greater rhapsodies" and xiaofu 小賦 "lesser rhapsodies". A third classification speaks of the old rhapsody types created by Xunzi, Qu Yuan, Song Yu, and those of the Former Han period.

Early elegiac rhapsodies

The term "elegiac rhapsody" refers to the actual precursors of this genre, namely the Songs of the South (Chuci) with the poems of Qu Yuan and Song Yu and Jia Yi 賈誼 as representative oeuvres, the former from the Warring States period, the two latter from the Former Han. Very typical for the elegiac style of rhapsodies is the use of verse dividers (xi 兮, xie 些 or zhi 只) that were used to express a kind of sighing. The language of these early rhapsodies is very emotional and is woven in a very dense and picturesque way, with very personal thoughts expressed in metaphors and symbols. Questions and answers were paired in verses, but Song Yu's rhapsodies, and some of Qu Yuan, are very descriptive. In his rhapsody Funiao fu 鵩鳥賦 "The owl", for instance, Jia Yi converses with an owl that elucidates to him the mysteries of life. The rhapsody Zhao yinshi 招隱士 "Invitation of a hidden worthy" by Huainan Xiaoshan 淮南小山 describes a landscape. Mei Sheng's 枚乘 Qifa 七發 "Seven discoverings" are written as a parable in which a physician cures the crown prince, but in fact criticised the diseases by which the court is befallen.
Younger scholars see the elegiac rhapsodies as a separate poetic genre than the proper rhapsodies. Many great Han period poets also wrote elegiac rhapsodies, like Jia Yi (Funiao fu, Diao Qu Yuan fu 吊屈原賦), Sima Xiangru 司馬相如 (Changmen fu 長門賦), Zhang Heng 張衡 (Sixuan fu 思玄賦) and Cai Yong 蔡邕 (Shuxing fu 述行賦).

