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Summer Special: The Song and Yuan Poetry

Summer Special: The Song and Yuan Poetry

Summer as How It’s Mirrored in Classical Chinese Literature

An Introduction to the Song Poetry (Ci) and Yuan Songs (Qu)
By Ben Wang, Senior Lecturer
To register this course starting June 28, please click here.

Song Ci, one of the major poetic genres in China, emerged in the Tang but flourished during the Song dynasty (960-1127). With words – both poetic and colloquial — written into existing tune patterns (totaling about 825) brought into China from Central Asia, Ci allows for more complex (and much more personal) expression than the Tang poetry. Whether written with a “heroic abandon (haofang)” or “delicate restraint (wanyue),” Song Ci endures as a hauntingly moving literary form in Chinese literature, a literary form in which there is almost invariably a prevailing languorous melancholy that is the heart of Ci.

In style, Ci is a striking departure from that staple of Chinese poetry, the Tang poetry Shi, with the absolutely uniform length of lines in a Shi poem. But the very irregularity of the Ci is still rigidly prescribed. The poet chooses a tune pattern – whose title bears the name of the original tune – the poet must ‘fill in’ the words in lines of fixed though uneven length, to a fixed tonal and rhyming scheme. The process of ‘filling in’ allows the poet to incorporate more colloquial elements of diction than that which are found in Shi. What’s more, the blending of the classically elegant and the colloquial languages would strike an especially evocative chord in the reader.

Qu (song), one of the two representative poetic genres of the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368) – the other being Za Ju (poetic drama) – is a close cousin of Ci. Derived from and like Ci, Qu is characterized by lines of unequal length and prescribed rhyme and tonal sequence. Though each Qu song must be composed according to a chosen metrical song pattern (the total repertoire numbers around 350), the poet can add freely “padding words” to the lines, which allows considerable variation in the number of characters per line. Also, in Qu the old rigorous tonal schemes are much eased, and the (then) colloquial language enjoys an even more elevated status than that in Ci. This literary liberation caused an explosion of popular Qu songs in the streets and taverns, among actors, entertainers and their patrons, as well as members of the intelligentsia. The Yuan Qu and Za Ju paved the way for new literary genres during the later Ming and Qing dynasties, such as the poetic drama and novel. More important, Qu was an indisputable harbinger to the vernacular language of the later centuries until this present day.

Despite the rich poetic images, as how they are created through vivid and often simple lines that blend human emotions and Nature, the central themes of Qu are primarily negativism and escapism. A Qu poet yearned for the life of a recluse in solitude, which clearly manifests how the poet despised the new monarchy. For it was a time when the Mongolians ruled China with cruelty, incompetence and poor governance, and, above all, the abolishment of the traditional examination system, all of which led to a deathly decline of the social status of the Han scholars whose aspiration to serve the country was direly shattered. These hard feelings of rancor on the part of the poets thus rendered the Qu songs bravado, disillusionment, unvented anger, resignation, culminating in a stifled rage and outcry that is the inner spirit of Yuan Qu.

Taught by Ben Wang, Senior Lecturer of China Institute, this 5-session course introduces the lives and selected works of some of the finest Ci and Qu poets. The season of Summer features prominently in most of these exemplary poems.

A sample Song Ci from the lecture:

韋莊 (836-910)
wéi zhuāng

A founder of and contributor to the emerging literati Ci genre during the twilight years of the Tang dynasty (618-907), Wei Zhuang is a leader of the Huajian Ci School (Poetic School of Being Amidst the Blossoms), which is marked by a distinguished delicate and romantic theme of Bedroom Topo. (Ci poetry went on to become the representative poetic genre of the Song (960-1280).) But, as Wei Zhuang speaks directly to the reader often about his life experience that chronicles the many years he spent in the Southeast, his Ci works are largely rescued from being overly sentimental. The following is one of the most popular autobiographic Ci poems among his oeuvres.(BW)

菩薩蠻
pú sà mán
Tune to Pusa Man (The Buddha-like Barbarian)

人人盡說江南好
rén rén jìn shuō jiāng nán hǎo
Everyone’s saying how lovely the South is;

春水碧於天
chūn shuǐ bì yú tiān
Where Spring rivers shine bluer than the azure;

爐邊人似月
lú biān rén shì yuè
By wine-warmer she illumes as a full moon,

未老莫還鄉
wèi lǎo mò huán xiāng
Think not of home-going, my friend, ere you’re old and grey,

遊人只合江南老
yóu rén zhǐ hé jiāng nán lǎo
You, Rover, should wish to grow old with this land,

畫船聽雨眠
huà chuán tīng yǔ mián
Sleep in the sound of rain on an ornate boat;

皓腕凝霜雪
hào wàn níng shuāng xuě
Her arms so fair, as if formed of snow and frost.

還鄉須斷膓
huán xiāng xū duàn cháng
For if you do, your heart will needs be broken surely.

(Translated by Ben Wang)