CHINAKNOWLEDGE - a universal guide for China studies | HOME | About
Encoding: Unicode (UTF-8) [Location: HOME > Literature > Belles-lettres category > shi poetry]

Chinese Literature
shi 詩 poetry


Although shi is a general term for "poem", it describes especially a type of regulated poem that was very popular during the Tang period 唐 (618-907) and has been in use until today. Besides the songs and hymns in the Shijing 詩經, the "Book of Songs", the earliest kind of shi poetry is the gushi 古詩 "old poem" type during the Han period 漢 (206 BC-220 AD). This type was probably influenced by Inner Asian types of music and poetry with a simple style in rhyming in couplets. For the "old poem" there were no rules regarding the placement of tones throughout the verse - except requirements of euphony. It was an easy and natural lyric medium in use during the Han and Jin 晉 (265-420) periods. Many of the gushi poems are resumed into groups like the Gushi shijiu shou 古詩十九首 "Nineteen old poems" and can be found in the Liang period 梁 (502-557) anthology Yutai xinyong 玉臺新詠.
Tang dynasty literati developed a new type of poem called lüshi 律詩 "regulated verse". Seen from the outer shape, the gushi and lüshi are identical. Both have five- or seven-syllable verses, composed to quatrain stanzas. Like older poems too, the first two verses describe a natural scene, while the other describe the poet's sentiments or feelings. But the lüshi prosody or chanting rules are very complicated and underlie strict patterns of the tone pitch of the syllable. While in the West syllables are either long or short, Chinese syllables have either a level tone (ping 平) or a deflected tone (ze 仄). Which kind of syllable has to be used for what position inside the verse depends on a complicated rhythm and rime system that shall not be discussed here. Additionally, couplets are underlying some rules of contrast or parallelism in the words used, e.g. the first verse using words describing height, must be alternated by the second verse describing a scene of flat land or so. Knowledge of the lüshi form was a prerequisite both for the imperial examinations and for membership in the upper-class society. Anyone with an education was expected to compose regulated verse on virtually every social occasion.
Except the translated examples below, there are some more famous Tang poets, like Chen Zi'ang 陳子昂 (661-702), Zhang Jiuling 張九齡 (673-740), Cui Hao 崔顥 (704-754), Liu Changqing 劉長卿 (710-785), Cen Can 岑參 (715-770), Wei Yingwu 韋應物 (b. 736), Master Hanshan 寒山 (fl. 770), Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824), Liu Yuxi 劉禹錫 (772-842), Yuan Zhen 元稹 (779-831), and many more. Even emperors like Tang Taizong 唐太宗 (r. 627-650) and Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 (r. 684/690-705) wrote shi poems, and in the Qing period anthology Quantangshi 全唐詩, we even find the poems of singsong girls.
A short type of lüshi is the jueju 絕句 "termined sentence", a type less subject to the rules of verbal parallelism. The jueju is particularly suited to express a fleeting mood or capturing the essence of a certain scene and was very popular during the second half of Tang. It can be compared to the short Japanese lyric style of tanka 短歌 "short song (or poem)".

Exemplarious translation:

A 五言古詩 Old style poems with five syllables
李白 : 月下獨酌
花間一壺酒,
獨酌無相親。
舉杯邀明月,
對影成三人。
月既不解飲,
影徒隨我身。
暫伴月將影,
行樂須及春。
我歌月徘徊,
我舞影零亂。
醒時同交歡,
醉後各分散。
永結無情遊,
相期邈雲漢。
Li Bai (701-762) "Drinking alone with the moon"
From a pot of wine among the flowers, I drank alone. There was no one with me --
Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon To bring me my shadow and make us three.
Alas, the moon was unable to drink And my shadow tagged me vacantly;
But still for a while I had these friends To cheer me through the end of spring...
I sang. The moon encouraged me. I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
As long as I knew, we were boon companions. And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.
...Shall goodwill ever be secure? I watch the long road of the River of Stars.
樂府 Poems in the style of the Music Bureau
王昌齡 : 塞上曲
蟬鳴空桑林,
八月蕭關道。
出塞復入塞,
處處黃蘆草。
從來幽并客,
皆向沙場老。
莫學遊俠兒,
矜誇紫騮好。
Wang Changling (698-756) "At a border fortress" I
Cicadas complain of thin mulberry-trees In the Eighth-month chill at the frontier pass.
Through the gate and back again, all along the road, There is nothing anywhere but yellow reeds and grasses
And the bones of soldiers from You and from Bing Who have buried their lives in the dusty sand.
...Let never a cavalier stir you to envy With boasts of his horse and his horsemanship

