Most Sinologists and translators of Chinese poetry usually consider three major periods according to the schematic development and the evolution of its artistic expression throughout its millenary existence.
The first period is called the Classic Epoch and its most representative work is the Shi Jing· (Book of Songs) which is one of the Five Canonic Books compiled by Confucius in the fifth century BC. The Book of Songs is a compilation of ancient hymns and archaic popular songs full of the innocent ingenuity of an early stage of development. Furthermore its unstructured poetical values express a wide vision of the civilization of those remote times, their beliefs and customs.
The second period is called the Golden Age of shi Poetry and coincides with the peak in power and splendour of the Tang dynasty (618-907AD). This period saw the peak in refinement of the arts and literature of the Tang, and in particular excellent poetry of which most outstanding masters were Wang Wei (°699-†761), Li Bai (°701-†762) and Du Fu (°712-†770).
The third period is called the Golden Age of ci· Poetry and begins during the last years of the Tang dynasty, reaching its peak during the Song dynasty (907-1279). The most brilliant poets of this period continued the splendid tradition of those of the previous Age but veered their excellence towards the ci - verse form characterized by the extreme perfection and the highest refinements of simple lyrics adapted from contemporary popular songs. The most outstanding poets of this style were Li Yu· (°937-987), Liu Yong·(°987-†053), Yan Shu·(°991-†1055), Ouyang Xiu·(°1007-†1070), Shu Shi·(°1036-1101), and the incomparable Li Qingzhao·(°1094-†1155).
Shi and ci are different verse forms, each possessing intrinsic particular qualities and technical characteristics not only in the way they describe Nature but also human feelings. Shi basically describes what the poet see or confronts. Whenever considered, Nature is just a backdrop of the landscape, an embellishing or contrasting device of the described reality. On the other hand, ci expresses either an intimate realm of joy and love, or of sadness and pain deeply felt by the poet and being part of his inner world. In this case Nature is used as an expressive device.
§2. CHINESE POETICAL STYLES
During its thirty centuries of existence, Chinese poetry developed several forms of structural metrics and artistic expression. For instance, most of the three-hundred-and-five poems of the Book of Songs are written in the shi- verse form with verses composed by four characters (or syllabes) verses of flexible rhythm and rhyme. Only a very small number of poems of this compilation has either verses of three characters or metrics of irregular lenght.
The Han· dynasty (206-227) saw the appearance of the yuefu shi· poems compiled by the Imperial Academy.
These poems mainly had either wuyan· (five characters) or qiyan· (seven characters) per line or verse, although there was not a prescribed norm and some had irregular number of character.
Shi verses of five or seven characters (or syllables) became predominantly popular during the period of the Northern and Southern dynasties· (265-589AD).
The Tang dynasty (618-907) saw the emergence of new verse forms, such as jueju· and lüshi.·
The jueju is a short composition of four lines with the same number of characters, which can have either five or seven characters per verse.
The lüshi is a longer composition of eight lines with the same number of characters, which can equally be of five or seven characters per verse. The four central lines of the lüshi are characterized by being parallel rhymes with characters of constant diction. The sonority of the other lines is not fixed by any prosodic rule.
§3. THE CI STYLE IN CHINESE POETRY
The ci- verse form was invented by the end of the Tang dynasty. Before that there was not a clear distinction between the shi and the ci poetical concepts. The idea was that all poetry should be adapted to a musical score and all poems which were eventually sung were immediately called ci, or geci· or even quzici,· meaning 'music lyrics'.
The vocable ci in itself straightfowardly means 'words' (for songs) because this verse form was initially conceived to be specifically adapted to either traditional popular ballads or musics imported from Central Asia. The ci were therefore composed following the rhythm and the tonal sequences of the melodies, with a pre-determined number of verses, a prescribed repetitiveness and even its diction and pause timings. Having to comply with multiple restrictions the ci was originally written in changduanju,· that is, in verses of irregular lenght (or number of characters) in order to follow the melody and the cidiao· of the music.
