The Singing Line in Chinese Poetry: Ci and Qu Forms

Qu, or ‘singing poetry’ flourished in the Yuan dynasty(1279-1368), and, like Ci poetry, began as folk songs, as verse set to various tunes. The form seems to have originated in north China, specifically in the areas conquered by the Jurchen, which became the rapidly Sinicised Jin empire. The tunes of Qu poetry are rather different from those of Ci poetry, however, and, most importantly, the language is colloquial, the living everyday speech of the Chinese and not the literary language.

chinese poetry translations cover

That said, the literati were usually the authors all the same, and indeed commonly wrote for the theatre, which was immensely popular in Yuan times.

Terminology can be confusing. Qu poems can be a single song (Xiaoling) or part of a song suite (Santao). The single song can be repeated or combined with others, sometimes making several dozen songs written to the same tune throughout. Being modelled to dramatic needs, the lines are of various lengths (commonly 3, 4 and 7 characters long) but all tend to be firmly end-rhymed. There are also tonal patterns, sometimes ― like Ci poetry ― deriving from regulated verse, and sometimes being quite novel, not found outside Qu poetry. These patterns adapt to the expression of the poem, rather than exist as a predetermined pattern into which the poem must fit, as is the case with regulated verse.

The essential keywords are thus everyday language, lines of varying length and the same end rhyme throughout the poem. Though the poems seem artless, and indeed must have the tang of everyday speech ― brimming over with rough humour, pungent wit and a shameless raciness ― they are in fact well ordered, like all things in pre-modern China. Even the tune may be maintained with ‘padding words’ or extrametrical syllables called chenzi.

Qu Poetry Examples

The result can be something quite new in Chinese poetry. Here is the piece In Xianlu Key: Tune ‘One Half’ On Love by Guan Hanqing (1220-1307):


碧紗窗外靜無人 跪在床前忙要親
罵了箇負心回轉身 雖是我話兒嗔

Not a soul outside, but in the cool
     the gauze-green window curtains lent,
he knelt beside the bed, with you-
     know-what this fool’s intent.
At that I called him what a jerk,
     and with my dander up I went
to turn my back on him, but felt
     uneasy, as if ill-content.
Though half of me would put him off,
     the other half more breathed consent.

But other Qu poems can be entirely conventional, e.g. Autumn Thoughts by Ma Zhiyuan: (1250-1321):



The dried-up vines, long-standing trees and evening crows,
a cottage, bridge that’s small, where water flows:
along the ancient road the west wind blows,
and so the evening sun goes down
      on people saddened, far, where no one knows.

Note the close rhyming. Qu poetry, like Ci, was intricately fashioned.

Ci Poetry

Chen Weisong was born to Ming royalty in Yixing, Jiangsu but became a Qing official when the Manchus replaced the Ming administration. He in fact passed the Qing examinations but subsequently became a prolific and noted poet, writing some 460 Shi and 1,629 Ci works. Though Chen Weisong married and had children by wives and concubines, his deepest relationship was with boy-actor Yun Lang, for which this piece (To the Tune: ‘Congratulating the Bridegroom’) was written:


六年孤馆相偎傍。 最难忘,
红蕤枕畔, 泪花轻飏。
了尔一生花烛事, 宛转妇随夫唱。
只我罗衾寒似铁, 拥桃笙难得纱窗亮。
休为我, 再惆怅。

Six years we have lived together:
     one house, one body, fonder yet
of things that none forget.

I see the red-fringed pillow side,
the tears, the reckless tears you shed.

May the tear-bright eyes I saw
     candle-light the lives we led,
that, if she wanders, you will stay
     the faithful husband, knowing yet

however cold our quilted bed,
that now you cannot hear me play
     the pipes to welcome in the day:
still I shan't regret,
though here left desolate.

And for comparison with the Mei Yaochen piece, there is the famous Dreaming of My Deceased Wife on the Night of the 20th Day of the First Month, Tune: ‘River Town’.by Su Dongpo (1037-1101):


十年生死两茫茫 不思量自难忘
千里孤坟无处话凄凉 纵使相逢应不识

夜来幽梦忽还乡 小轩窗正梳妆
相顾无言唯有泪千行 料得年年肠断处

The interval of ten years on
    in life and death is limitless.
The past I do no brood on much,
    but all the same do not forget
how far your grave: a thousand li,
   and all too lonely, cold
     unspoken of, and comfortless.
But if we met again, perhaps by chance,
   I think you would not know the fret
that makes my face so full of earth,
   or hair seem wisps of frostiness.

At night, in some far dreaming, I’m
   returned back home, and see you yet
at some small window making up
   or trying on a fine new dress.
And then we’d see each other, would
   not speak but shed a thousand tears
     of conjoined grief and happiness.
So, while the year on year must add
    to what the sadnesses beget,
I see the darkness, moon, and pines
   so small, that guard you, nonetheless.

Su married his Wang Fu in 1054, when she was fifteen. Unfortunately, Wang died in 1065, and Su took the body back the following year to his homeland Sichuan and there buried her in the family graveyard, planting pines around the tomb (hence the ‘small’ in line 10).

Line lengths vary from 6 to 10 characters, but the poem structure is quite simple. Lines 1-3 look back on their marriage. Lines 4-5 suppose they met again. Lines 6-8 continue the dream. Line 9 reflects on the sorrows life brings, and 10 completes the poem by an imaginary journey to Wang Fu’s grave. Su uses the same rhyme throughout (aaaxa, aaaxa), which I do, in effect, though converting the unrhymed x’s to a second rhyme ‘b’ — ababa baaba. The ‘and happiness’ is my addition: it is only implied by the Chinese.


Translation issues are explored in the free pdf ebook Background to the Chinese Translations.

For the poetry translations only click here.

For Notes on Poems 1 to 36 click here.

and for Notes on Poems 37-93 click here.