王昌齡 塞下曲
飲馬渡秋水,
水寒風似刀。
平沙日未沒,
黯黯見臨洮。
昔日長城戰,
咸言意氣高。
黃塵足今古,
白骨亂蓬蒿。

Wang Changling "At a border fortress" II
Drink, my horse, while we cross the autumn water!- The stream is cold and the wind like a sword,
As we watch against the sunset on the sandy plain, Far, far away, shadowy Lingtao.
Old battles, waged by those long walls, Once were proud on all men's tongues.
But antiquity now is a yellow dust, Confusing in the grasses its ruins and white bones.
B 七言古詩 Old style poems with seven syllables
柳宗元 : 漁翁
漁翁夜傍西巖宿,
曉汲清湘燃楚燭。
煙銷日出不見人,
欸乃一聲山水綠。
迴看天際下中流,
巖上無心雲相逐。
Liu Zongyuan (733-819) "An old fisherman"
An old fisherman spent the night here, under the western cliff; He dipped up water from the pure Hsiang and made a bamboo fire;
And then, at sunrise, he went his way through the cloven mist, With only the creak of his paddle left, in the greenness of mountain and river.
...I turn and see the waves moving as from heaven, And clouds above the cliffs coming idly, one by one.

李白 : 長相思二首之一
長相思,在長安,
絡緯秋啼金井闌。
微霜淒淒簟色寒,
孤燈不明思欲絕。
卷帷望月空長歎,
美人如花隔雲端。
上有青冥之長天,
下有淥水之波瀾。
天長路遠魂飛苦,
夢魂不到關山難。
長相思,摧心肝。

Li Bai "Endless yearning" I
"I am endlessly yearning to be in Chang'an. ...Insects hum of autumn by the gold brim of the well;
A thin frost glistens like little mirrors on my cold mat; The high lantern flickers; and. deeper grows my longing.
I lift the shade and, with many a sigh, gaze upon the moon, Single as a flower, centred from the clouds.
Above, I see the blueness and deepness of sky. Below, I see the greenness and the restlessness of water...
Heaven is high, earth wide; bitter between them flies my sorrow. Can I dream through the gateway, over the mountain?
Endless longing breaks my heart."

李白 : 長相思二首之二
日色已盡花含煙,
月明欲素愁不眠。
趙瑟初停鳳凰柱,
蜀琴欲奏鴛鴦絃。
此曲有意無人傳,
願隨春風寄燕然。
憶君迢迢隔青天,
昔日橫波目。
今成流淚泉。
不信妾腸斷,
歸來看取明鏡前。

Li Bai "Endless yearning" II
"The sun has set, and a mist is in the flowers; And the moon grows very white and people sad and sleepless.
A Zhao harp has just been laid mute on its phoenix holder, And a Shu lute begins to sound its mandarin-duck strings...
Since nobody can bear to you the burden of my song, Would that it might follow the spring wind to Yanran Mountain.
I think of you far away, beyond the blue sky, And my eyes that once were sparkling
Are now a well of tears. ...Oh, if ever you should doubt this aching of my heart,
Here in my bright mirror come back and look at me!"
C 五言律詩 Regulated poems with five syllables
駱賓王 : 在獄詠蟬
西路蟬聲唱,
南冠客思侵。
那堪玄鬢影,
來對白頭吟。
露重飛難進,
風多響易沉。
無人信高潔,
誰為表予心。
Luo Binwang (b. 640) "A prisoner listening to a cicada" (without preface)
While the year sinks westward, I hear a cicada Bid me to be resolute here in my cell,
Yet it needed the song of those black wings To break a white-haired prisoner's heart...
His flight is heavy through the fog, His pure voice drowns in the windy world.
Who knows if he be singing still? - - Who listens any more to me?