There are a great variety of cidiao, or, broadly speaking 'ci cadences'. The Imperial Register of the Ci Prosody relates that there were eight-hundred-and-twenty-six cidiao compiled during the Qi dynasty by order of the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-†1722). To each one of these diao· (cadences) was given the specific name of its original corresponding music, or of a new melody which was called diaopai·.
When writing a poem following the diao structure, the author must first select the diaopai which will prescribe the arrangement of the verses, or otherwise compose a new melody adapting the lyrics to its musicality. So, instead of adding music to the poem — which was the common practise in China, in ancient times — the ci poets generally select a well known tune from the traditional diaopai repertoire over which they elaborate new verses. Because of this the new written poem tends to remain untitled, adapting for a name the corresponding diaopai as an underlying instruction for the reader. This is the reason why in most of the cases the title of a poem bear no relation to its thematic contents. Fortunately, the poets, in order to individualise their creations, usually attribute them a subtitle, thus overcoming the problem of a ci poem not being able to be recognized only by its title and author.
Li Qingzhao's ci poems comply with a great variety of diaopai, such as: Rumengling· (As in a Dream), 1 Dianjiangchun· (Rouged Lips), 2 Huanxisha·(Sand of Silk-Washing Brook), 3 Suzhongqing· (Grief Beyond Belief), 4etc. To these poems she gave subtitles, such as: Zuihuayin· (Airing Inmost Feelings), 5 Chongjiu· (Double Ninth), 6 Bajiao· (Banana Trees), 7 etc.
It is obvious that a variety of poems by a number of poets with different subtitles may follow the same diaopai and, therefore, have the same title.
§4. THE ORIGINS OF CI
The origins of the ci- verse form has been a polemic subject for both Chinese and Western researchers. From the numerous expostulated theories, only three merit some credibility.
The first ascribes the origin of ci in the context of the Book of Songs; the second guarantees that its roots are in the jueju and lu shi poems of the Tang dynasty; and the third affirms that its structure derives from the popular tunes sung during the later times of the Tang.
Of these three theories the last is the most widely accepted, particularly after the discovery of the quzici in the Dunhuang· caves in south-east China, in 1899-1900. These ancient anonymous manuscripts are a repository of about five-hundred poems in the ci-verse form and a confirmation that already by the middle of the seventh century AD, some poets used as cidiao the cadences of the tunes Wangjiangnan · and Pusaman,· popular songs of those days. But it was only by the end of the eighth century that the ci started to be considered an important Chinese poetical style. By the end of this century reputed and famous poets such as Bai Juyi (°772-946) and Liu Yuxi· (°772-†842) started writing lyrics and adapting them to songs which were popular and sung for costumers' entertainment in the wine and tea houses and even in brothels. Because of its contextual origins, the wording of the so-called 'primitive ci' is frequently spicy, slightly erotic and sensuous associated to popular lore, the archaic facet of the ancient shi poetry. This early stage when popular and lyric poetry merged in the ci- verse form complying with a pre-determined musical sonority is called yisheng tianci·, meaning, 'adapting lyrics to musical cadences'.
§5. THE DEVELOPMENT OF CI
The earliest of all ci Schools was the Hua Jian.· Its name derives from the Hua Jian Ji ·(Anthology of Ci among Flowers), compiled in 940. This work is a collection of about five-hundred ci poems composed by eighteen poets from the end of the Tang dynasty and from the Five Dynasties period (907-960). One of the represented authors is Wen Tingyun· (°830-†880), generally considered as the most representative poet of the early stages of the Hua Jian School. The Jiu Tang Shu describes him as an excellent poet and musician, and states that he composed poems in the ci style exactly to adapt them to traditional melodies following their musical cadences. His ci are subtle, sensual and suggestive. They were mostly written in xiaoling,· the most succint and delicate of all the ci -verse forms, and the most characteristic of the Hua Jian School.
An important ci poet during the Five Dynasties period was Li Yu (°937-†978) the last king of the Southern Tang·, who maintained a precarious existence in southeast China after the fall of the powerful and splendorous empire of the Tang in 907.
