An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

saoti 騷體, elegiac rhapsody

May 3, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Saoti 騷體 is an elegiac style of poetry whose origins go back to the long poem Lisao 離騷 by the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) writer and politician Qu Yuan 屈原. He lived in the state of Chu 楚 and compiled a group of poems that were later part of the collection Chuci 楚辭, often translated as "Poetry of the South" or "Songs of the South".

The genre of saoti is therefore also called Chuci ti 楚辭體. The elegiac style of the Chuci has been imitated in the rhapsodies (fu 賦) of Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) writers like Sima Xiangru 司馬相如 (Changmen fu 長門賦 and Daren fu 大人賦), Ban Gu 班固 (Youtong fu 幽通賦) and Zhang Heng 張衡 (Sixuan fu 思玄賦). Because of their stylistic and semantic vicinity to the Chuci they are also called elegiac rhapsodies (saoti fu 騷體賦).

The saoti style is characterized by a strong emotional note, in which the author regrets the adverse political circumstances of his home, or the unfavoural conditions of his own life. In this situation the speaker can experience a kind of vision that might relieve him of his distress. The verses are often written in parallel pairs, with six or seven syllables per line, often in the middle divided by the verse divider xi 兮 that is thought to express a kind of sighing.

Some theoreticians believe that the part before the verse divider (juyao 句腰 "waist of the sentence") and that after it are ruled by certain standards for the use of level tone (ping 平) or falling tone (ze 仄) syllables.

The saoti style was less popular from the mid-Han period on, when it was replaced by the so-called "music from among the people" that was collected by the Music Bureau (yuefu 樂府).

The most famous saoti style poems or rhapsodies of later times are Cai Yan's 蔡琰 Beifen shi 悲憤詩 from the Wei period 曹魏 (220-265), Han Yu's Fuzhi fu 復志賦 or Liu Yongyuan's 柳宗元 Chengjiu fu 懲咎賦 and Minsheng fu 閔生賦 from the Tang period 唐 (618-907).

Cao Chuji 曹礎基 (1986). "Saoti 騷體", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 688.