Chinese Poetry Styles

Chinese poetry (known as "shi") comprises multiple forms and styles, distinguished by elements such as tone, length and meter. The different forms were created during several distinct eras. Typically, Chinese poetry relies on strict guidelines and uses a certain number of characters per line, depending on the style. Chinese poetry is held as the highest form of literature in Chinese society, as well as one of the hardest subjects to master.

Classical Styles

Known as "Shijing," the first examples of Chinese regular verse (fixed-length lines of four characters, typically as syntactic couplets) utilize rhythmic repetition and some variation. Many of the songs and poems are arranged into stanzas of identical metrical structure. End rhyme and internal rhyme are often seen, as well as several identical and matching words. There are several similar styles:

Chuci – Southern Chinese poems that focus on more romantic content;

Fu – An extended form reminiscent of prose;

Gushi – A style based on traditional forms, but allowing more additions to the body of the poem;

Ci – Fixed rhythm poems that are typically considered lyrics to a song and are meant to go along with music;

Yuanqu – Poems whose subject matter is derived from Yuan dramas.

Book of Songs

"The Book of Songs" is the oldest collection of Chinese poems, and is still one of the most recited anthologies. It set the standard for later Chinese poetry, enforcing harsh patterns in rhythm and rhyme while evoking clear imagery. Many of the concepts are considered allegories for basic understandings of human life. "The Book of Songs" is still studied extensively in the modern era.

Yuefu -- Poetry of the Han Dynasty

Yuefu poetry grew out of the folk song tradition. Its golden era was during the Han Dynasty (from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220). The emperor had created a "music bureau" to collect ceremonial chants, as well as the folk songs and ballads sung by common people. Yuefu poems were written in the style of folk songs, usually with five characters per line.

Yuefu gradually became the classical poetry that was predominant until modern the Chinese poetry form was created. The older style of poetry was called "gushi," and the newer style -- complete with new, stricter rules of tone and structure -- was called "jintishi." Jintishi poems consisted of eight lines that followed a series of tone patterns. There are several forms of Jintishi:

Wulu – uses five characters per line in eight lines;

Qilu – uses seven characters per line in eight lines;

Wujue – uses five characters per line in four lines;

Qijue – uses seven characters per line in four lines;

Two other forms of poetry followed. Six Dynasties Poetry reflects on romantic love, relationships and gender roles during the Six Dynasties era of China, which followed the end of the Han Dynasty. "Sanqu," popular from the Jin Dynasty (1115 to 1234) through the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), followed the musical style of earlier forms. The poetry was written to be performed with music.

Modern Poetry

Modern Chinese poetry does not follow any form. Instead, it attempts to mirror spoken sound. Due to the high esteem in which classical Chinese poetry is held, however, modern Chinese poetry remains in limbo with the people. The vernacular structure is instead considered closer to short essays instead of poetry, especially due to the lack of special structure.

A group known as the “Misty Poets” denounced the strict cultural limits placed on the people during the advance towards socialism. The group was so-named because their poetry was considered hazy and obscure. With the repression of free speech and creativity, many of the writers associated with the Misty Poets were exiled during the Tiananmen Square riots. Their work paved the way for early Chinese rock music.

About the Author

Joel Bustamante began writing professionally in 2011, focusing on Internet comedy and pop culture. He is an English major from Wabash College and will be attending Indiana University for a master's degree in journalism in the fall. Bustamante has been recognized for his cartooning efforts by the Indiana Collegiate Press Association.

Photo Credits
  • Hemera Technologies/ Images