Form and Spirit of Chinese Poetry

Introduction: Nature of Chinese Poetry

Poetry occupies a very high place in Chinese culture, and is cultivated more generally and more assiduously than in the west. Poetry was expected of educated men, both to know the classics and to turn out appropriate verses as occasion demanded. Poetry thus interpenetrated life far more than in western societies: it was not a special gift but an everyday social accomplishment. Lin Yutang {1} indeed saw it as replacing religion, which in pre-Revolution China was more a cleansing of man’s soul, an awareness of the mystery and beauty of the universe, and a feeling of tenderness and compassion for one’s fellow-men and the humble creatures of life. Religion was not adherence to a faith so much as a continuing inspiration and living emotion.

Poetry thus healed the wounded soul, and through its practice taught enjoyment in the simple things of life, a sane ideal for the Chinese civilisation. Sometimes it appealed to their romanticism and gave them a vicarious emotional uplift from the humdrum workaday world. Sometimes it appealed to their feeling of sadness, resignation and restraint, thus cleansing the heart through an artistic reflection on sorrow. Often it taught them to listen with enjoyment to the sound of nature around them, to the sight of cottage smoke rising in the evening, and the smell of fields and woods after rain. Above all, it taught them a pantheistic union with nature, a sense of eternity in the fleeting lives of humankind.

Poetry was particularly attuned to the Chinese language, which thinks in emotional concrete imagery and excels in the painting of atmosphere. The language has a genius for contraction, suggestion, sublimation and concentration, and even its prose tends to be pithy and to the point. In art, said Bertrand Russell, the Chinese aim at being exquisite, and in life at being reasonable. Chinese poetry is refined. It is never long, and never very powerful. But it is eminently fitted for producing small gems of sentiment, and for painting with a few strokes a scenery alive with rhythmic beauty and informed with spiritual grace. Chinese scholarship emphasized the unity of knowledge, and in pre-Revolutionary days was unconcerned with the narrow specialisations of science. Poetry was essentially thought coloured with emotion, and the Chinese thought about everything with emotion. The Chinese language is crisp, and poetry needs that crispness. Poetry works by suggestion, and the Chinese language is full of contractions that mean more than what the words strictly say. Poetry should express ideas by concrete imagery, and the Chinese language revels in word-imagery. And, finally, the Chinese language, with its clear-cut tones and lack of final consonants, retains a sonorous singing quality, something without parallel in non-tonal, western languages.

We can overdo the visual aspects, but Chinese poetry does conjure specific images, indeed leaves matters open very often, so that the reader has to meet the poet halfway. Even in Chinese painting, and many poets were also superlative painters, scenes were impressionistic, so that in seeing the roof of a distant monastery lightly indicated, for example, the connoisseur would imagine the sound of temple bells. Of Wang Wei it was said that ‘there is poetry in his painting and painting in his poetry’, and Wang Wei indeed excels in descriptive landscapes that can be read imaginatively and visually.

From this impressionistic technique of suggestion arose what might be called symbolic thinking. The poet suggests ideas, not by concrete statements, but by evoking a mood which puts the reader in that particular train of thought. The thoughts are often indefinable, much as are the opening bars of an opera, and the connection between the outside scene and man’s inner thoughts is not logical but symbolic and emotional, in fact called ‘hsing’ in Chinese and employed well before Tang times. That pantheism is achieved by paralleling nature and human action in the poetry, and by investing natural objects with human actions, qualities and emotions through pointed metaphors, like ‘idle flowers’, ‘the sad wind’, the ‘the chaffing parrot’, etc. Old palaces may be called ‘heartless’ because they do not feel the sense of fallen grandeur or register the poet’s poignant regret.

Both aspects, a humanising of landscape (ching) and a reflection of  human emotion (ch‘ing) in landscape, are two poles about which Chinese poetry oscillates, and which allows it to be called carefree and unrestrained (hao fang) or restrained, tender and resigned (wan yüeh). Li Bai best exemplifies the first and Du Fu the second, but there are legions of poets who added their personal colour to all the shades in between.

