Classical Chinese poetry forms

Poet on a Mountaintop by Shen Zhou, about 1500 CE (Ming Dynasty).

Classical Chinese poetry forms are those poetry forms, or modes, which typify the traditional Chinese poems written in Literary or Classical Chinese. Classical Chinese poetry has various characteristic forms, some attested to 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 various independent states. The term "forms" refers to various formal and technical aspects applied to poems: this includes such poetic characteristics as meter (such as, line length and number of lines), rhythm (for example, presence of caesuras, end-stopping, and tone contour), and other considerations such as vocabulary and style. These forms and modes are generally, but not always, independent of the Classical Chinese poetry genres. Many or most of these were developed by the time of the Tang Dynasty, and the use and development of Classical Chinese poetry and genres actively continued up to until the May Fourth Movement, and are not totally extinct even today in the 21st century.


Formal Elements

There are various formal elements of Classical Chinese verse which are associated with its classification into formal types.


Various factors are considered in scanning Classical Chinese verse in order to determine the meter.


For the purpose of metrically scanning Classical Chinese verse, the basic unit corresponds to one character, or what is considered one syllable: an optional consonant or glide (or in some versions of reconstructed Old or Middle Chinese a consonantal cluster), an obligatory vowel or vowel cluster (with or without glides), and an optional final consonant. Thus a seven-character line is identical with a seven-syllable line; and, barring the presence of compound words, which were rare in Classical Chinese compared to Modern Chinese (and even people's names would often be abbreviated to one character), then the line would also be a seven words itself. Classical Chinese tends toward a one-to-one correspondence between word, syllable, and a written character. Counting the number of syllables (which could be read as varying lengths, according to the context), together with the caesuras, or pauses within the line, and a stop, or long pause at the end of the line, generally established the meter.[1] The characters (or syllables) between the caesuras or end stops can be considered to be a metric foot. The caesuras tended to both be fixed depending upon the formal rules for that type of poem and to match the natural rhythm of speech based upon units of mean spanning the characters.

Line length

Line length could be fixed or variable, and was based on the number of syllables/characters. In more formal poetry it tended to be fixed, and varied according to specific forms. Lines were generally combined into couplets. Lines tended to be end-stopped; and, line couplets almost always. Line length is the fundamental metrical criterion in classifying Classical Chinese poetry forms. Once the line length is determined, then the most likely division(s) of the line by caesuras is also known, since they are as a rule fixed in certain positions. Thus, specifying the line-length of a Chinese poem is equivalent to specifying both the type of feet and the number of feet per line in poetry using quantitative meter.

Fixed line length poems

A three-character line is known from the Three Character Classic, a book for children written in three-character eight-line verse in rhymed couplets.

Four-character lines are encountered in the popular form of verse matching, where two verses are matched, often with rhyme, and often traditional four-character idioms, frequently drawn from classical poetry. For instance, two four-character lines may be written on matching scrolls, in Chinese calligraphy, and each decoratively hung on either side of a door or entrance way, these are known as Duilian. Some ancient style poetry was also four-line.

Six-character line lengths are relatively rare in fixed-length poems, but are found for example in the work of Wang Jian.

Five, Seven, and eight (or doubled four character lines) character lines are standard for serious, fixed-length poetry.

Variable line length poems

Some poems have lines of variable lengths within a single poem, either experimentally, as unique specimens, or in certain fixed formats. For example, the poems written according to fixed patterns based, or originally based. upon song lyrics such as the ci form or upon folk ballads such as the yuehfu. The "tune", or tonal structure of these poems was also fixed within each specific pattern. This resulted eventually in quite a few fixed-forms with variable line lengths within each piece, with hundreds of named models identified. Often the name of the model used features in the title of the poem.


Most Classical Chinese verse consists of multiple couplets or pairs of lines, which are considered to be somehow especially related to each other by such considerations as meaning, tone-structure, parallelism.

Poem length

Because of the tendency to write poetry as groups of couplets, most poems had an even number of lines. Generally four lines (two couplets) were considered to be the minimum length for a poem. In the case of curtailed-verse (jueju), the poem was limited to this length. Other types of poems were limited to eight lines (four couplets). If the over all length of some form of poetry was not limited, then that the poems tended to be written using four or eight line stanzas, and thus the poem lengths would accordingly work out to multiples of four or eight. Some poems were quite long. The length poems based upon specific song and ballad forms depended upon the specific tune or form selected as the model. Th fu type of poem, which sometimes even incorporated sections of prose had few limitations on line length, other than that within a section of verse the line lengths tended to be of equal length.[2] A specific poem's length for those forms in which this was a restriction, is another basic classifying criterion (as in Seven-character eight-line verse).

Old, new, regulated, unregulated

Poems of the same length in terms of line-length and poem-length and/or poems within the same general type were often distinguished by using the concepts "new", "old", "regulated", or "unregulated".

"old" versus "new"

"Old" and "new" were generally used to denote a basic change of form within a mode or form, like "old" Yuefu and "new" Yuehfu. However, the use of these terms can be confusing, since something called "new" might be centuries old by the present time.

