The Development of Chinese Poetry

As it is known, “versification (metricalization)” is a literary technique used to organize a literary work in the form of verses (lines) with clearly distinguishable meter (structure). It is used in writing of poems and, therefore, it is typically associated with the notions of rhythm, rhyme, meter, and composition of verses. Nevertheless, deeper knowledge of literary techniques reveals that poems can be both metrical and non-metrical. Similarly, prose can also possess the features (rhythm, pauses) of non-metrical (free verse) poesy. The above-mentioned is noticed to be a global tendency, which is common for both Western and Eastern literature movements. In particular, Chinese poetry is known to evolve from simple non-metrical poems to metrical ones; however, within the time, it developed back to free verse poems.

This trend can be explained by globalization, whereas Chinese literature was impacted by the peculiarities of Western literature due to the intercultural penetration. Nevertheless, a rapid expansion of cultural globalization encourages China to refer to the origins of its culture with the purpose of preserving and cultivating its national identity. Comparing these Eastern tendencies with the simultaneous developmental processes in Western literature, one may identify the similarity of both trends. Specifically, the non-metrical poetry is known to be used since the beginning of the European literature. If to consider the case more closely, it can be found that numerous passages, such as Isaiah’s Job, Psalms, the Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes from the English Bible are written in a form of free verse (“Meter: Types of Feet,” n. pag.). Thereafter, non-metrical poetry reappeared in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment; ever since, it has successfully developed in parallel with metric poesy. For example, Sir Thomas Browne, Milton, De Quincey, and Ruskin adhered to free verse (“Meter: Types of Feet,” n. pag.).

While analyzing the transition of Chinese poetry from non-metrical to metrical, it is necessary to refer to specific writers and their literature works. Probably the most popular collection of poems is The Book of Song, which is also known as one of the ancient Chinese books. The incorporated poems of The Shih Ching are dated back up to 1000 B.C. The example presented below was translated into English by Arthur Waley at the beginning of the 20th century. It is “The First Song” from The Shih Ching, which is dedicated to a wedding ceremony:

Fair, fair, cry the ospreys

On the island in the river.

Lovely is this noble lady,

Fit bride for our Lord (Wheeler, n. pag.)

As it is seen, even the ancient non-metrical Chinese poems are rich with literary techniques. For example, the first two verses of this poem are samples of alliteration. Notably, alliteration is used as a frame with which the poem starts. Undoubtedly, the metrical beginning of the poem prepares the reader to perceiving the poesy. This transition from metrical to non-metrical structure within one poem refers to the reader’s frustrated expectations, which is known to increase the aesthetic value of a literary work. Furthermore, “The First Song” from The Book of Songs starts with the repetition ‘fair, fair,’ which is implemented to create melodic sounding of the poem. Considering that it is used in China as a wedding song, this repetition at the beginning is highly appropriate. Moreover, one can observe a literary device known as consonance in this quatrain. The consonance can be perceived with ears and it presumes the natural flow of the sounds. What is more, this poem includes assonance (the harmony of vowels), such as ‘cry ospreys’, ‘lovely lady’, ‘island in the river’. Considering this and the above-mentioned examples of the versification, it is possible to deduce that from the very beginning, whether metrical or not, Chinese poetry has been characterized with a significant aesthetic value achieved by sophisticated writing techniques.

Furthermore, the process of versification was immense in China. For instance, “the Qing Dynasty included over 48 000 poems written by more than 2,300 poets” (The Editorial Committee of Chinese Civilization 432). This level of development was achieved thanks to the fact that “the ability to write poetry was used as a means to select and access officials in the Tang Dynasty” (432). Taking into account this peculiarity, it is not surprising that the Chinese poems of this period are metrical. The example below is an excerpt from the poem “Climbing the Stork Tower” written by Wang Zhihuan:

You will enjoy a grander sight,

If you climb to a greater height (The Editorial Committee of Chinese Civilization, 435).

This passage also comprises repetition ‘greater-greater’ and assonance ‘sight-height’, but it differs from the first poem with its meter. For instance, the first verse is u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s and the second verse is u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s, which presumes iambic foot. Moreover, this poem has a rhyme: sight-height. The above-stated differences in meter and rhyme are the evidence of the evolution of Chinese poetry.

Finally, observing the particularities of the contemporary Chinese poesy, it is appropriate to refer to the creativity of Li-Young Lee, a modern Chinese poet (1957-present time). For instance, below is the passage from his poem “Eating Alone”:

It was my father I saw this morning 
waving to me from the trees. I almost 
called to him, until I came close enough 
to see the shovel, leaning where I had 
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade (Lee). 

The first obvious feature of this poem is its non-metrical structure. In addition, there is a dissonance since some parts are hard to read. The dissonance is especially vivid in the last verse ‘left it, in the flickering, deep green shade’. What is more, the poem has no rhyme: morning-almost-enough-had-shade. It is a free verse with strictly organized length of the lines. In particular, every line of the poem comprises eight words. Therefore, it is a five-line stanza, in which the narration flows smoothly without any alternation of relaxed and intense periods.