Li Yu became the ruler of the small southern kingdom in 961, controlling his territories from the elected capital of Nanjing. In 975 the first emperor of the Song dynasty annexed Li Yu's kingdom to the imperial domains taking the deposed ruler prisioner to the new northern capital. Li Yu was an extremely talented poet. He was the precursor of the ci- verse form's novel treatment of themes and rhythms, greatly developing it to new horizons. Before him ci was quasi-exclusively used to express the conventional theme of 'women and romantic love.' Li Yu's poetical handling of ci was intensely personal. His last poems describe with pungency and emotion the sorrows and endured punishments of the last years of his life spent in captivity; equally expressing his cherished memories and a longing for past times. This group of poems of extreme refinement and incontestable originality secured him a prominent position in the history of Chinese poetry.
Examples of his work have not been included in the Hua Jian Ji.
§6. CI POETRY DURING THE SONG DYNASTY
It was during the Song dynasty (960-1279) that the ci -verse form acquired its greatest popularity and excellence. Because most of the greatest poets of this dynasty either exclusively or almost exclusively composed their verses in this verse form, this period was called the Golden Age of the ci poetry. A number of specific typological variants of ci were created, such as xiaoling, zhongdiao· and manci. ·
Xiaoling is the most succint, delicate and sensitive of all the ci -verse forms. Its basic characteristic is that the verses must have less than fifty-eight characters. It first appeared during the Five Dynasties period.
Zhongdiao is a slightly more expanded and elaborate form of xiaoling. It is usually composed by fifty-nine to ninety characters.
Manci, frequently also called zhongdiao, is the most structurally complex of all three types. It has more than ninety characters.
During the early times of the Northern Song · (991-1127), poetical genres were predominantly influenced by the Hua Jian School. Poets such as Yan Shu and Ouyang Xiu wrote verses of the xiaoling 'type' according to the Hua Jian tradition. Liu Yong was the first great ci poet to introduce variants to the traditional canons of composition of the Hua Jian School. Although still confined to the thematic boundaries of 'women and romantic love' his verses become descriptively expanded. He was the first to recurrently used the wide metric of the zhongdiao. This expanded format of the traditionally short xiaoling enabled Liu Yong to express more vividly and in detail the themes selected for his poems. The precise control of vernacular language and masterful handling of 'musical' rhythm of his verses awarded him immediate acclaim. His poetry quickly became successful and highly praised by all social classes.
Su Shi·, a contemporary of Li Qingzhao, was to structurally revolutionise ci poetry. He widely applied ci to themes different from 'women and romantic loved', expanding it to a wide range of subjects such as Nature, philosophy, historical events and personalities, mythological events and divinities, the whole gammut of common activities and daily chores, as well as the description of physical, psychological and spiritual 'feelings'. His compositional mode was equally diverse, sometimes heroic, sometimes serene, sometimes vigorous and even sometimes nonchalant. Su Shi suffered criticism because of his multifaceted poetical output which lead him astray from the predominant and conventional shi-verse form of the times and, worst, for not making a structural distinction between the ci and shi-verse forms in his works. He was also accused of being a 'non musical' author because his poems frequently presented a tonal rhythm dissonant with the prescribed contemporary models. Although most of his ci are not as melodious as many of his contemporary masters, they impress by their distinctive percursive qualities and by their impressively daring innovation.
The works of Liu Yong and Su Shi attest for the major directions in the development of ci poetry. Liu Yong introduced a novel poetical modality despite continuing to follow the traditional canons of the Hua Jian School. Su Shi, renouncing all conventions, became a poet and the founder of the Hao Fang· School — as it was later called.
By the time Li Qingzhao started composing verses Chinese poetry had suffered in its recent past a number of important progressive evolutions. Notwithstanding the Hua Jian· School — also called Wan Yue· School, meaning 'gentle', 'sensitive' and 'feminine' — remaining acceptably dominant in matters of normative good taste and correctness, the Hao Fang School — meaning, 'carefree', 'heroic' and 'masculine' — was breaking new ground and increasingly gaining followers.