The Han period rhapsody

The term "Han rhapsody" (Han fu) designates the great rhapsodies of the Han period whose age begins with Mei Cheng's poem Qifa. There were more than 900 rhapsodies written during the Han period, composed by 60 masters. The most important representatives of Han period rhapsodies are Sima Xiangru (Zixu fu 子虛賦, Daren fu 大人賦, Meiren fu 美人賦 and Changmen fu), Yang Xiong 揚雄 (Shudu fu 蜀都賦, Ganquan fu 甘泉賦, Hedong fu 河東賦, Yulie fu 羽獵賦, Changyang fu 長楊賦), Ban Gu (Liangdu fu "The two capitals": Xifu fu 西都賦 "The western capital" and Dongdu fu 東都賦 "The eastern capital"; and the Youtong fu 幽通賦) and Zhang Heng (Liangjing fu 兩京賦). The typical character of Han period rhapsodies is the strong narrative appeal, with a very detailed description of single spots and activities. The whole text of these rhapsodies is very long and written in an extremely dense form, with a lot of information on miniscule details. The language is very rich and beautiful and makes use of ancient expressions and rare characters. Rhapsodies were therefore considered as a very elegant and refined genre of literature that was used to be recited on very ceremonial happenings. The text is often compiled in a question-and-answer pattern, or at least in such a manner that succeeding sentences refer to each other. The language give the impression of prose rather than poetry. The "lesser rhapsodies" (xiaofu) are shorter, have shorter verses, and are more direct in the use of language and descriptive words.
Ban Gu's Liangdu fu describes the palaces of the Western Capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) and the Eastern Capital Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan), and the actitivies of the court during rituals, banquets, dances, and imperial hunts. It is a praise of the glory of the Han dynasty and its courtiers and ministers. In this function it can be compared with the Shijing hymns and odes. Criticism towards the court's extravagance is also hidden in some of the verses, but only in a very delicate manner, and not too open. The Liangdu fu was later imitated by Zhang Heng 張衡 (Erdu fu 二京賦) and Zuo Si 左思 (Sandu fu 三都賦).
Sima Xiangru's Zixu and Zilin seem to be two parts of one and the same rhapsody with the title of Tianzi youlie fu 天子游獵賦 "The imperial hunt". In its style of composition this piece uses a lot of very extraordinary words and characters to describe the court, its persons and proceedings in flowery words and beautiful expressions. Of Mei Gao's 枚皋 120 rhapsodies, not a single one has survived. Dongfang Shuo's 東方朔 Qijian 七諫 "Seven admonishions" is written in the ancient elegiac style, but his Da ke nan 答客難 and Feiyou xiansheng lun 非有先生論 are two innovative texts, although they are not titled as rhapsodies. Wang Bao's 王褒 Dongxiao fu 洞簫賦 and Jiuhuai 九懷 are also quite outstanding, the former as a "lesser style" rhapsody concentrating on music, and the latter as a text in the tradition of the Songs of the South. Yang Xiong, living at the end of the Former Han period, wrote some very outstanding rhapsodies, namely Ganquan fu, Hedong fu, Yulie fu and Changyang fu. They stand in the tradition of Sima Xiangru's writings but are much more open in their critique towards the extravant life of the elite and their suppression of the lower classes. His Jiechao 解嘲 in influenced by Dongfang Shuo, and his Zhupin fu 逐貧賦 and Jiufu 酒賦 attack the luxury of the capital Chang'an.
After the mid-Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) the "greater style" rhapsody began to decline, and social problems as well as individual worldviews entered the focus of rhapsody writers. This was a trend that can also be seen in the yuefu 樂府 "Songs of the Music Bureau" style poems that flourished during the Later Han period. Zhang Heng's Erdu fu stood in the tradition of Ban Gu's great rhapsody on the two capitals of the Han, but it is much more critical towards the extravagant life of the ruling elite that stood in blatant constrast with the poverty of the common man. His rhapsody Guitian fu 歸田賦 reflects the wish of many literati to give up their official career in face of the eunuchs' domination of court politics. This rhapsody is concerned with common affairs, and not any more with the glorious rituals at the court, and therefore is an excellent example of the trend to write "lesser rhapsodies" (xiaofu) rather than "greater rhapsodies" (dafu). A forerunner of this phenomenon was Ban Biao 班彪 with his rhapsody Beizheng fu 北征賦 "Northern campaign".
Zhao Yi's 趙壹 Cishi jixie fu 刺世嫉邪賦 is a very critical rhapsody that expresses the author's doubts about any moral principles among the ruling elite. Cai Yong's Shuxing fu describes not only the mismanagement of the eunuchs and the fights among various parties at the court, but also the sufferings of the common people. Mi Heng 禰衡, writing in the very last decades of the Han period, wrote the Yingwu fu 鸚鵡賦 "The parrots", in which he explains that he had the feeling to live in a time of imminent disaster.
Although the rhapsody during the Han period experienced an apogee as a very high-standing genre of courtial literature, and, especially in the later phase, was used as a form to express private feelings and social criticism, it was also felt that the genre of the rhapsody had changed from a type of literature mainly expressing reverent admiration of a great cause (qingyi 情義) to a type of literature mainly concerned with an outer shape (xingshi 事形). Such a criticism towards the Han period rhapsody was brought forward by the Western Jin 西晉 (265-316) scholar Zhi Yu 摯虞.

