Your Quick Guide to Chinese Poetry History and Styles

Artist creating Chinese caligraphy

For thousands of years, poetry has been an integral part of Chinese culture. It is held in high importance across communities and for many, it is considered to be the epitome of artistry. This literary art form isn’t simply for entertainment or self-reflection–it’s a form of communication and a mark of creative eloquence. Known for vivid imagery and complex meanings, Chinese poetry, its numerous styles, and Chinese poets are studied around the world to this day. In this first installment of a two-part blog post series, we’ll dive into the history and styles of Chinese poetry.

The History of Chinese Poetry

Chinese poetry is typically divided up into three eras: pre-classical, classical, and modern. Pre-classical poetry emerged over 2000 years ago, during the dawn of Chinese civilization. Incredibly, there are two surviving poetry collections from that ancient time period that showcase the pre-classical poetry styles. These collections are called Shi Jing and Chu Ci, which translate to the “Classic of Poetry” and “Song of Chu” respectively.

Classical poetry arose during the Han Dynasty, 206 BC–220 AD, and didn’t transition out until the early 1900s. It is the broadest Chinese poetry era and thus possesses the most amount of poetry styles. Some of the most influential and admired Chinese poets, such as Li Bai and Du Fu, also came from this era and arguably defined classical Chinese poetry for the world. Finally, modern poetry started to appear in the early 1900s. This poetry era is largely influenced by Western poetry and splits from the enduring poetry traditions established in the pre-classical and classical periods.

Across all of Chinese history, poetry permeated throughout society and Chinese culture. For a while, poetry writing was part of the exams that determined whether one could gain officialdom. When it came to communicating between leaders and armies, poetry was used to relay ambitions, intentions, and more. And on a more personal level, many turned to poetry to discover and express themselves. It is this element of self-reflection in poetry that made Confucius hold poems in high regard.

Poetry is very much ingrained in China. These are but a few circumstances in which poetry played a part in the country’s development.

The Styles of Chinese Poetry

Each era produced prominent and distinctive poetry styles that are still analyzed today. For a majority of these styles, they have rhyme patterns and structures that were closely followed by the poets of their time. It wasn’t until the modern era that free-verse (in which a poem didn’t always rhyme or have a structure) was explored more thoroughly. Here are some of those Chinese poetry styles.

Pre-classical Styles

Shi Jing 

The poetry style found in Shi Jing features lines of four characters, internal rhymes, end rhymes, rhythmic repetition, and words that match. This collection has poems that are thought of as folk songs with rustic natural backdrops as well as poems set in aristocratic settings.

Chu Ci

Chu Ci originated from the state of Chu and possessed poems of a more unique style. These poems are slightly looser in form, lyrical, and had varying line lengths.

Classical Styles

Fu

This poetry style is quite comprehensive in content! It looks more like an essay, with prose at the beginning and end. The poetry verses themselves usually rhyme in couplets. But the other notable aspect is that Fu poems are typically in-depth on the target topics.

Yue Fu

Collected, written, and edited by the government officials, these poems are very ballad-like with fixed rhythms and uneven line length.

Shi

Shi style poems are considered to be the most universal form of Chinese poetry. It features rhyming couplets and 4-7 characters per line. Often, the topics of these poems stir deep reflection in the readers about the most pressing and existential topics.

Ci

Poems in this style have pronounced tonal and syllabic patterns. These poems also evoke strong emotions and feelings of desire.

Modern Style

Unlike the previously described poetry styles, the modern style poem has no line structure, no syllabic pattern, and no rhyming. It breaks entirely away from the thousands of years of poetry styles and creates something new and fresh.

 

This is but a small taste of Chinese poetry! Many modern scholars dedicate their lives to analyzing the intricacies of Chinese poems. And many more people from across the globe enjoy reading and reflecting on Chinese poems. Stay tuned for a follow-up blog post about how to incorporate poetry in ESL classes!