Chinese Poems and their Language

Chinese poetry played a key role in early Modernist theory, and remains immensely popular — in the many Chinese poets that continue to appear in English translation, and among Chinese readers themselves, who often prefer the classics to contemporary work. Historically, poetry was an important means of self-expression, social criticism and social advancement for the governing scholar class, and even today provides some understanding of the Chinese world view.

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To understand its poetry we need to know something of the Chinese language and its literary traditions. The poetry record is also much longer and larger than ours: three millennia and 48,000 poems from the Tang, 200,000 poems from the Song, and a million or more from the following Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

Chinese Language

The foundation of Chinese is the character, a logogram where every symbol represents a sound, and/or a minimal unit of meaning. In the literary language each character represents one word and its monosyllable sound, but a modern Chinese word can have two syllables (e.g. dianshi for television). The average Chinese today knows some two to four thousand characters, but many more exist: an eleventh-century dictionary listed over 53,000, for example.  The earliest writings stretch back to 12th century BC divinatory texts written on bones and shells, and some of these are clearly pictograms, stylised drawings of what they represent. But many are not, and today only some 600 Chinese characters are pictograms of some sort, these being no more obvious than the etymology of English words is to us. The sound associated with these early pictograms gradually gained an independence, however, enabling it to be detached and applied to new words constructed as approximations to their pronunciation. Some word meanings were tangible objects, but others were abstract grammatical notions, like 'completion of an action'. Today the vast majority of Chinese characters are simply phono-semantic compounds, constructed from elements once hinting at both meaning and pronunciation, but now not fully doing so. Today's sound and meaning of each character has simply to be learned, though dictionaries help a little in this laborious business by listing words under their radical, the basic sound and meaning from which each character is built.

The radical is modified by additional elements, which extend the sound and meaning, often beyond what could be easily guessed at. Generally, the additional elements appears to the immediate right of the radical, but may also appear to the left, above or below. There is little pattern in this arrangement, and the new compounds (i.e. new words) simply have to be learned, sound and meaning. Such meanings can also be rather vague. The character for water may indicate a body of water, for example, running or still, but also actions performed by and with water. Characters are written in strokes according to strict rules (left before right, top before bottom, etc.) and those rules have to followed if intelligibility is to survive the many styles in which the characters can be written, from orthodox script to everyday handwriting.

Chinese is remarkably free of grammar as westerners know it, i.e. something governing the parts of speech and the relationship between them. We change the form of words to indicate tense (sing to sung), and function (verb sing to noun song), but Chinese does not. We use periodic sentences, with multiple relative clauses, but Chinese does not. We make the word order important (he hit her), but Chinese is less concerned with such matters, at least in its poetry, which cultivates ambiguity. Prose is much more precise, however, and there is nothing in English, even the most technical, that cannot be exactly said in Chinese.

So how does Chinese overcome these apparent shortcomings? By rather different approaches to language. Word order is important, and Chinese has rules and expectations that govern practically everything, from simple expressions to complex phrases. Chinese does not distinguish between singular and plural nouns, however, but employs specific indicator like dou (all), zhèixie (these) or haoxie (a good deal): there are also measures, like tóu (head), zhang (stretch) or tiáo (long), etc. The word dé indicates possession: tade shu (his book).  Chinese verbs are not conjugated, do not possess tenses, nor express mood (conditional, subjunctive, etc). Indeed only their ability to be preceded by bu distinguishes them from nouns.

But the Chinese are not confused by this similarity, in fact distinguishing between active verbs and verbs indicating a state of being. Verbs are words that can use predicates, follow adverbs, take suffixed particles and take a modifer like hen (very or good). Chinese doesn't use relative phrases or clauses but generally modifies word order with time or place expressions: pùzi qiántou nèige rén (that man in front of the shop, but literally 'shop in front of that man', where qiántou is 'in front of'). Compound verbs are very common: ba shu nágei wo (hand me the book, but literally 'book take give me'). Conveyance travel usually includes the verb zuò, to sit: he shi zuò bus come de (did he come by bus, where shi is the verb 'to be'). There are no past tenses but the suffix le suffices: 'good afternoon' becomes 'have you eaten' (ni chile fò le ma: a double use of le). The suffix gùo indicates something done in the past and so a successful conclusion: qing ni gùo lá (please come here). Through such elements — and there are a great many in Chinese — the language is kept flexible and expressive.

But key point for its poetry is the flexibility of Chinese, which can be written without the regimentation by grammar that English requires.

Structure of a Chinese Poem

Classical Chinese poems differ in several features from European poems, and these features are crucial to comprehension and translation. The features changed as Chinese poetry evolved, and could be specific to the type of poem being written, so that the following is only the briefest overview.

1. Ambiguity. Key aspects may be missing from the text, often the where, the time, the who did what to whom, etc. All these will be disclosed by seeing the poem in its cultural context, and by following the hints and associations of the words given — or disclosed as much as the poet intends. But the disclosure is part of the experience. Discretion, refinement, allusion — these are part of the cultural tradition, and readers by Tang times were expected to work things out for themselves. Indeed that slow making sense of the words, and the shadowy ambiguities beyond those words, was part of the poetic experience in the Du Fu poem analysed below. Poetry often served to suggest the shadowy and transient existence of the world apprehended through the senses, not the clear-cut, no-nonsense terms of a government decree.