§7. THE PLACE OCCUPIED BY LI QINGZHAO IN THE CI POETRY
Li Qingzhao is considered a genius of Chinese poetry; by some she is definitely worshipped as the greatest poetess of China during its millenia of poetical history. Although having written prose and poetry in the classical shi-verse form, her poems in the ci- verse form were her most inspired, being greatly praised not only for being sung by the people but also by all the major contemporary poets and literati of her time as well as by generations of folk and intellectuals to come. She matured her style during a period when ci reached the peak of its popularity and refinement. By then, already a great number of the most lauded Chinese poets composed in the ci-verse form. Li Qingzhao gained immediate notoriety by the plain and vernacular style of her ci verses, sung equally in the highest social and intellectual circles — who admired their structure — and by the peasants and soldiers — who clearly understood their meaning. According to a popular legend, the poet Xin Qiji· (°1140-†1207) when enrolled in the army, enjoyed listening the soldiers singing Li Qingzhao's ci. Later in his life, being acclaimed as one of the greatest living poets of the ci- verse form, some of Xin Qiji's works followed so closely examples of the poetess's verses that he admiringly confessed that they had been written "[...] on the manner of Li Qingzhao."
This comes to confirm what has once been said and restated by many poets and literati: "[...] for the beauty and limpidity of the chosen vernacular language, and for the delicacy and sensibility of the handling of the ci style, she [Li Qingzhao] created a unique School, extremely personal and extremely particular."
During her lifetime Li Qingzhao's increasing renown and popularity was attested by the compliments and deference she received from high dignitaries and poets alike. It is also true that that was the object of numerous criticisms but these usually aimed at her private lifestyle rather than her poetical works.
Although most of her vast number of works were lost, the little which have survived is amply sufficient to secure her a permanent and preponderant position in the history of Chinese poetry. In fact, she is considered by most poetry lovers of all times the greatest ever poetess of the ci - verse form.
Translated from the Spanish by: Carlos Gonçalves
1See the following article: Short Analysis and Appreciation of Some Ci by Li Qingzhao, p. 136— for a poetical version By Li Qingzhao to this tune.
2Two poetical versions by Li Qinzhao for this tune.
蹴 罷 秋 千 起 來 慵 整 纖 纖 手
露 濃 花 瘦 薄 汗 輕 衣 透
見 客 入 來 襪 划 金 钗 淄 和 羞
走 倚 門 四 首 卻 把 青 梅 嗅
Stepping down from the swing,
Languidly she smooths her soft slender hands,
Her flimsy dress wet with light perspiration —
A slim flower trembling with heavy dew.
Spying a stranger, she walks hastily away in shyness:
Her feet in bare socks,
Her gold hairpin fallen.
Then she stops to lean against a gate,
And looking back,
Makes as if sniffing a green plum."
In: WANG, Jiaosheng, The Complete Ci-poems of Li Qingzhao: A New English Translation, in "Sino-Platonic Papers", Dept. of Oriental Studies - University of Pennsylvania - Philadelphia, October 1989, pp.2-3.
寂 寞 深 閨 愁 腸 一 寸 愁 千 縷
惜 春 春 去 幾 點 催 花 雨
倚 遍 欄 杆 只 是 無 情 緒 人 何
處 連 天 衰 草 望 斷 歸 來 路
Fine rain urges the falling petals,
And soon spring will be fled
Love it as I may.
A twinge in my aching heart,
And I am overwhelmed by a thousand sad thoughts,
Secluded in my lonely chamber.
Impossible to get out of this mood of depression,
Moving from one end of the balustrade to the other.
Where is he, the one dear to my heart?
The road by which he may return I cannot glimpse,
Withered grass streching to the farthest skies."
In: WANG, Jiaosheng, op. cit., pp.32-33.
3Seven poetical versions by Li Qingzhao, for this tune.