"Regulated" versus "unregulated"

"Regulated" verse, or new-style shi poetry, has very strict and often complex formal limitations, such as mandatory tonal alterations between adjacent positions within a line, or in regards to the same line-positions between couplets.


The existence of tone in Old through early Tang Chinese is debatable.[3] Certainly by the major period of poetic flourishing in Tang, syllable tones were divided into level and not-level. These variations were or became an important aspect of poetry, sometimes in an esoteric way. The presence or absence of formal tonal constraints varies according to the poetic form of a specific poem. Sometimes it was quite strict, as in the case of Regulated Verse.


Rhythm was mostly a matter of tonal variation, line length, caesuras within lines, and end stopping. Variations of rhythm were subtly played off in between the various lines within a poem.


Rhyme, or rime, was important in some forms of poetry. However, it was often based on a formal and traditional schema, such as is in a Rime table or rime dictionary, and not necessarily upon actual vernacular speech. Also, generally level tones only rhymed with level tones, and non-level tones with non-level tones. The original rhymes of a poem can be difficult to detect, especially in Modern Chinese, such as Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese pronunciations (including syllable finals and tone) tend to be quite different than in the older, historical types of Chinese language, although perhaps to a lesser extent in Cantonese: either way, Classical Chinese is no longer a spoken language, and pronunciation was subject to major historical variation, as attested through linguistic studies.


Certain restrictions or associations of particular words were often typical of certain poetic forms, and for some forms of poetry there were rules restricting or encouraging the repetition of the same word within a poem, a stanza, or a line or couplet. Sometimes a deliberately archaic or traditional poetic vocabulary was used. Often the use of common words such as pronouns and "empty words" like particles and measure words were deprecated. Certain standard vocabulary substitutions were standard where a certain word would not fit into the metrical pattern.

Formal Types

Classical Chinese poems are typified by certain formal structures. Some of these can be considered closed collections, such as the groups of poems actually composing the Classic of Poetry (Shijing), the Songs of the South (Chuci), or the Nineteen Poems: These corpi were closed categories, one could not add to these classics, although one might write poems in the similar style, as in Old Style Poetry (Gushi). Further, one might follow the new styles that were introduced over succeeding dynasties, or make up one's own style, which may or may not catch on. In terms of literary form, however, Classical Chinese poetry has the three main formal types: shi, fu, and ci.[4]


Although in Chinese the word shi[5] can mean "poetry" more or less generically, in a more technical sense shi refers to a certain more specific tradition within the broader category of poetry.

Classic of Poetry (Shijing)

This is the style of those poems which compose this collection, the Shijing, or Shi Jing, known variously in English such as The Book of Songs, the Classic of Poetry, the "Book of Odes", or just The Odes. Associated with the court of the Zhou Dynasty, particularly Western Zhou, the poems of this collection are of uncertain dates. Some of the individual pieces of this material may be quite older than other ones. The Classic of Poetry was compiled sometime after BCE 600, supposedly by Confucius in the Spring and Autumn period, which corellates with the first half of the Eastern Zhou. Confucius at this time is thus said to have chosen approximately 300 out of a collection which at that time included about 3000 individual pieces of verse.[6] Although some of these may have been collected as folk-songs, they show signs of editorial reworking.[6] The original musical scores and choreography meant to be performed together with them have all been lost.[6] In following dynasties, especially with the Han Dynasty deification of Confucius and the incorporation of the Classic of Poetry into the mandatory material for testing under the imperial examination system, the poems within it became subject to much artificial and moralistic reinterpretation.[7] Especially the sexual elements came to be officially viewed as parables for love of the Confucian rites and social order, especially the love of the subject for his political lord and master. Although of historical interest and importance, such interpretations are not in line with modern scholarship. All of the Classic of Poetry's poems are anonymous.

The style of the poems represent the first examples of Chinese regular verse; that is verse with fixed-length lines, generally of four characters, with these mostly as syntactic couplets.[8] Its poems also feature a good deal of rhythmic repetition and variation and many of the songs or poems are arranged into stanzas of similar metrical structure.[9] The poems use end rhyme and internal rhyme, occasional parallelism, and a vocabulary of identical and matching words.[8]

Old Style Poetry (Gushi)

Gushi[10] is the style based upon older forms, but allowing new additions to the corpus.

Perhaps includes Literary Yuefu.

The gushi form begins with the Nineteen Old Poems.

Nineteen Poems

The Nineteen Old Poems,[11] sometimes shortened to Nineteen Poems, and also known in English transliteration as Ku-shih shih-chiu shih, refers both to a specific collection of poems as well as to the style in which those poems were composed. The original nineteen poems, in the ballad or old yuefu style, were collected during the Han Dynasty.

New pattern poems (jintishi)

Regulated verse, or jintishi[12] includes three subforms. Although, to a quick glance not necessarily all that different from regular line length yuefu in terms of line length in characters per line, or numbers of lines, there are internally a whole "new" (at the time of their introduction, in the Tang dynasty) set of rules or regulations, for example regarding tonal patterns, parallelism, repetition of characters.

Eight-line Regulated Verse (lushi)

Lushi[13] refers to the regulated, or strict formal rules, of this poetry form. It is most associated with the eight-line style, although the same rules basically apply to the curtailed form (jueju) and the expanded form (pailu).

  • Five-character eight-line regulated verse (wulu)

A form of regulated verse with eight lines of five characters each.

  • Six-character eight-line regulated verse is relatively rare.
  • Seven-character eight-line regulated verse (qilu)

A form of regulated verse with eight lines of seven characters each.

Curtailed form (jueju)

The curtailed form is sometimes referred to as a quatrain due to its requirement to consist of four lines. Basically, the jueju is a shortened version of the eight-line version, resulting in a verse form which can more challenging in terms of conveying a complete poem or developing a complete poetic concept; this is, indeed, especially the case with the five-character line version.

  • Five-character four-line curtailed verse (wujue[14])

Also known as the Five-character-quatrain, this form of regulated verse is characterized by four lines of five characters each.

  • Seven-character four-line curtailed verse (qijue[15])

Also known as the Seven-character-quatrain, this is a form of regulated verse with four lines of seven characters each.

Expanded form (pailu)

While embracing all, or most of, the lushi rules and regulations the pailu allows for a number of linked couplets with no maximum upward limit. A strict emphasis on formal parallelism is typical of the pailu form.

Fixed Rhythm Songs (ci and yuanqu)

Poems based on traditional structures, originally meant as lyrics to go along with music.

Ballad and Folktunes Based Poems (Ci)

Poems based on traditional structures, originally meant as lyrics to go along with music.

Opera Style (Yuanqu)

Poems from Yuan dramas.


Fu is one of the traditional main categories of Classical Chinese poetry, or literature; however, it is traditionally considered not to be a pure form of poetry (being classified as wen rather than shi -- however the Chinese terms do not really correspond with the English terms "literature" and "poetry").[16]

Songs of the South (Chuci)

Chuci,[17] also known as Songs of the South and as Ch'u Tz'u, refers to the poems and the style of those poems which compose this collection. The name literally refers to the state of Chu, which was to the south of the area from which the poems of the Classic of Poetry were collected, and south of the main area populated by people of Chinese culture in China at the time of its composition and for many centuries afterwards (in fact, until the great population change in the time of the Song Dynasty, or, perhaps more accurately, the time of the Tang-Song transition). The collection includes the Li Sao, attributed to Qu Yuan, as well as the Nine Songs.


Yuefu were a development of the fu form of poetic literature.

Old Music Bureau Lyrics (old Yuefu)

This is the style of the official Han Dynasty Music Bureau, which once existed.

New yuefu

This is the style, consisting of several subdivisions, of those poems based upon the poems and the style of the poems of the former Han Dynasty Music Bureau, after it had ceased to exist.

See also


  1. ^ See Stimson
  2. ^ Frankel, 212-213
  3. ^ See Norman
  4. ^ Watson, 1
  5. ^ Shi: traditional Chinese: ; simplified Chinese: ; pinyin: shī; Wade-Giles: shih
  6. ^ a b c Yip, 31
  7. ^ Yip, 32-33
  8. ^ a b Frankel, 216
  9. ^ Frankel, 215-216
  10. ^ Gushi: traditional Chinese: 古詩; simplified Chinese: 古诗; pinyin: gǔ​shī; Wade-Giles: ku-shih
  11. ^ traditional Chinese: 古詩十九首; simplified Chinese: 古诗十九首; pinyin: Gǔ​shī​ Shí​jiǔ​ Shǒu​; Wade-Giles: Ku-shih shih-chiu shih
  12. ^ traditional Chinese: 近體詩; simplified Chinese: 近体诗; pinyin: jìntǐshī; Wade-Giles: chin-t'i shih
  13. ^ Lushi, sometimes spelled lüshi: traditional Chinese: 律詩; simplified Chinese: 律诗; pinyin: lǜ​shī; Wade-Giles: lü-shih
  14. ^ traditional Chinese: 五絕; simplified Chinese: 五绝; pinyin: wǔjué; Wade-Giles: wu-chüeh
  15. ^ traditional Chinese: 七絕; simplified Chinese: 七绝; pinyin: qījué; Wade-Giles: ch'i-chüeh
  16. ^ Davis, xlvi
  17. ^ traditional Chinese: 楚辭; simplified Chinese: 楚辞; pinyin: Chǔcí; literally: "Songs of Chu"


  • Birrell, Anne (1988). Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China. (London: Unwin Hyman). ISBN 0-04-440037-8
  • 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
  • Norman, Jerry (1991). Chinese. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). ISBN 0-521-29653-6
  • Stimson, Hugh M. (1976). Fifty-five T'ang Poems. Far Eastern Publications: Yale University. ISBN 0-88710-026-0
  • 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

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