杜甫 : 月夜
今夜鄜州月,
閨中只獨看。
遙憐小兒女,
未解憶長安。
香霧雲鬟濕,
清輝玉臂寒。
何時倚虛幌,
雙照淚痕乾。

Du Fu (712-770) "On a moonlight night"
Far off in Fuzhou she is watching the moonlight, Watching it alone from the window of her chamber-
For our boy and girl, poor little babes, Are too young to know where the Capital is.
Her cloudy hair is sweet with mist, Her jade-white shoulder is cold in the moon.
...When shall we lie again, with no more tears, Watching this bright light on our screen?

李商隱 : 落花
高閣客竟去,
小園花亂飛。
參差連曲陌,
迢遞送斜暉。
腸斷未忍掃,
眼穿仍欲歸。
芳心向春盡,
所得是沾衣。

Li Shangyin (813-858) "Falling petals"
Gone is the guest from the Chamber of Rank, And petals, confused in my little garden,
Zigzagging down my crooked path, Escort like dancers the setting sun.
Oh, how can I bear to sweep them away? To a sad-eyed watcher they never return.
Heart's fragrance is spent with the ending of spring And nothing left but a tear-stained robe.
D 七言律詩 Regulated poems with seven syllables
王維 : 積雨輞川莊作
積雨空林煙火遲,
蒸藜炊黍餉東菑。
漠漠水田飛白鷺,
陰陰夏木囀黃鸝。
山中習靜觀朝槿,
松下清齋折露葵。
野老與人爭席罷,
海鷗何事更相疑。
Wang Wei (701-761) "In my lodge at Wangchuan after a long rain"
The woods have stored the rain, and slow comes the smoke As rice is cooked on faggots and carried to the fields;
Over the quiet marsh-land flies a white egret, And mango-birds are singing in the full summer trees....
I have learned to watch in peace the mountain morningglories, To eat split dewy sunflower-seeds under a bough of pine,
To yield the post of honour to any boor at all.... Why should I frighten sea gulls, even with a thought?
E 五言絕句 Short poems with five syllables
孟浩然 : 春曉
春眠不覺曉,
處處聞啼鳥。
夜來風雨聲,
花落知多少。
Meng Haoran (689-740) "A spring morning"
I awake light-hearted this morning of spring, Everywhere round me the singing of birds --
But now I remember the night, the storm, And I wonder how many blossoms were broken.

李白 : 夜思
床前明月光,
疑是地上霜。
舉頭望明月,
低頭思故鄉。

Li Bai "In the quiet night"
So bright a gleam on the foot of my bed -- Could there have been a frost already?
Lifting myself to look, I found that it was moonlight. Sinking back again, I thought suddenly of home.
F 七言絕句 Short poems with seven syllables
賀知章 : 回鄉偶書
少小離家老大回,
鄉音無改鬢毛衰。
兒童相見不相識,
笑問客從何處來。
He Zhizhang (659-744) "Coming home"
I left home young. I return old; Speaking as then, but with hair grown thin;
And my children, meeting me, do not know me. They smile and say: "Stranger, where do you come from?"

杜牧 : 赤壁
折戟沈沙鐵未銷,
自將磨洗認前朝。
東風不與周郎便,
銅雀春深銷二喬。

Du Mu (803-852) "By the Purple Cliff"
On a part of a spear still unrusted in the sand I have burnished the symbol of an ancient kingdom....
Except for a wind aiding General Zhou Yu, Spring would have sealed both Qiao girls in Copper Bird Palace.

陸游:臨安春雨初霽
死去元知萬事空,
但悲不見九州同。
王師北定中原日,
家祭無忘告乃翁。

Lu You (1125-1210): To show to my sons, Lu You's deathbed poem (transl. Burton Watson)
In death I know well enough all things in emptiness; still I grieve that I never saw the Nine Provinces (of China) made one.
On the day the king's armies march north to take the heartland, at the family sacrifice don't forget to let your father know.
Translated by .
Chinese literature according to the four-category system

July 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail