Traditional Chinese Poetry
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0005
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0005
In modern China, “traditional poetry” (also called “classical”) refers to gu shi 古詩 (old poetry) and encompasses poetic writing since Antiquity to the end of the imperial era. The concept must be understood in opposition to “new poetry” (xin shi 新詩), written after the May Fourth movement (1919), with its own poetic assumptions and modes of expression inspired by Western models. “Old poetry” also embraces all production in traditional forms practiced after May Fourth outside the mainstream of new literature. Before the impact of Western culture, five basic poetic “genres” were recognized, including shi 詩 (poetry, verse) in various forms, yuefu 樂府 (Music Bureau verse), fu 賦 (rhapsody, rhymed prose, etc.), ci 詞 (song, lyric), and qu 曲 (aria), each with its own variety of formal, stylistic, and performative conventions and social roles. In bibliographies, anthologies, and personal collections, genres are separated. Two ancient anthologies, Shi jing 詩經 (Book of odes) and Chu ci 楚辭 (Songs from Chu), were treated as separate categories, though a direct link between them and later genres (shi, fu) is established. A hierarchy of genres was acknowledged, with broadly defined shi (including the yuefu) deriving its authority from the canonical Shi jing on the top. (The position of the fu is complicated, and after the Tang dynasty it was classified as prose.) The boundaries between high and low were not impenetrable, and interplay between them constitutes much of the dynamics of traditional Chinese poetry evolution. In the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese scholars, reinterpreting earlier ideas about genres under the impact of evolutionary theories, established a new template of literary history consisting of genres of poetry and prose alternating in “dominant” positions along the lines of dynastic change. For poetry these period genres are defined as Shi jing and Chu ci (pre-Han period); fu, yuefu, and gu shi 古詩 (Han period); and wu yan shi 五言詩 (early medieval period), followed by Tang shi, Song ci, and Yuan qu. Until the 1980s, when the established template was first challenged, a genre was studied in Chinese literature almost exclusively in the period in which it was supposed to be “dominant.” Poetry after the Yuan was mostly disregarded, though all previous genres continued to be practiced. For political reasons, contact between Western scholarship and East Asian Sinology after 1949 was largely limited to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan. Scholarship in China was subject to strict ideological control, culminating during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). The situation changed after the 1980s, and regular contacts between East and West and between China and Taiwan and Japan have been established. Nevertheless, much of the research in China and in the West is separate due to differing traditions and academic contexts.
Modern Concept of Chinese Poetry Studies
In premodern China a rich tradition of domestic poetry criticism and studies developed that was substantially different from the scholarship created after the May Fourth movement. A comprehensive overview of Chinese traditional ideas about literature, including poetry, and their reconceptualization in the early 20th century is in Dong, et al. 2003. The complex process of reevaluation of traditional concepts in the early 20th century is discussed in Llamas 2010, an article about Wang Guowei’s pioneering study on Chinese drama. The same issue is approached in relation to poetry in Owen 2001. The understanding of the fundamental difference between the “old” and the “new,” common among scholars of modern Chinese poetry, is summarized in Yeh 1991. This opinion on the nature of traditional poetry would not necessarily be shared by the classicists. In the early 21st century a new approach bringing traditional and modern poetry closer together was adopted in a major work published in China, Zhao and Wu 2012.
Dong Naibin 董乃斌, Chen Bohai 陈伯海, and Liu Yangzhong 刘扬忠. Zhongguo wenxue shixue shi (中国文学史学史). 3 vols. Shijiazhuang, China: Hebei renmin chubanshe, 2003.
An overview of Chinese literary historiography. The book is arranged chronologically (Volume 3 is dedicated to the modern period) and according to genres. The May Fourth heritage, placed in historical context, is challenged. It also provides a summary of research between 1949 and the early 1990s. Taiwan is also partly represented.
Llamas, Regina. “Wang Guowei and the Establishment of Chinese Drama in the Modern Canon of Classical Literature.” T’oung Pao 96.1–3 (2010): 165–201.
Focuses on the modern idea of Chinese drama but is also revealing about more-general processes shaping the creation of modern literary history in China, out of the interplay of local traditions and new concepts imported from the West.
Owen, Stephen. “The End of the Past: Rewriting Chinese Literary History in the Early Republic.” In The Appropriation of Cultural Capital: China’s May Fourth Project. Edited by Milena Doleželová-Velingerová and Oldřich Král with Graham Sanders, 167–192. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001.
Owen discusses the reconceptualization of Chinese poetry studies in the early 20th century, in the context of the May Fourth movement’s creation of the academic field of history of Chinese literature. Points to traditional interest in appreciation, not analysis. The issue of a unified literary canon is also involved.
Yeh, Michelle Mi-Hsi. “A New Orientation to Poetry: The Transition from Traditional to Modern.” In Modern Chinese Poetry: Theory and Practice since 1917. By Michelle Mi-Hsi Yeh, 5–28. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.
An introduction to a book about 20th-century poetry. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the difference of “new poetry.” It does so on the basis either of adherence to or rejection of the classical canon and its conventions and differences in sensibilities, poetic assumptions, and freedom of imagery.
Zhao Minli 赵敏俐 and Wu Sijing 吴思敬, eds. Zhongguo shige tongshi (中国诗歌通史). Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 2012.
Among other innovations, the editors of this general history of Chinese poetry also try to establish the idea of continuity of the Chinese poetic tradition in modern times.
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