CHINAKNOWLEDGE - a universal guide for China studies | HOME | About
Encoding: Unicode (UTF-8) [Location: HOME > Literature > Belles-lettres category > Collective belles-lettres > ci poetry]

Chinese Literature
ci poetry 詞

Ci 詞 lyric is very different from the older shi 詩 type. Today the term ci simply means "word". While the older shi lyric - whose apogee is often placed in the Tang period 唐 (618-907) 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 a distinct title but 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 詞牌), a technique called contrafactury. This is the reason why we often see the same title for a ci poem, like Dielianhua 蝶戀花 "Butterflies love blossoms", Mantingfang 滿庭芳 "Scent fills the hall", or Yu meiren 虞美人 "Lady Yu". There are more than 800 tune patterns known. But the melodies of all of them are lost. That means that an expert is only able to tell the underlying tune pattern by an analysis of the verse length, the tone pitches of the particular syllables, and the rhymes.
Ci lyric emerged already during the Tang dynasty in response to the popularity of foreign musical tunes imported from Inner Asia. Already the outer shape of the ci lyric is apparently different to the shi style poetry: the verses have different length, while in a shi style poems all verses have the same length of 5, 7, or seldom 6, syllables. The early ci writers of the 9th century wanted to meet the needs of singing girls in the entertainment quarters in the lower Yangtze area and composed poems to well-known melodies. The most famous ci poets of Tang period are Wen Tingyun 溫庭筠 (d. 870) and the last king of the Southern Tang (Nantang 南唐, 937-975), Li Yu 李煜 (r. 961-975, d. 978). Yet the apogee of ci lyric was the Song period 宋 (960-1279). Under the the influence of the great writer Su Shi 蘇軾 (d. 1101) the ci poem began to free itself from its musical background and became primarily a literary creation. The poet did not know any more the underlying melody of the poem. During the Song period two different styles of ci poetry developed, the haofang 豪放 "heroic abandon", and the wanyue 婉約 "delicate restraint". Like shi poetry was still in use during the Song period, ci lyric was written all through the ages. It became again very popular during the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) as a very refined style of poetry. Even the communist dictator Mao Zedong 毛澤東 is considered having been a great ci poet - although his poetry is publicly known as shi.


春花秋月何時了?往事知多少? - 小樓昨夜又東風。故國不堪回首明月中。
雕欄玉砌應猶在。只是朱顏改。 - 問君能有幾多愁。恰似一江春水向東流。
Li Yu: to the tune "Lady Yu" (transl. Hans Frankel)
Spring blossoms and autumn moon - when will they end? How much has happened in the past!
On the balcony last night, again an east wind, the moon was so bright, I couldn't bear to look toward my old kingdom.
The carved galleries and jade steps must still be there, only the rosy cheeks have changed.
I ask you, how much sorrow can there be? It's just like a whole river full of eastward flow in spring.


Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072): to the tune "Plucking mulberry leafs"
When the many scents are gone, the West Lake (of Yichuan) is charming, all over a little red is left.
Floating fluffs blur the air, fencelike willow twigs catch the wind and rain.
The airs of a panpipe accompany traveling people, reminding them that spring is gone.
The window curtains hanging down, while swallow pairs turn back in drizzling rain.

Yan Jidao (1040-1112): to the tune "Magnolia flowers" I
Once again the eastwind makes heartless plots, rouge and powder blown down and covering the ground.
The curtain of the green balcony is not able to cover my sadness, just like the year before.
Who knows what damage such wrong pipes do to spring; climbing every hill, I once shed useless tears.
In such times we cannot but fill the golden cups, stare at the falling flowers and make us drunk.

Yan Jidao: to the tune "Magnolia flowers" II
Double curtains fall in the swing yard at dusk, and color brushes cease to work in her boudoir.
Inside the walls, the rain has left over some red apricot flowers, outside the door, the poplar fluffs fly after the wind.
If faith in dawn clouds (a girl named Xiaoyun) is lost, where to go? I have to make me free from king Xiangwang's springtime dream.
Purple Steed, you know the old paths; neighing you cross a painted bridge on the way across the eastern banks.


Su Shi (1037-1101) to the tune "Rivertown man" (transl. Burton Watson)
The year yimao, 1st month, 20th day: recording a dream I had last night
Ten years - dead and living dim and drew apart. I don't try to remember but forgetting is hard.
Lonely grave a thousand miles off, cold thoughts - where can I talk them out?
Even if we met you wouldn't know me, dust on my face, hair like frost -
In a dream last night suddenly I was home. By the window of the little room you were combing your hair and making up.
You turned and looked, not speaking, only lines of tears coursing down -
year after year will it break my heart? The moonlit grave, its stubby pines.


Shu Tan (1041-1103): to the tune "Lady Yu"
Falling lotus flowers disturb the Heaven Pond's clear water, at dusk blue waves arise.
High a swallow pair flies below the freezing clouds, as I am lonely watching from the balcony.
In a floating life, the only appropriate way is to venerate the old. Snow covered the streets of Chang'an,
when in old times (Fan Ye) was watching from the tower day and night, waiting for Lu Kai to bring him a flowering peach twig from the south.


Zhou Bangyan (1056-1121): to the tune "Fragrance filling the hall"
Wind raises the oriol's chicks, rain manures the plum sprouts, midday sun makes trees grow, clearing and rounding.
The ground is flat, the mountains near, wet clothes damping over the fire.
As man is quiet, the kites play happily. Outside the small bridge, new green in gurgling water.
Leaning upon a balustrade, amidst yellow gourds and withered bamboo, I ask myself if the ship will reach Jiujiang.
Year after year, like migrating swallows, like the floating desert, they come under my eaves.
But never think at outside of your self, if long or short, rever the ancient.
Emaciated and tired are the guests from the south, let them hear music, play flutes and lutes,
Make a banquet on the fields; first prepare their mats and pillows, and let us only sleep when we are drunk.


He Zhu (1052-1125): to the tune "Butterflies kiss flowers"
What should hurt the spring when a spring day is over? Poplars and willows under the clear moon, their twigs just in the way of strolling people.
On a small hill at the horizon, peach leafs come out, and with a pure delight, petals scatter all over my fresh washed robe.
When the day is over, tiny sounds of short and long poems, in the shadow of the curtains, light in the dark, and hearts send their words by a zither tune.
The sound of rain has relieved the wind, amidst floating clouds the dim and hazy moon.


Xin Qiji (1140-1207): to the tune "Spring in the Han palace"
Spring is back, on all the maidens' heads the springtime papercuts.
Ceaseless wind and rain, and still a little bit of cold.
The seasonn when the swallows breed chicks is come, but in the night, I walk in dream in Kaifeng's West Garden.
No finished yet the orange liqueur, we first serve the green scallions plate.
Now we laugh with the eastwind, perfuming plums and coloring willows, to have more leisure time.
In leisure time then we look again in the mirror, to change the rouge on our cheeks.
But our simple sadness never ceases, asking who can loose these chains?
I'm afraid to see again this place in my life. Opening flowers, falling flowers - the dawn impedes the geese to fly home.

樓前綠暗分攜 路,一絲柳,一寸柔情。

Wu Wenying (1200-1260): to the tune "Winds between pine trees"
Listening to wind and rain and waiting for clear weather, while the grass of sadness buries the incarved flowers.
In front of the house in twilight green, our ways are separating. Giving you a willow twig, giving me a bit of warm emotion.
While drinking wine in the harsh coldness of spring, a morning dream is filled with oriol songs.
In the west garden I daily sweep the Forest Pavillion, enjoying the clear weather like before.
The wasps attack the swing rope when I was holding it with delicate hands and fragrant shape.
So heavy-hearted I wait for my husband to come home, while in the dark corner of the stairs the moss grows green over night.
Translated by Ulrich Theobald, unless indicated. Apologies for my bad English.
Chinese literature according to the four-category system

July 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail