Chinese Poetry

Ancient Chinese poetry started about 3000 years ago, but the classic examples were mostly written between 1700 and 2100 years ago. There was little structure about Chinese poetry back then, except for rhymes and syllable counts. The reason for this is obvious. Poetry is to be uttered fluidly and naturally, where the endings of the verses are not clear. In order for listeners to capture the structure of a poem immediately, rhymes are employed where those with higher sonority are generally preferred and even recommended in pedagogical books. Plus, don’t forget the mnemonic effect of rhymes, due to their roughly uniform distribution in the Chinese vocabularies.

In case you are not familiar with the Chinese language in general, the few distinctive characteristics of the language include monosyllabicity and tonality. Hieroglyphicity is pretty cool, too, but sound-wise, it makes no difference. Monosyllabicity is the key to Chinese poetry writing, which makes your life so much easier as a poet just because you can easily change your choice of words without affecting syllable counts. Why? A word is a syllable and a syllable is a word. There’s no difference between the two units in Chinese. It’s like plug-and-play. Do it any way you like. The catch is the more sophisticated tonal system that governs how rhythms are done. In fact, it took a few hundred years for Chinese poets to discover the sound patterns that actually worked for them. They are the winning formulae or the code contracts that bind poetry and music into one system.

If you are a software developer, this concept is very easy to understand. Most talented Chinese poets were also top musicians. However, they knew also that many poets couldn’t handle both. In order for them to work with composers, they created poetry code books that served as poetic interfaces, such that both composers and poets could pen their works against a shared contract or interface so to speak. It’s a many-to-many relationship using the relational database jargon. They started with rectangular blocks called stanzas, which evolved later into irregular fixed forms. The same notations were used for both regular forms and irregular forms to describe how the formulae or contracts must work for both sides of artists. Either way, poetic building blocks were described in fixed forms, just to simplify their applications.

Let me illustrate one thing that Chinese poets consider very important in poetry through two stanzas. A typical Chinese poem written about 1800 years ago could look and sound like this in contemporary English, where the rhythmic structure isn’t exactly clear but is already there. Note that I employed a traditional Chinese metaphor “lake” for emotional state. When we say we listen to our heart, we mean that we pay close attention to our emotional state such that we free our inner soul into a poetic world where to explore different mental sceneries known as poetic realms. The lake is still, so is our heart when we begin a creative writing process.


In the wake of the storm
Of the lake in my heart,
A new world to be born
Is still here to depart.

An ancient Chinese poem is narrative. It’s like telling a story the old school way. A poet is not supposed to make too much effort in composing a stanza. You don’t force it if it’s not in you. After all, this is not worth your time unless you have the natural talent. The key is always to discover your true strengths and perfect them until you become a specialist in some fields. What’s so special about this stanza? Well, it’s in fact just one simple sentence, but rich in natural rhythm. English is not tonal, unfortunately. So, I had to apply the anapestic pattern to it, instead of a tonal pattern. Tonal patterns are equivalent to irregularity in English poems, which in Chinese, however, apply to an entire stanza as one unit. Therefore, a tonal pattern or a code contract in Chinese poetry can be described in the following table.


-/-/+/-/-/+ 1
-/-/+/-/-/+ 2
-/-/+/-/-/+ 1
-/-/+/-/-/+ 2

It’s like JavaScript, which follows prototypical inheritance, or like building ships, which categorizes ships into classes named after their first ships. Here, the name “Depart” is given to the tonal pattern because the first poem using this pattern is titled “Depart”.

Like the Greek civilization, Hellenic and Hellenistic alike, the Chinese civilization is also fond of symmetry in art. Therefore, parallelism was heavily utilized in many of the productions that came about 1300-1500 years ago. A typical example, in the same spirit, could look and sound like this in contemporary English, where the key note in sound and the keyword in semantic is used for its title.


Too serene is the night
Of the moon and the stars
But to die in the lights
Of the streets and the cars.

You can easily observe from this example that Chinese verses always come in pairs, where two pairs together form a stanza. Both verses and pairs must exhibit symmetry to present the structural beauty of poetry. If you have ever taken a close look at a diamond that exhibits symmetry at all angles, then the spirit of Chinese poetry can be visualized and understood in the same way. Some simple techniques such as materialization and spiritualization can be studied with more examples to show how syntax and semantic can marry together so that an entire stanza becomes one integrated piece. I will see if I can write another English Chinese or maybe Chinese English stanza to present syntactic symmetry, because this one, frankly speaking, is not good enough in expressive power. Many of the crucial elements are simply missing.

We can talk a bit about semantic patterns as opposed to sound and syntactic patterns in Chinese poetry just so that you as a reader can see how it actually works. In “Serene”, I have failed to achieve a Chinese semantic pattern as well, but it still reads okay in English, just because the two languages are very different. Chinese poetry tends to be very short, because the lesson is that you should never waste too much time on it! If it comes to you, it comes to you. Otherwise, there’s so much more to life beyond poetry. A picture is worth a thousand words!


About Run Song

Run Song (宋闰) is my pen name for the Moments of Poetry, a collection of poems about the greatest moments of life. If photography captures the greatest moments of life, poetry is the life behind them.
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One Response to Chinese Poetry

  1. Pingback: The Problem With English | Simply Jet

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