Quatrain on Heavenly Mountain

"Quatrain on Heavenly Mountain" by Emperor Gaozong

World poetry

Poets of other languages

Ancient Greek • Ancient Latin
Biblical • Classical Chinese
Indian epic • Old Norse
Medieval poetry
Ottoman poetry • Serbian epic


Malagasy  • South African
Swahili poetry


French Canadian poetry
Latin American poetry


Chinese • Japanese • Korean
Indian • Assamese • Bengali
Hindu • Kannada • Marathi
Sindhi • Urdu • Afghani
Arabic • Hebrew • Pakistani
Persian • Turkish
Javanese • Vietnamese


Irish • Scottish • Welsh • Manx
French poetry • German poetry
Hungarian poetry • Italian poetry
Polish • Portuguese • Spanish
Finnish poetry • Swedish poetry
List of English-language poets

This box: view · talk · edit

Classical Chinese poetry is that type of poetry that is the traditional Chinese poetry written in Classical Chinese. It is typified by certain traditional forms, or modes, and certain traditional genres. Its existence is documented as early as the publication of the Classic of Poetry, dating from a traditionally, and roughly, estimated time of around BCE 500, in what is now China, but at that time was composed of the state of Zhou and various other independent states, such as Chu. Various combinations of forms and genres exist. Many or most of these were developed by the end of the Tang Dynasty, in CE 907. Use and development of Classical Chinese poetry actively continued up to until the May Fourth Movement, in 1919, and is not totally extinct even today in the 21st century. During this over two-and-a-half thousand years of more-or-less continuous historical development, much diversity is displayed –– both between the poetry typical of major historical periods, or, as by the traditional Chinese historical method, by dynastic periods. Another aspect of Classical Chinese poetry worthy of mention is its intense inter-relationship with other forms of Chinese art, such as Chinese painting and Chinese calligraphy. Eventually, Classical Chinese poetry has proven to be of immense influence upon poetry worldwide.

History and developmentEdit

The stylistic development of Classical Chinese poetry consists of a literary process, divided into certain standard periods or eras, in terms both of specific poems as well as styles characteristic of those eras. Furthermore, there is a parallel tradition, or traditions, of oral and traditional poetry also known as popular or folk poems or ballads. Some of these poems exist in written form. Generally they are anonymous, and some show signs of having been edited or polished in the process of fixing them in written characters.

Classic of Poetry (Shijing)Edit

Main article: Classic of Poetry

The literary tradition of Classical Chinese poetry begins with the Classic of Poetry, or Shijing, dated to early 1st millennium BC. According to tradition, Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE) was the final editor of the collection in its present form, although the individual poems would accordingly all be more-or-less older than this. Burton Watson dates the anthology's main compilation date to about 600 BCE, with the poems having been collected over the previous four to five centuries before.[1] This, among other factors, indicates a rather sustained cross-class popularity for this type or these types of poetry, including for instance their characteristic four-character per line meter.[2] The Shijing tends to be associated with northern Chinese vocabulary and culture, and in particular with the great sage and philosopher Confucius: this helped to eventuate the development of this type of poetry into the classic shi style, the literal meaning of Shijing. The remarkable thing is that despite their commendation by Confucius, no extant samples of any poetry of this style are known for the next three hundred years.[3]

Songs of the South (Chu Ci)Edit

Main article: Chu Ci

Another early poetry collection/genre is the Chu Ci (dated to the Warring States period about 475-221 BCE), which is typified by various line lengths and the imagery and influence of the vernacular associated with the state of Chu, in southern China. One important part of this is the Li Sao, attributed to Qu Yuan. These poems from the State of Chu are among the most important of all Classical Chinese poetry, however, these poems and their style seem to have had less impact on Classical Chinese poetry, at least at first , than did the Shijing collection and style.

Han dynastyEdit

Main article: Han poetry

The classic shi poetry, with its four-character lines, was revived by Han and Three Kingdoms poets, to some extent.[4] However, among other poetic developments during the Han epoch was the development of a new form of shi poetry, dating from about the first century BCE, consisting of initially five-character lines, and later seven-character lines.[5] The development of this form of shi poetry would occur in conjunction with various other phenomena related to Han poetry. It is indeed ironic that the new form of shi developed during the Han and the Jian'an period would become known as "gushi", or "ancient style poetry".

Music Bureau and folk balladsEdit

The Han dynasty witnessed major developments in Classical Chinese poems, including both the active role of the imperial government in encouraging poetry through the Music Bureau, an official agency; and, through the collection of Han dynasty folk ballads (although some of these seem to perhaps been subject to a post-folk literary polishing: as in the case of the Shijing, the amount of editing is not certain). In Chinese, Yuefu, "Music Bureau", is synonymous with Yuefu the poetry style, thus the term Yuefu[6] has come to refer both to the Music Bureau's collected lyrics, but also to the genre of which they are representative and inspirational to.[7] Another important Han dynasty poetry collection is the Nineteen Old Poems.