2. Syntactical construction. The words of each line of the poem are arranged in one of two ways, as subject plus predicate or as topic plus comment.

Thus the first four lines of the poem Tao yao (Peach-tree tender) run:

táo zhi yao yao
zhuó zhuó qí huá
zhi zi yú gui
yí qí shì jia

The literal translation is:

peach_tree budding tender tender
vivid vivid its flowers
this girl going_to marry
fit her chamber house

Lines 1 and 2 have the topic plus comment structure. Lines 3 and 4 have the subject plus predicate structure. The sense has to be filled out: an English translation might be:

The peach tree, budding and tender,
Vivid and bright its flowers.
This girl is going to be married,
and fit for her chamber and house.

That comment on a structure is a powerful feature of Chinese poetry, most useful and largely missing from idiomatic English. The two constructions, subject plus predicate and as topic plus comment, also become much more complicated in later poetry, in Shi, Ci and Qu poems.
3. Parallelism. Lines commonly repeat themselves in Chinese verse, expressing the same meaning in a slightly different way or with different imagery. In four-line poems it was usual for the interior lines to show parallelism, but here line 2 repeats the freshness comment of line 1, and line 4 repeats the subject and predicate sense of line 3.

4. Progression. Chinese poems commonly showed a four stage progression, from qi (begin or arise) to cheng (continue) to zhuan (make a turn) and he (conclude or enclose). This is examined in the Du Fu example below.

5. Rhythm, or, more exactly, semantic rhythm. In the early Shi (Zhou dynasty) poetry, of which the above is an example, the tetrasyllabic line forms two disyllabic segments, often designated 2 + 2. But as poetry became more ambitious, and the lines longer, a greater variety of measures became possible. In the Lyrics of the Chou (Period of Warring States) for example, the line often lengthens to a 3 +2 rhythm, where the 3 may be 1 +2 or 2 +1. In the first case the initial word is followed by a minor pause (.) and the second two words form a semantic binome: 'oh. whom linger'. The 'whom linger' is still two separate monosyllabic words, but the sense links them as a disyllable. After the third word may come a pause, indicated by the Chinese word xi, between topic and comment: 'oh. whom linger xi middle isle'.  Much greater variety still  comes in later poetry, where the rules governing, for example, Du Fu's use of metre and tone would take several pages to explain properly.

6. Rhyme. Chinese poems generally rhyme, often on even lines, but sometimes only approximately, by repetition of similar vowel sounds only rather than the vowel and concluding consonant expected in English verse. There was good reason for this looseness. Chinese poems have short lines, and poets did not want to be too restricted in word use. They were also conscious that pronunciation had changed over the centuries, and indeed differed between dialects across the country. Here, in the example above, where the poem comes from the earliest anthology of Chinese poetry (The Book of Poetry: Shijing, Mao No. 6), there is clear rhyme, which later becomes rather complicated, as, even more so, become the rules regarding the associated tones. In the regulated new style poetry of Tang times (Jintishi), the poet had to alternate level and oblique tones between and within the lines. A first rule demanded that the tones of a pentasyllabic line appear as opposite pairs. A second rule required that the tonal combination of the first line be antithetically matched by that of the closing line of the poem. A third rule demanded a partial equivalence between two adjacent couplets. The matter is technical, complicated in detail, but indicates how remote from simple heart-felt simplicity was Chinese poetry at the zenith of its powers. Such poetry was read in public, of course, indeed was expected of educated officials, as though impromptu on important occasions, but the literary language was nonetheless a dead language, intensely conservative and backward-looking  — something translators need to remember when casting their renderings into aggressively contemporary forms.

7. Rhetoric. Far from simply letting images speak for themselves, Chinese poems, even from earliest times, employed various tropes, including metaphor, simile, synecdoche (part representing whole), alliteration, onomatopoeia and puns.

8. Allusion. Chinese poems commonly allude to other poems on similar themes, not by only by selective quotation from older poets but weaving them into the lines so that the themes are emphasized, contrasted, undermined or subtly made to change their shape.

9. Imagery and its requirements. By Tang times, Chinese poems had accumulated many content words (shizi) with a marked visual aspect, the continual use of which evoked thought, emotion and even remembered scraps of history.  New style poems particularly (as in the example that follows) tended to maximize the imagistic content at the expense of so called 'empty' words, though it is the latter that are needed for understanding in western poetry. Chinese in fact goes much further than the focus on images, and indeed works rather differently. There is the linkage by semantic needs noted in 5 above. There are many expectations, styles and traditions, plus strict rules governing the use of couplets and tone patterns. Chinese poetry is anything but artless, natural and direct.

The poem above (Mao No. 6) is:


桃之夭夭 灼灼其華
之子于歸 宜其室家
桃之夭夭 有蕡其實
之子于歸 宜其家室
桃之夭夭 其葉蓁蓁
之子于歸 宜其家人

Tender, tender is the peach,
and all consuming are her powers:
the girl who makes her marriage vows
is fit for chamber and the house.

Tender, tender is the peach,
and genuine her flourishing:
the girl who makes her marriage vows
is fit for home in everything.

Tender, tender is the peach,
and rich the leaves’ prosperity:
the girl who makes her marriage vows
is fit for her new family.


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.