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Chinese literature: Chinese Poetic Literature

Chinese Poetry Literature is conventionally divided into four classes: poetry, ci , ge or songs, fu. Poetry proper has three forms. The first is ” lü shi” or code verse which must contain two or more of what we call parallel couples. Thousands upon thousands of such endless double-filed processions march down the history of Chinese literature. In addition to parallelism in content there is also a phonetic parallelism or a parallelism of tones. The classical language of the Chinese poets is rhythmical almost to an excess, though not inherently musical. Prosody is based on changes in pitch as well as in accent. In a parallel couplet not only must the content, the parts of speech, the mythological and historico-geographical allusions, be all separately matched and balanced, but most of the tones must also be paired reciprocally. Even tones are conjoined with inflected ones, and vice versa. In general it can be said that the earlier code verse writers did not consider such a rigid pattern a formal necessity. It became more and more fossilized in the later literary examinations.

There are two other forms of poetry perhaps even more popular than the code verse which have given birth to what we call the poetry of the Chinese people. One is the gu ti, old style, or gu shi, old poetry. It is old, as compared with the modern styles of the Tang Dynasty which include the code verse. It differs from the code verse in that it drops the parallelism entirely except where the poet purposely reintroduces it to enhance a particular mood. In a long poem of the old style the rhymes can be changed almost at any place, as a rule from even to inflected tones or vice versa. Much more liberty can be taken with the tonal order within a line. In fact, the sequences between the even and the inflected may here be governed by individual temperament. Poems in this style can be in fove, six, or seven-syllable lines, or Chang-duan-ju , i.e., long and short verses, your free verse but with rhymes.

The other one form jue ju—-the curtailed or frustrated verse, does not mean to tell a story but to create a mood. It does in the most frugal way imaginable, and with a high tone. The impression one gets is much like that from a symphony orchestra where a solo instrument takes up the theme. A jue ju has only four lines of five or seven syllables each. The patterns may be represented as follows:

The moon goes down, a raven cries, frost fills the sky.
River maples, fishing lanterns,–facing sadness I lie.
Outside of Gu Su City is the Han Shan Temple,
At midnight a bell rings; it reaches the traveller’s boat.
We may define ci as a song that has lost its tune. Nowadays a ci is nothing but an intricate tonal pattern to which the writer sets characters. So we get the term tian ci , filling out a pattern. The rhyming scheme and the tonal arrangement of the longer patterns have become so complicated that the newly initiated is liable to be a bull in a china shop. Buddha Dance, The Hour Glass, To Fatherland Far Away, Wine Spring, The Conquest of Tibet, Willow Twigs —- these are some patterns of ci. The ci writter excelled in the art of impressionism of a new skill in word painting which even the curtailed verse writers had never dreamed of . They were the makers of a polished vocabulary, delicate, nice, suggestive, but in other respects voluptuous and superficial.

The third class of poetic literature includes our songs, or ge. Folk songs both ancient and modern belong here. So also do poems written by literary men to be sung in folk melodies, and pieces set to more elaborate music by the leisurely and professional men of the academics of the medieval dynasties. This class of literature differs from poetry proper only in its musical or melodic origin. While a song can be sung, a poem is at best only chanted. The difference between a ge and a ci is even more insignificant. In the days when the ci was living, instrumental music always accompanied it, but a ge could be, and usually was, only vocal.

The last of the four conventional classes is the fu, or the descriptive poem. The Chinese do not go in for descriptive poetry with enthusiasm. Very few poets have been successful with the fu. Often it is just a heap of parallel couplets of varying lengths. It soon degenerates into rhymed prose of the most cumbersome kind, studded with words which merely inflate the dictionary.

There are two other minor varieties to poetic literature which should be appended to the conventional list. One is qu or operatic literature. The other one is the lallad poetry of the story tellers . These two are hardly touched where Chinese poetic literature is concerned.

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