Chinese Poems: Regulated Shi forms

The so-called 'recent-style' Shi poetry (Jintishi) was a more musical but heavily regulated poetry that reached its highest development in Tang times, but was also written in later dynasties. Jintishi took two forms: a full Lushi (eight lines) form and a so-called curtailed Jueju (four lines) form. These two forms were subdivided further. Lushi poetry was either pentasyllabic (Wulu: five characters to the line), or heptasyllabic (Qilu: seven characters to the line). Jueju was either Wujue (five characters to the line), or Qijue (seven characters to the line). Strict rules of organisation, metre, rhyme and tonal patterns applied to all four forms of Jintishi poems.

Regulated Shi is the most refined and artificial of Chinese poetry genres.

chinese poetry translations cover

The keywords for translation purposes are a rather studied air of refinement, melodious but also somewhat dissociated from reality, tight rhyming and much assonance to mimic the tone rules: in short, a highly-finished and self-conscious style of writing.

Wulu Poetry

Seeing off Assistant Prefect Du Tang by Wang Bo (650-76)


城阙辅三秦   风烟望五津
与君离别意  同是宦游人
海内存知己  天涯若比邻
无为在歧路 儿女共沾巾

Seen from Chengdu walls it’s Shaanxi nears,
while you, past mist and snow, on Sichuan gaze.

For all the sadness, in our spirit stays
the faith that through the endless travelling days
our country furthers its true friends’ careers:
at the earth’s far doors, we stay as neighbours.

So at this new-come parting of the ways
let’s not be children now who’d show their tears.

Wang Bo wrote poetry from an early age but killing a servant ended his precocious career, and threatened that of his father, who was banished to Jiaozhi. It was returning from a visit to his father in 676 that Wang Bo was drowned at sea.

Wang Bo’s brief output nonetheless influenced Tang poetry. He advocated ‘self display’ of the emotions, though these had to be appropriate, i.e. express the ideal of service to the state. By some commentators, he was thought frivolous, or even conceited, but his stress on content and sense were a valuable antidote to poetry that aimed simply for formal perfection.

Shaanxi in the poem’s text is given as ‘Three Qin’ and Sichuan as ‘Five Fords’. Chengdu is in central Sichuan. The original is rhymed aaba baxa, the translation as abbb aaba.

Qilu Potry

The Poor Girl by Qin Taoyu (late Tang)

貧 女 PIN NU

蓬 門 未 識 綺 羅 香   擬 託 良 媒 益 自 傷
誰 愛 風 流 高 格 調   共 憐 時 世 儉 梳 妝
敢 將 十 指 誇 鍼 巧   不 把 雙 眉 鬥 畫 長
苦 恨 年 年 壓 金 線   為 他 人 作 嫁 衣 裳

The girl from this poor, threadbare home,
     has never owned a fragrant dress,
but hastes to marriage go-between
     although the match will make her grieve.
She loves good things, and has acquired
     an eye for fashion’s plumed excess.
But she, alas, will share hard times,
     and, frugally, make do with less.

She’d thought that her ten-finger skill
     would earn what talent should receive,
and hereabouts there’s not a soul
     who has what those fine brows profess,
yet she goes stitching year on year
     the threads of gold in bitterness,
fashioning the sumptuous things
     that others marry in and bless.

Qin Toayu was a poet of the late Tang Dynasty, whose birth and death dates are unknown. He was born to a family of martial arts enthusiast, and his father was an army general. He was taken up by the powerful eunuch Tian Linz, and served as a staff member, a minister and a judge of salt and iron. After Huang Chao's rebellion took Chang'an, Qin went to Shu from Emperor Xi Zong, and was awarded a scholarship in the second year of Zhonghe (882). Tian Linz also promoted him to be a minister of the Ministry of Public Works and a judge of the Divine Strategy Army. His marital status is not known but he was called "Qiao eunuch" by contemporaries. He is best known for The Poor Girl poem here.

The Chinese read character in the face, and eyebrows are an 'organ of longevity' indicating health and vigour. Long eyebrows, for example, show the capacity for lots of friends.

The translation is rhymed abaa baaa, reasonably close to the aaba baxa of the original, though I have again split the seven-character lines into tetrameters.

Wujue Poetry

Quiet Night Thoughts by Li Bai (701-62)


床前明月光   疑是地上霜
舉頭望明月   低頭思故鄉

Before my bed the moonlight shines, although
it may be frost on ground for all I know.
I raise my head but flinch from that full moon,
which speaks of home as heart was long ago.

Li Bai had the ability to make the most difficult things seem easy, as translators know to their cost with this little piece. It has proved refractory for many who naturally want to carry over the parallelism, between the moon in the sky and the earth down here, the present and the past, the chill of hoarfrost and the warmth of home remembered.

The poem is outwardly simple, and is taught schoolchildren across China. The original rhyme scheme is aaxa. If we want to preserve that parallelism, we can write:

Before my bed the moonlight shines, although
it may be frost on ground for all I know.
I raise my eyes to see the brilliant moon,
but lower them to home lost long ago.

But a stronger poem is made by making the last line less facile, as in the version above.

Qijue Poetry

Dispelling Sorrow by Du Mu (803-52)


落 魄 江南載酒行   楚腰腸斷掌中輕
十年一覺揚州夢   贏得青樓薄倖名

In wine I sunk my soul: went south through river lands,
broke hearts of Chu girls dancing careless on my hands.
Now, ten years on, I wake from Yangzhou dreams: it stands
not well to be a heartless name with courtesans.

Du Mu, a major poet writing in the golden age of Tang poetry was skilled in many styles. He is best known for sensual, lyrical quatrains featuring historical sites or romantic situations, and often on themes of separation, decadence, or impermanence. The style blends classical imagery and diction with striking juxtapositions, colloquialisms, or other wordplay.

Du Mu also wrote long narrative poems. Dancing careless on my hands is an allusion to the great beauty Zhao Feiyan, who was so light that she could dance on the emperor’s palm. Yangzhou in the poem is a euphemism for the courtesan quarters.


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

For the translations only click here.

For Notes on Poems 1 to 36 click here.

and for Notes on Poems 37-93 click here.