Rhapsodies during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period

Rhapsodies ritten in couplets were also called paifu 俳賦 "juggling rhapsodies". They were born during the late Han and flourished during the Jin and the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420~589). Emperor Wen 魏文帝 (r. 220-226) of the Cao-Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265), as a writer known under his private name Cao Pi 曹丕, has written the literary critique Dianlun 典論, in which he says that "poems and rhapsodies must be beautiful" (shi fu yu li 詩賦欲麗). This means that beauty is mainly achieved in the right composition of words. In the early phase the text of rhapsodies was embellished with couplets or paired sentences. In the later phase these paired sentences even became subject to a strict regulation of syllables of four of six, and two sentences were subject to a common rhyme that was even subject to strict phonetic rules. This was a deep stylistic change compared with the high time of rhapsodies during the Han period when rhapsodies were written in a free language with relatively long sentences of a different number of words. Except these formalistic criteria, the text of rhapsodies had to consist of flowery and elegant language, an endless stream of detailed descriptions like a garden of flowers or a piece of brocade. This type of literature is much closer to what is today understood as a "poem", while earlier rhapsodies were actually a type of formalized prose text. Of the Seven Masters of the Jian'an Reign (Jian'an qizi 建安七子), only Wang Can 王粲 used to write in the ancient style of the Han rhapsodies. Cao Zhi 曹植 (Luoshen fu 洛神賦) and the Jin period master Lu Ji made already extensive use of rhymed sentences and "void" syllables to fill verses and to acheive a fluent and pleasantly harmonious style. Shen Yue 沈約 from the Liang period 梁 (502-557) wrote only in four-syllable verses. Xu Ling 徐陵 and Yu Jianwu 庾肩吾 (Xiaoyuan fu 小園賦) finally introduced paired verses. Seen from the content, the "greater" rhapsodies (dafu) of the Han period were concerned with the description of capitals, palaces and gardens, with hunts and ritual activities. Rhapsodies of the Jin and the Southern and Northern Dynasties period were "lesser" rhapsodies talking about private emotions and feelings, daily activities and peculiar matters. Their number also increased drastically. Alone from the Jian'an reign 建安 (196-219) more than 150 rhapsodies have survived, of which Cao Zhi had written a third. The themes change to descriptions of social circumstances, and not any more great events and rituals at the court. Examples of Wei and Jin period rhapsodies of this style are Wang Can's Fuhuai fu 浮淮賦, Ruan Yu's 阮瑀 Jizheng fu 紀征賦, Xu Gan's 徐幹 Xizheng fu 西征賦, Chen Lin's 陳琳 Wujun fu 武軍賦, or Cao Pi's Linwo fu 臨渦賦. Examples for rhapsodies with a stron emotional context are Wang Can's Denglou fu 登樓賦 and Cao Zhi's Luoshen fu. This tendency was deepened by Wei period writers like Ji Kang's 嵇康 rhapsody Qin fu 琴賦 "The zither". He Yan 何晏 created with his Jingfudian fu 景福殿賦 one of the last "great style" rhapsodies that described imperial palaces. Ruan Ji 阮籍 criticized the mean man in his rhapsody Miyuan fu 獼猴賦 "The monkeys" and directly attacked the brutal machinations of the Sima family 司馬 in his rhapsody Jiu fu 鳩賦 "The dove".
Fu Xuan's 傅玄 more than 50 rhapsodies of the Western Jin period are excellent pieces that stand in the tradition of earlier writers but are not very original. Such are Feng fu 風賦 "Wind", Dayan fu 大言賦, Qin fu 琴賦 "The zither", Tanqi fu 彈棋賦 "Playing chess", or Chan fu 蟬賦 "The cicada". Other examples for Western Jin "lesser style" rhapsodies are Pan Yue's 潘岳 Xizheng fu 西征賦, Qiuxing fu 秋興賦, Lu Ji's Haoshi fu 豪士賦, Wen fu 文賦, Chenggong Sui's 成公綏 Su fu 嘯賦, or Mu Hua's 木華 Hai fu 海賦. They are strong in their skill to use beautiful and elegant words. Zuo Si has written one of the last "greater" rhapsodies, the Sandu fu.
Among the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) rhapsodies some fresh and innovative pieces are to be found, like Yuan Hong's 袁宏 Dongzheng fu 東征賦, Guo Pu's 郭璞 Jiang fu 江賦, Sun Chuo's 孫綽 You Tiantaishan fu 游天臺山賦 and Tao Yuanming's 陶淵明 rhapsodies Xianqing fu 閒情賦 and Ganshi buyu fu 感士不遇賦.