Postscript: A Personal View

 In the light of the above, Chinese poetry can be seen to have suffered a series of calamities in the last century of its translation into English. The first three calamities were at the hands of the man who ironically did most to introduce translation into Modernist circles: Ezra Pound. It was Pound who championed the image rather than the line couplet as the essential structure in Chinese poetry, which he further promoted in contemporary English poetry as Imagism. Chinese characters were essentially pictograms, he wrongly pronounced, and images similarly juxtaposed could also give new and vivid meanings in English. It was also Pound who advocated free verse in poetry and translation (‘compose by the phrase and not the metronome’), which not only overlooked the strong sense of metre in Chinese poetry, but rapidly became indiscernible from prose in the hands of less gifted followers. And it was thirdly Pound, who couldn’t read Chinese, and didn’t consult sinologists, who stripped the poetry of its many allusions and tacit understandings in bring the text to the reader, as everyday emotions in everyday language. Translation was thus made to serve contemporary concerns, an ideological approach that became academic dogma in the later decades of the twentieth century.

Arthur Waley, in contrast, did read Chinese and developed a sprung rhythm for Chinese poetry translation. Intelligent paraphrase is the soul of translation, without which literary translation can only be academic, i.e. restrained, scrupulously correct and emotively ineffective, but Waley advocated  rendering only the words appearing in the original text, with nothing added and nothing left out. Such translation became excessively refined, an intellectual board game of fitting choice words in tight places, and wholly at odds with the spirit of Chinese poetry, but Waley’s approach is still followed by academia and recommended in translation courses.

Fifthly, neither Pound’s or Waley’s approach was congenial to rhyme, which was also dropped from contemporary poetry practice, odd revivals like The Movement, and The New Formalists notwithstanding. Rhyme detracted from Pound’s advocacy of the image, and became practically impossible in the severely constrained Waley approach. Very few contemporary poets have any skill in rhyme, and indeed spurn the very notion, seeing verse craft as hobbling creation rather than enabling expression. Indeed very readers of Chinese poetry — poetry lovers as opposed to sinologists — seem aware that rhyme is practically universal in Chinese poetry, far more than is the case in English poetry. So reactionary seem rhyme and metre that contemporary academics can be found ridiculing the practice in Chinese poetry translation, and lambasting Victorian translators for their ‘sing-song’ renditions.

A sixth calamity was the decay of literary criticism, which lingers on in small press publications and poetry magazines, badly done if not largely fraudulent, but which has been replaced by speculative critical theory in academia on both sides of the Atlantic. Outside MFA courses, literary criticism is not taught at university level, and poems have simply become literary constructs into which ever-more abstruse contemporary notions can be read. Literary assessment, the fruit of empathy, wide reading and informed enjoyment has been replaced by academic ingenuity in illustrating dubious contemporary themes.

A seventh and final calamity came in contemporary poetry movements, notably the move from an principled Modernism to an entertaining if pedestrian Postmodernism, which insists on a contemporary language exploring contemporary concerns.  Chinese poetry, which uses a restricted vocabulary, but where each word has acquired multiple overtones deriving from millennia of use, is thus replaced by a mundane expression of vaguely evocative moods.

Though long delayed, the consequence of these developments was inevitable. Poetry of all descriptions is largely dead. Few people read it any more, or can appreciate literary excellence. English departments have lost their kudos, students, and now much of their funding. Chinese translations pour off the press, but are generally loose evocations that give no hint of the close-knit nature and excellence of the originals. Chinese poetry is a small world, but one of great finesse, and so demands verse of a comparable water, the very thing that today's literary world discounts.


The first section draws on Lin Yutan’s essay: The Technique and Spirit of Chinese Poetry. Royal Asiatic Society. Vol. 76/1. August 2016. pp. 117-32.

I have not provided references to the second section, but they are given in abundance in my Background to Literary Theory and in the many articles on this site.