The tone of this poem matches the peculiarities of stanza: it suggests melancholy, nostalgia, lack of changes and actions; even the title “Eating Alone” conveys similar ideas. The presence of the author is clearly manifested in his description of the surrounding reality combined with his inner scrutiny. What is more, the aesthetic appreciation of this literary work is achieved with the help of the readers’ frustrated expectation. In fact, in terms of logical development of the text, every verse ends in the middle of narration, which makes it impossible not to finish reading the poem. Without doubt, this method is rather sophisticated and plays to the author’s advantage.

Reviewing Chinese literature, it is important to explore the prosodic features of the poem called “The Lord of the East.” The author also utilizes the reader’s frustrated expectation. To illustrate the reader’s unmet expectation, it is necessary to refer to the last line of the poem, which states:

It wears clothes made of blue cloud and a dress made of white cloud. It raises a bow and shoot towards the Tianlang star.

It is clearly visible that the author applies the above-mentioned literary device in order to create the feeling of reality and presence through the effect of suddenness. Making an abrupt transition from the topic of clothes to arching, the author encourages readers to use their imagination. As a result, there is a great likelihood that a person would appreciate and enjoy “The Lord of the East.”

Furthermore, one should pay attention to the tone of this poem since it reveals the peculiarities of Chinese national identity. For example, throughout the entire poem there is a well-manifested sense of presence. In particular, the author speaks from the first person describing the processes that occur around him, such as ‘The musical instruments play together’. At the same time, there is the notion of his participation; for instance, the author states, ‘I pat my horse and ride carefully’. Similarly, the poem also displays his speculations. For instance, the author makes a supposition that, ‘The sun will raise from the east’. Finally, the poem allows readers to perceive also an important characteristic of the inner world of the narrator, which is the author’s poetic nature as well as his sophisticated perception. For example, the narrator depicts, ‘It wears clothes made of blue cloud.’ This figurative speech reveals that a poetic person is observing the scene. The above-mentioned features are typical for Chinese spiritual teachings, which are manifested its culture and national identity.

Another particularity of the poem’s tone is the notion of Taoism. Specifically, “The Lord of the East” displays the interdependence of humans, forest, animals, and music, whereas all of them are united into a natural and harmonic composition subordinated to the deity. What is more, the author discusses the Spirit and its meaning in human’s lives; even the name of the poem implies the presence of supernatural power. The ability to view the self inseparably from the whole picture, simultaneously acknowledging the presence of spirit in every object and matter, is a core principle of Taoism. Naturally, to create the sense of Taoism in a poem, the author is supposed to implement a lot of figurative speech. With the help of symbolic cooperation, - ‘The musical instruments play together’ and ‘Jade birds fly together, singing odes,’- the author displays the unity of the surrounding world with all its animated and unanimated participants. What is more, the first phrase about the musical instruments is a literary device called metonymy (“Meter: Types of Feet,” n. pag.). The musical instruments cannot play by themselves. Instead, it is assumed that the musicians play; in this way, the author uses the figurative speech and replaces one word (s) with another. Another example of the metonymy is ‘singing odes,’ whereas it is clear that the odes mean the birds’ singing.

Furthermore, the author applies to personification, for instance, the sun ‘Wears clothes made of blue cloud and a dress made of white cloud’; and thereafter, ‘It raises a bow and shoot towards the Tianlang star’. In this way, the author accentuates connection with the cosmos and people’s respect towards its power. This idea corresponds with Chinese culture and people’s wisdom. Therefore, it would be correct to state that the peculiarities of certain literary work point to the culture in which it originates.

Besides, it becomes clear for the reader that the title of the poem – “The Lord of the East” - implies that it is the sun. This literature device is known as allegory, another example of which is the line ‘When the Spirit comes, it covers the sun’. It reveals people’s awareness that apart from their tangible world, there is a spiritual one. Observing these examples, it is appropriate to assume that the allegory of the sun’s rein and the natural shifts of the day and night is one of the most valuable literary techniques of this poem. Also the author describes the dawn in a unique manner – ‘sun shoots the star’. The coming of the dawn and the fight with the Spirit can be interpreted as the victory of good over evil.

Further, to create this deep but implicit meaning, the author uses parallelism. It is a literary technique that suggests the comparison of matters with the aim to reveal a deeper meaning of each (“About Poetry” n. pag.). For instance, the sun is described parallel with the star; in this way, these cosmic bodies are compared and contrasted. Meanwhile, one of them is associated with the day and light, the other symbolizes the night and darkness. Furthermore, the transition from darkness to light embodies a start of a new life and the victory of good. This figurative speech creates a surreal picture of the living beings (the author, a horse, people, birds) anticipating the sun’s coming with the hope that it will save them from the darkness. The crucial thought is that their hopes are fulfilled with the dawn’s coming.

Another example of parallelism is the playing of musical instruments and the birds’ singing. The first action is stated in the third line and the second is in the fifth line of this poem. Both lines are relatively short. Simultaneously, it refers to the two ideas: the intensity of the occurring events, which also stresses the sense of presence, and a more permanent notion of cooperation and unity between the humans and the wildlife. It goes without saying that such harmonious interaction is arranged by the spirit, and this claim reflects people’s beliefs. In addition, the given poem also embodies the idea of the presence.

Exploring the stanza patterns of “The Lord of the East,” one may deduce that the intensity of the poem is not monotonic. The composition of this poem suggests that it is a seven-line stanza. As it was mentioned above, the short lines enhance the intensity of the poem and alternate with the relatively longer ones, the aim of which is to emphasize the harmony and perpetuity of the surrounding world. For example, the lines ‘The musical instruments play together’ and ‘Jade birds fly together, singing odes’ evoke the reader’s feeling of intensity. Whereas, the line ‘It wears clothes made of blue cloud and a dress made of white cloud. It raises a bow and shoot towards the Tianlang star’ suggests relaxation. Consequently, the author demonstrates the intensive fight of good and evil in the background of the leisureliness. In this way, he strives to bring the readers to the idea of the perpetuity of the world. Furthermore, the above-described stanza patterns imply the constancy of the conflict between good and evil.

In terms of its rhythm, “The Lord of the East” is a free verse, which presumes that a poem is written without adhering to the rules of meter, rhyme, and lines’ composition. The free verse relies exclusively “upon rhyme as its distinguishing metrical mark and derives its peculiar power from irregularity of rhythm” (“Meter: Types of Feet,” n. pag.). In particular, as it was discussed above, the given poem has a free pattern of the lines’ length and composition. Moreover, the poem is written in a free meter. For instance, the line ‘It wears clothes made of blue cloud and a dress made of white cloud. It raises a bow and shoot towards the Tianlang star’ has the next structure: u/ s/ s/ u /s /u /u /s /u /u/ s /s/ u /s /s /u /s/ u/ u /s/ u /s /u /s /u /s/ u/s. Observing the alternation of the stressed and unstressed syllables, one can rightfully conclude that this poem does not follow any particular type of foot.

Exploring the rhythm of “The Lord of the East” further, it is important to consider the location of rhythmical pauses (the caesuras) with the aim of identifying the presence of a certain pattern or prove the opposite. For instance, ‘I pat my horses /and ride carefully. // The night is getting brighter. // It is soon dawn’. As it is seen, this line contains three small sentences; it is possible to assume that the author divides the verse into three separate parts in order to stress the meaning of events and their simultaneity. Undoubtedly, this approach helps to achieve the effect of presence. Nevertheless, the location of the caesuras differs from the line to line. For example, this line has only one short pause ‘Jade birds fly together, /singing odes’; whereas this verse ‘The musical instruments play together’ does not have any caesuras. Furthermore, identifying the rhythmic peculiarities of this poem, it is necessary to state that it includes both types of the caesuras (masculine and feminine). For instance, the example of the masculine caesura is ‘The sun will rise from the east.// It casts upon the Fusang wood handles on my carriage’, in which a pause follows a stressed syllables. Similarly, in the line ‘Jade birds fly together,/ singing odes’ there is the feminine caesura since it comes after the unstressed syllables. 

As was stated above, the free verse does not presume the rhyme. To prove that “The Lord of the East” does not follow any rhyming pattern, it is appropriate to emphasize that rhyme is “the similarity of final sounds in two or more words” (“Meter: Types of Feet,” n. pag.). Taking into account this definition, it becomes clearly visible that the given poem does not have rhyme. The last words of each verse are the following: carriage-dawn-together-Spirit-odes-sun-star. It depicts the absence of any resemblance between the final sounds of the last words in all lines. What is more, the internal and crossed rhymes are also absent. These characteristics prove that “The Lord of the East” was rightfully defined as a free verse poem.

Comparing the ancient “The First Song” from The Book of Song, medieval “Climbing the Stork Tower” and contemporary “Eating Alone,” it is possible to conclude that the process of metricalization started on the basis of sophisticated 3000-years-old non-metrical poesy. What is more, since then, it evolved into metrical structure. Nevertheless, the contemporary trend in Chinese literature proves that it strives to come back to its original principles, such as non-metrical verses, visual simplicity of poems and richness of implemented literary techniques. What is more, the detailed discussion of the prosodic particularities of “The Lord of the East” shows that the cultural identity of the Chinese is manifested in the art of writing. Specifically, it refers to the notion of Taoism, such as presence of the self, presence of spirit in everything around, and cooperation between the living and non-living, which is subordinated by deity.