Introduction to
Ancient
Chinese Poetry


1121-221 B.C.
206 B.C. - A.D. 219
220 A.D. - 580 A.D.
Zhou (Chou) Dynasty
Han Dynasty
Period of Division
Books of Songs
Rhyme-Prose
Poetry of the Recluse



Zhou (Chou) Dynasty
Book of Songs


The Book of Songs called "Shih ching" in Chinese was a collection of actual songs that were sung.  There was a tradition in which the ruler would send officials to gather songs from the people.  The officials would leave and travel all over the countryside learning the songs of the people.  The officials would take this knowledge back with them and sing the songs to the ruler.  The ruler felt that by listening to the songs of the people, he would understand them better.

At first, these songs were memorized and sung.  These songs were passed down through many generations.  The Book of Songs is a collection of a group of songs collected during the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty. 

Song Poetry Samples from
Anthology of Chinese Literature, Volume 1,
Grove Press, New York1965

8

I beg of you, Chung Tzu,
Do not climb into our homestead,
Do not break the willows we have planted.
Not that I mind about the willows,
But I am afraid of my father and mother.
Chung Tzu I dearly love;
But of what my father and mother say
Indeed I am afraid.

I beg of you, Chung Tzu,
Do not climb over our wall,
Do not break the mulberry-trees we have planted.
Not that I mind about the mulberry-trees,
But I am afraid of my brothers.
Chung Tzu I dearly love;
But of what my brothers say
Indeed I am afraid.

I beg of you, Chung Tzu,
Do not climb into our garden,
Do not break the hard-wood we have planted.
Not that I mind about the hard-wood,
But I am afraid of what people will say.
Chung Tzu I dearly love;
But of all that people will saw
Indeed I am afraid.

15

A moon rising white
Is the beauty of my lovely one.
Ah, the tenderness, the grace!
Heart's pain consumes me.

A moon rising bright
Is the fairness of my lovely one.
Ah, the gentle softness!
Heart's pain wounds me.

A moon rising in splendor
Is the beauty of my lovely one.
Ah, the delicate yielding!
Heart's pain torments me.

31

So they appeared before their lord the king
To get from him their emblems,
Dragon-banners blazing bright,
Tuneful bells tinkling,
Bronze-knobbed reins jangling--
The gifts shone with glorious light.
Then they showed them to their shining ancestors
Piously, making offering,
That they might be vouchsafed long life,
Everlastingly be guarded.
Oh, a mighty store of blessings!
Glorious and mighty, those former princes and lords
Who secure us with many blessings,
Through whose bright splendors
We greatly prosper.


Song Poetry Samples
from the web

Guan! Guan! Cry the Fish Hawks
Chasing the Phantom
We Pluck the Bracken
Halloa

Han Dynasty
Rhyme Prose

During the time of the Han Dynasty the poets began a very specific type of poem, that was very difficult to imitate.  It was called a Rhyme Prose.  This form of poetry was not only sung, but also written.  There are a few variations in dealing with the form of this poem. 

Some of these poems are identified with the Chinese word "fu" which means elastic.  In these poems it is basically a combination of starting the poem with an essay and then moving into a prose or very descriptive poem.

Others of the Rhyme Prose poems just begin with the description part of the poem and do not including the introductory essay type paragraphs.

(Because the poems have been translated into English I'm not going to focus on the Rhyme scheme, but instead focus on how the prose poem was created in two different forms.)

Rhyme Prose Poetry Sample from
Anthology of Chinese Literature, Volume 1,
Grove Press, New York1965

The Wind (Feng fu)
by Sung Yu

King Hsiang of Ch'u was taking his ease in the Palace of the Orchid Terrace, with his courtiers Sung Yu and Ching Ch'a attending him, when a sudden gust of wind came sweeping in.  The king, opening wise the collar of his robe and facing into the wind, said, "What a delightful breeze!  And I and the common people may share it together, may we not?"
    But Sung Yu replied.  "The wind is for your majesty alone.  How could the common people have a share in it?"
    "The wind," said the king, "is the breath of heaven and earth.  Into every corner it unfolds and reaches; without choosing between high or low, exalted or humble, it touches everywhere.  What do you mean when you saw that this wind is for me alone?"
    Sung Yu replied, "I have heard my teacher saw that the twisted branches of the lemon tree invite the birds to nest, and hollows and cracks summon the wind.  But the breath of the wind differs with the place which it seeks out."
    "Tell me," said the king.  "Where does the wind come from?"
    Sung Yu answered:
    "The wind is born from he land
    And springs up in the tips of the green duckweed.
    It insinuates itself into the valleys
    And rages in the canyon mouth,
    Skirts the corners of Mount T'ai
    And dances beneath the pines and cedars.
    Swiftly it flies, whistling and wailing;
    Fiercely it splutters its anger.
    It crashes with a voice like thunder,
    Whirls and tumbles into confusion...

Rhyme Prose Poetry Samples
from the web

Twenty-two Rhymes to Left-Prime-Minister Wei
by Du Fu (712- 770)



Period of Division
Poetry of the Recluse

The Period of Division is the time in between a new Dynasty.  The Period of Division began at the end of the Han Dynasty and lasted roughly close to eight hundred years.

During this time, many people wanted to retreat from the world and live among nature.  They were tired of the turmoil, wars, and government jobs.  Many individuals wanted to return to the land were their families lived and live out their lives in peace and seclusion. 

Most of these poems combine the ideas of nature, peace, and a person's will to follow his or her heart and live away from civilization.  These poems also focus on the feelings of individuals and try to explain why they have left their past lives to now live alone or with very few friends and family.

The Poetry of the Recluse Samples from
Anthology of Chinese Literature, Volume 1,
Grove Press, New York1965

"Cold Mountain" Poems
by Han-shan

10
I have lived at Cold Mountain
These thirty long years.
Yesterday I called on friends and family:
More than half had gone to the Yellow Springs.
Slowly consumed, like fire down a candle;
Forever flowing, like a passing river.
Now, morning, I face my loan shadow:
Suddenly my eyes are bleared with tears.

"Tedious Ways"
by Pao Chao

1
Riding through the northern gate
Sorrow suddenly seizes me.
On looking around, I can only see
Pines and cypresses growing on desolate tombs.
In their blue gloom
A night jar perches.
It is said to be the spirit of an ancient king.
Its dirge never ceases.
And its disheveled feathers
Bristle like the hair of a convict.
It flies from branch to branch
Searching for worms and ants.
Has it forgotten its majesty?
Many changes are not to be expected.
My heart, overladen with grief,
                      knows no answer.

"Poems of my Heart"
by Juan Chi

6

I will not learn to ride a winged horse,
Fearing it  will leave me to weep at a lonely roadside.
I dive low or fly high
To avoid the trap of a net.
I float a light boat
And gaze into the boundless waves.
It is better to forget in a river or a lake
Than to wet one another with bubbles on stony dry land.
Seldom can I be arrayed to look elegant,
My way is to be sincere and prudent.
The ancient immortals
Will help me
To survive this long and fearful night.