Tang poetry and Song lyrics

Updated: September 22 2008(GMT+08:00)
Tang poetry and Song lyrics

The Poems of the Tang Dynasty (唐诗)

As many a dynasty in Chinese history is marked by some phase of success representing the thought and life of that period, the Tang Dynasty is commonly recognized as the golden age of poetry. Beginning with the founder of the dynasty, down to the last ruler, almost every one of the emperors was a great lover and patron of poetry, and many were poets themselves. A special tribute should be paid to the Empress Wu Chao or the "Woman Emperor" (684-704), through whose influence poetry became a requisite in examinations for degrees and an important course leading to official promotion. This made every official as well as every scholar a poet. The poems required in the examination, after long years of gradual development, followed a formula, and many regulations were established. Not only must the length of a line be limited to a certain number of the characters, usually five or seven, but also the length of a poem was limited to a certain number of lines, usually four or eight or twelve. The maintenance of rhymes, the parallelism of characters, and the balance of tones were other rules considered essential. This is called the "modern" or "ruled" poetry. In the Ch'ing or Manchu Dynasty the examination poem was standardized as a five-character-line poem of sixteen lines with every other line rhymed. This "eight-rhyme" poem was accompanied by the famous "eight-legged" literature ( a form of literature divided into eight sections ) as a guiding light for entrance into mandarin life.


The above-mentioned rules of poetry applied first only to examination poems. But afterwards they became a common exercise with "modern" or "ruled" poems in general. Chinese poetry since the T'ang Dynasty has followed practically only two forms, the "modern" or "ruled" form and the "ancient" or "unruled" form. A poet usually writes both. The "eight-rhyme" poem, however, was practised for official examinations only.

The most famous writers are Li Bai
李白 (Li Taibai 李太白), Du Fu 杜甫, Du Mu 杜牧, Meng Haoran 孟浩然, Wang Wei 王维, Bai Juyi 白居易 (Bo Juyi), Li Shangyin 李商隐, Yuan Zhen 元稹, and many more. Several thousand Tang poems are collected in the Qing time compilation Quan Tang Shi (Quantangshi) 全唐诗. The second half of Tang Dynasty saw the rise of a new poetry style. A poet should fill a traditional melody pattern with new words (ci ). This ci style poem was more complicated like the old shi style poems and reached its maturity during Song Dynasty. The most important representant of Tang ci poetry was Li Yu 李煜, emperor of Southern Tang (937-975).



The Lyrics of the Song Dynasty(宋词)

The ci lyric is very different from the shi type. Today the term ci simply means "word". While the older Tang Dynasty shi lyric can be read without minding the underlying melodies - even if there existed some underlying melodies - ci poetry must be seen as written songs. Most of the poems do not even have their own title, but they are named after an original melody. Composers and writers used this melody to write a new poem that could be sung to the original famous melody or tune pattern (cipai 词牌), a technique called contrafactury. This is the reason why we often see the same title for a ci poem, like Die lian hua 蝶恋花 "Butterflies love blossoms", Man ting fang 满庭芳 "Scent fills the hall", or Yu meiren 虞美人 "Lady Yu". There are more than 800 tune patterns. Ci lyric emerged during the Tang Dynasty in response to the popularity of foreign musical tunes imported from Inner Asia.

During Song Dynasty, two different styles of ci poetry developed, the haofang
豪放 "heroic abandon", and the wanyue 婉约 "delicate restraint". Like shi poetry was still in use during the Song Dynasty (see an example of a Lu You shi), ci lyric again became very popular during the Qing Dynasty. Even the communist chairman Mao Zedong is considered to be a great ci poet.


The "Three Hundred Song poems" (Song ci sanbai shou
宋词三百首) anthology was compiled by the "Jiangcun ci club" Shangjiang Cunmin 上强村民 under the guidance of Zhu Zumou (1859-1931) 朱祖谋. Except the examples below, there are some famous Song poets, like Wang Yucheng 王禹偁 (954-1101), Liu Yong 刘永 (980-1053), Yan Shu 晏殊 (991-1055), Mei Yaochen 梅尧臣 (1002-1060), Shao Yong 邵雍 (1011-1077), Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086), Huang Tingjian 黄庭坚 (1045-1105), Qin Guan 秦观 (1049-1100), Zhao Buzhi 晁补之 (1053-1110), Chen Shidao 陈师道 (1053-1102), Ye Mengde 叶梦得 (1077-1148), Li Qingzhao 李清照 (1084-1155), Yang Wanli 杨万里 (1127-1206), Chen Liang 陈亮 (1143-1194), Jiang Kui 姜夔 (1155-1221), Shi Dazu 史达祖 (1163-1220), Liu Kezhuang 刘克庄 (1187-1269), Zhou Mi 周密 (1232-1298), Wang Yisun 王沂孙 (1240-1290), and Zhang Yan 张炎 (1248-1320). Of course, every official engaged in writing ci poems as authorship of poems belonged to the basic knowledge of the upper class.


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