Fu versus shiEdit

The Han Dynasty poetry is particularly associated with the fu, as opposed to the shi style of poetry or literature: note, however, that this fu is a different word than the fu meaning government bureau in the term yuefu (sometimes spelled Yüeh Fu, or similarly).[8] One exponent of this style was Sima Xiangru.

Jian'an poetryEdit

Main article: Jian'an poetry

Jian'an poetry refers to those poetic movements occurring during the final years of the failing Han Dynasty and continuing their development into the beginning of the Six Dynasties period.

Six Dynasties poetryEdit

Main article: Six dynasties poetry

The Six Dynasties (220 -589) also witnessed major developments in Classical Chinese poetry, especially emphasizing romantic love, gender roles, and human relationships, and including the important collection New Songs from the Jade Terrace. The Six Dynasties era covers three main periods: the Three Kingdoms (220–280), Jin Dynasty (265–420), and Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589).

Sui and Tang dynasties poetryEdit

Sui poetryEdit

Although poetry continued to be written, and individual poets were born or died, the brief Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE), in terms of the development of Chinese poetry, lacks distinction, representing a continuity between the Six Dynasties and the poetry of Tang.[9] Sui dynasty poets include Yang Guang (580-618), who was the last Sui emperor (and a poetry critic) and also the Lady Hou, one of his consorts.

Tang poetryEdit

Main article: Tang poetry

The Tang dynasty (618 - 907) was particularly noted for its poetry, especially the shi forms.[10]

Song dynasty poetryEdit

Main article: Song poetry

The Song dynasty (960 - 1279) was noted for its poetry, perhaps especially the development of the Ci form.

Yuan Dynasty poetryEdit

Main article: Yuan poetry

Poetry during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368) continued the Classical Chinese poetry tradition, especially noted for its emphasis on the Chinese opera verse tradition.

Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), besides being a poet was also a painter and calligrapher. He was a former member of the Sung Dynasty who served under the Mongol administration of the Yuan Dynasty. His wife Guan Daosheng (1262–1319) also was a painter, calligrapher, and a poet.

Ming Dynasty poetryEdit

Classical Chinese poetry continued to thrive during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

Qing Dynasty poetryEdit

Classical Chinese poetry continued to be the major poetic form of the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912). This was also a time of related literary developments, such as the collection of Tang poetry, under the Kangxi Emperor.

Post-Qing Classical Chinese poetryEdit

Although Qing is the last Chinese Dynasty, this did not mean that Classical Chinese poetry ended co-conterminously with the end of the imperial period, indeed Mao Zedong of the Communist Party of China was a major exponent and practitioner of Classical Chinese poetry well into the Twentieth Century. However, the development and great expansion of Modern Chinese poetry is something to consider, beginning at this point, or shortly after.

Oral versus writtenEdit

One important aspect of Classical Chinese poetry is that it was generally designed to be chanted or sung, with or without musical accompaniment. In fact, folk poetry, almost by definition, was orally composed and orally transmitted. This is because the "folk" were for the most part illiterate, as opposed to the scholarly classes who were generally literate; however, even the poems of the scholarly classes were intended to be sung or chanted.

The particular characteristic of the Chinese writing system certainly had an important role in Chinese poetry. In fact, one of the factors which enabled a continuous poetic tradition in China for more than two millenia has to do with the fact that Chinese words can be represented by their corresponding Chinese characters semi-independently of their pronunciation (and, in fact, this extends even to their use in classical versions of Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese).[11] The pronunciations of spoken Chinese changed quite a bit over the course of time from the oldest surviving written Chinese poetry, during the period of Old Chinese, through the Middle Chinese period (which included the Tang Dynasty), and up into the Modern Chinese period. During this course of development, Classical Chinese evolved as a distinct literary language, distinct from the spoken vernacular. The tension between a spoken vernacular and a literary form of the language worked both ways, the poetry of literature can be seen to have "various degrees of vernacular overlay"[12] and also the oral folk poetry sometimes were "filled with literary phrases and constructions", perhaps due to the prestige nature of the written language.[13][14]

To what degree has the pictorial element latent in Chinese characters informed Classical Chinese poetry? The etymology of Chinese characters must be considered to be related but distinct from the evolution of the language itself. As is the case with many ancient writing systems, such as the Phoenician alphabet, many of the earliest characters seem to have begun as pictograms, with a picture representing an idea which corresponded with the word for that idea. By the times of Classical Chinese, a complex system of writing had evolved with many characters being composed of combinations of other characters, chosen for similarities of meaning and/or sound. The resulting strong graphical aspect, versus a weaker phonetic element, (at least, say, compared to standard written English), cannot be ignored. However, different translators of Classical Chinese poetry have emphasized these elements to differing degrees. Sinologist and translator A. C. Graham cautions against over-emphasizing this visual effect, which he says can, "...act on the imagination like blobs in the Rorschach test. It is rather difficult to estimate this effect since a habitual reader of Chinese is hardly conscious of it without deliberately analysing his [sic] reactions....Certainly one can give too much weight to the visual aspect of Chinese writing. Poems in China, as elsewhere, are firstly patterns of sound...."[15] However, Graham is in no way suggesting that the Chinese poet is unaware of the background considerations stemming from character construction.[16]

Forms (or modes)Edit

Main article: Classical Chinese poetry forms

There are various typical forms or modes in which Classical Chinese poetry was written.