Tang lüfu and Song wenfu

During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) the state examinations were introduced as one mode to gain candidates for state offices. The examinations required that examinees were able to write rhapsodies. In the examination curriculum these rhapsodies were called lüfu "rhymed rhapsodies" because they had to be written in the refined style of the couplet texts, with a strong emphasis on sound, verse, and rhythm. The rhapsody Pei fu lao liu Han Gaozu fu 沛父老留漢高祖賦 by Wang Qi 王棨, for instance, was written in eight stanzas that exclusively make use of eight rhymes, and no more. Rhapsodies had first been used in state examinations during the Sui period 隋 (581-618). At that time there were not yet any rules for the composition of rhymed or rhythmic verses in rhapsodies. One of the earliest examples of a verse-rhapsody is Wang Bo's 王勃 Han wu qi feng fu 寒梧棲鳳賦 that instrumentalized the rhymes yu 孤, qing 清, ye 夜 and yue 月. From this example it can be seen that the use of lüfu was not restricted to the state examinations, but was very popular among writers and literati. Feng Jian's 馮鑒 book Wenti zhiyao 文體指要 from the Five Dynasties period 五代 (907-960) about literary genres (quoted in Wu Ceng's 吳曾 Nenggaizhai manlu 能改齋漫錄) says that in the early Tang there still no strict rules for lüfu texts. It seems that from 714 on the writings of rhymed rhapsodies became part and parcel of the examinations (as shifu 試賦 "examination rhapsodies"). Wang Qiu's 王丘 Qifu 旗賦 "The flag" is the earliest surviving example of this kind of literature, with eight rhymes. In later years more and more rules and restrictions were invented, even for the content: It was prescribed that the themes of a rhapsody were to be taken from the four categories of literature. The number of rhymes ranged between 2 and 17, yet in some cases it was sufficient to use a tone pitch in the sense of a rhyme. Rhymed rhapsodies became so popular that even high-standing writers like Bai Juyi 白居易, his brother Bai Xingjian 白行簡, Jia Su 賈餗, Wang Qi 王起 and Huang Tao 黃滔 professed in the writing of lüfu rhapsodies, yet experts rate their quality as mediocre.
When eight rhymes were used, it was prescribed that they alternated between a level tone (ping 平) and a dropping tone (ze 仄). This pattern was even decreed in an edict by Emperor Taizong 宋太宗 (r. 976-997) of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) in 984. Similar to the infamous eight-legged essay (baguwen 八股文) that was required during the examinations of the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods, lüfu rhapsodies were never a commonly used type of literature, but they only served as an instrument in the examinations. The Ming period scholar Xu Shiceng 徐師曾 even says in his book Wenti mingbian 文體明辨 that the literary quality of the rhapsodies went down with the invention of the lüfu. The use of rhymes in rhapsodies began with Shen Yue 沈約, Xu Ling and Yu Jianwu during the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420~589) and was then fully used from the Sui period on.
Prose rhapsodies (wenfu) were created during the Song period as a reaction to the overloaded couplet style was was made use of in the lüfu "rhymed rhapsodies" of the Tang and early Song periods. This development is congruent to the "return" to a plain, simple and unadorned language that was called guwen 古文 "old-style literature" (today called guwen yundong 古文運動 "ancient style movement"). In his book Gufu bianti 古賦辨體 the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) scholar Zhu Yao 祝堯 explains that there were during the Song period basically two types of writing, namely rhymed or "paired" writings (paiti 俳體), and plain-style writings (wenti 文體). Rhapsodies belonged to the latter category. The literary movement to go back to a simple style of writings had already been initiated by mid-Tang period writers like Han Yu 韓愈 and Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元. Some of their writings are in fact rhapsodies written in the ancient style of the Han period, but their titles do not include the word "rhapsody" (Jinxue jie 進學解, Wenda 答問, She yu zhe dui Zhi Bo 設漁者對智伯) because the contemporary understanding of what a rhapsody is, was different. The oldest Tang period rhapsody written in the ancient, simple style was Epanggong fu 阿房宮賦 by Du Mu 杜牧. During the early Song period writers of the Xikun School 西崑派 continued using the rhymed style for rhapsodies, but the influential writer Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 supported the "ancient literature" movement and so contributed to the decline of the rhymed rhapsody. His most important writing in this field was the Qiusheng fu 秋聲賦. Su Shi 蘇軾 later also wrote rhapsodies in the ancient style, the two most famous of which were called Qian Chibi fu 前赤壁賦 and Hou Chibi fu 後赤壁賦. These early Song period wenfu rhapsodies are characterized by description of landscape, the expression of emotions, the narration of actions, and the discussion of certain themes. Their authors can be credited with the merit to have led back the rhapsody into the genre of prose writings, and away from poetry. On the other hand, the literary quality of Song period prose rhapsodies is assessed as below their Han period forerunners. While stylistic patterns were retained, the wording was perceived as missing the attractiveness of poems. Yuan period persons like Zhu Yao felt a kind of inconsistency in the hybrid form of the prose rhapsody that was neither real prose, nor poetry. This impression might have contributed to the gradual disinterest of writers into the genre of rhapsodies after the end of the Song period.

Sources: Chu Binjie 褚斌傑 (1986), "Hanfu 漢賦", Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, p. 235. ● Ho, Kenneth (1986). "Fu 賦", in William H. Nienhauser, ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 388-391. ● Ni Qixin 倪其心 (1986), "Gufu 古賦", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, p. 188. ● Ni Qixin 倪其心 (1986), "Lüfu 律賦", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, p. 493. ● Ni Qixin 倪其心 (1986). "Paifu 俳賦", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, p. 606. ● Ni Qixin 倪其心 (1986), "Wenfu 文賦", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, p. 928. ● Tao Qiuying 陶秋英 (1986), "Fu 賦", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, p. 161. ● Xu Gongshi 徐公持 (1986), "Sanguo liang Jin fu 三國兩晉賦", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, p. 674.

July 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
Chinese Literature over time