Main article: Classical Chinese poetry genres

Various genres of Classical Chinese poems have been discerned, either by the composing poet or through literary criticism.

Other characteristicsEdit

Besides various formal modes and genres, Classical Chinese poetry has various other typical features.


Main article: Persona

The use of a poetic persona is often encountered in Classical Chinese poetry, in which the author writes a poem from the viewpoint of some other person or type of person. Often these persona types were quite conventional, such as the lonely wife left behind at home, the junior concubine ignored and sequestered in the imperial harem, or the soldier sent off to fight and die beyond the remote frontier.

Sociopolitical criticismEdit

Many Classical Chinese poems can be read as a commentary upon current events and society. Sometimes these are somewhat disguised through the use of symbolic imagery.

Imagery and symbolismEdit

Certain images and symbolism became quite conventional, and are key to understanding many of the Classical Chinese poems. For example, the falling autumn leaf can refer to personal or dynastic decline.


Many Classical Chinese poems were written as more-or-less subtle or implied complaints for the treatment of the author by the government. This is in part due to the nature of the imperial examination system as a way of recruiting talented persons into high political office, and the expectations of the talented poet of finding a suitable position within such a society.


Many Classical Chinese poems involve allusions or references to previous literature or well-known folk material.

Optional precisionEdit

In part due to the possibilities inherent in the Classical Chinese language and in part as an esthetic principle, many Classical Chinese poems are imprecise when it comes to gender, number, case, or other logically-informative elements of speech which tend to be grammatically obligatory or difficult to avoid in various inflected languages, such as certain Indo-European languages.

Reader participationEdit

Many Classical Chinese poems appear simple on the surface, but contain deeper, more profound ideas; but, in order to realize what these are, the reader is expected to meet the poet half-way—not just to be told something, but to actively think and feel in sympathy with the poet or the poet's persona.

Parallelism and antithesisEdit


The arrangement of poems into couplets encouraged the use of parallelism: where for two lines of a poem it would be expected that the reader would compare and contrast the meaning of two lines, which would be specifically marked by the poet by using the same parts of speech in each position, or in certain key positions in each line, or else within one line.


Antisthesis refers to the often latent contradiction between two statements which when sufficiently considered can lead to the understanding of a third, unstated opinion. It often plays a part in relationship to parallelism: the reader has to consider whether what seems to be parallel constructions and ideas really are so.


Major collections of Classical Chinese poetry include the Shijing, the Chuci, the Collected Tang Poems, the New Songs from the Jade Terrace, and the Three Hundred Tang Poems.

Influence of Classical Chinese poetryEdit

Classical Chinese poetry has been in influence both on modern Chinese poetry but also on the poetry of other languages. One group of languages on which Classical Chinese poetry had an early influence was on the poetry of the neighboring linguistic groups (that is, the local sprachbund); for example, certain early forms of Japanese poetry, such as kanshi.

Translation into EnglishEdit

Various translators have worked to translate Classical Chinese poetry into English, with greater or less accuracy. Included among the more accurate are Arthur Waley and Archie Barnes.

See alsoEdit

Template:Div col end


  • Birrell, Anne (1988). Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China. (London: Unwin Hyman). ISBN 0-04-440037-8
  • Chang, H. C. (1977). Chinese Literature 2: Nature Poetry. (New York: Columbia University Press). ISBN 0-231-04288-4
  • Davis, A. R. (Albert Richard), Editor and Introduction,(1970), The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse. (Baltimore: Penguin Books).
  • Frankel, Hans H. (1978). The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) ISBN 0-300-02242-5
  • Graham, A. C. (1977). Poems of the Late T'ang. New York, New York: The New York Review of Books. ISBN 978-1-59017-257-5
  • Hinton, David (2008). Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. ISBN 0374105367 / ISBN 9780374105365.
  • Norman, Jerry (1991). Chinese. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). ISBN 0-521-29653-6
  • Watson, Burton (1971). CHINESE LYRICISM: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century. (New York: Columbia University Press). ISBN 0-231-03464-4
  • Yip, Wai-lim (1997). Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres . (Durham and London: Duke University Press). ISBN 0-8223-1946-2


  1. Watson, 15
  2. Watson, 15
  3. Watson, 15-16. On page 38 Watson does admit that Cao Cao wrote successful poems in the four-character line mode, however isolated from the mainstream of subsequent Chinese poetry.
  4. Watson, 16
  5. Watson, 16
  6. Template:CJKV
  7. Yip, 66
  8. Template:CJKV
  9. Watson, 109
  10. Davis, xlii
  11. Norman, 74-79
  12. Norman, 111
  13. Norman, 109 (for more of an overview, see Norman 83-84, 108-110, and 111-112.
  14. Also see, Watson, 13
  15. Graham, 17
  16. Graham, 18

External linksEdit



This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia. (view article). (view authors).
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.