小 院 閑 窗 春 色 紳 重 簾 未 卷 影
沉 沉 倚 樓 無 語 理 瑤 琴
遠 岫 出 雲 催 薄 暮 細 風 吹 雨 弄
輕 陰 梨 花 欲 謝 恐 難 禁
A small courtyard, and idle window:
The mellow tints of spring.
Double blinds unfurled:
A room deep in shadow.
Someone plucking a jade zither.
Clouds emerging from far-off peaks
Hasten the fall of dusk.
A soft breeze blowing rain
Dallies with light shade.
Pear blossoms already past their bloom —
I'm afraid one can't keep them from fading."
In: WANG, Jiaosheng, op. cit., pp. 14-15.
淡 蕩 春 光 寒 食 天 玉 爐 沉 水 裊
殘 煙 夢 回 山 枕 隱 花 鈿
海 燕 未 來 人 斗 草 江 梅 已 過 柳
升 棉 黃 昏 疏 雨 濕 秋 千
Spring colors, mild and rippling,
Usher in Cold Food Day.
Wisps of dying incense smoke
Wreathe the jade burner.
I wake from my dreams to find myself
Still wearing the gold-petalled hair-piece,
Reclined on my pillows.
Swallows have not come back from the sea,
People are already competing in games of grass.
Riverside plums past their bloom,
Catkins appear on the willows."
Rain drizzles as twilight deepens,
Wetting the garden swing."
In: WANG, Jiaosheng, op. cit., pp.22-23.
髻 子 傷 春 懶 更 梳 晚 風 庭 院
落 梅 初 淡 雲 來 往 月 疏 疏
玉 鴨 重 爐 閑 瑞 腦 朱 櫻 斗 帳
掩 流 蘇 通 犀 還 解 避 寒 無
Languidly I leave my tresses uncombed,
Regretting that spring will soon be over.
Plum blossoms in the courtyard
Begin to fall in the evening breeze,
And moonbeams grow sparse
As light clouds drift to and fro.
The jade duck-censer idle
With the incense unlit.
Drooping tassels of many-colored feathers
All but conceal the small cherry-tinted bed-curtain.
My rhinoceros hairpin —
Is it still proof against the cold?"
In: WANG, Jiaosheng, op. cit., pp.24-25.
莫 許 杯 紳 琥 珀 濃 未 成 沉 醉 意
先 融 疏 鐘 已 應 晚 來 風 瑞 腦
香 消 魂 夢 斷 辟 寒 金 小 髻 髮
松 醒 時 空 對 燭 花 紅
Fill no more this cup of amber,
A feeling of intoxication comes over me
Before I am deep drunk.
Evening wind blows,
Echoing the intermittent chimes of bells.
The borneols have gone out, my dream is interrupted.
My tresses fall loose,
The gold-bird hairpin is so small.
I wake up and brood idly
Over the glowing candle flame."
In: WANG, Jiaosheng, op. cit., pp.30-31.
揉 破 黃 金 萬 點 輕 剪 成 碧 玉 葉 層
層 風 度 精 神 如 彥 輔 大 鮮 明
梅 芯 重 重 何 俗 甚 丁 香 千 結 苦 粗
生 熏 透 愁 人 千 里 夢 卻 無 情
"To the Cassia Flower
Your petals — twisted into ten thousand flecks of soft gold;
Your leaves — layer upon layer of carved emeral jade.
Graceful in bearing,
Noble and bright in spirit,
You are worthy to compare
With the ancient scholar Yan Fu.
Beside you how vulgar the plum,
For all its profusion of petals;
How coarse the lilac,
With its innumerable knotty branches.
But your all too heady perfume,
O you heartless flower!
Wakes my sorrowful dream
Of a thousand li away."
In: WANG, Jiaosheng, op. cit., pp.38-39.
繡 幕 芙 蓉 一 笑 開 斜 偎 寳 鴨
襯 香 腮 眼 波 才 動 被 人 猜
一 面 風 情 紳 有 韻 半 牋 嬌 恨
寄 來 幽 壞 月 移 花 影 約 重 來
"Longing in the Boudoir
A smile of happy recollection lights up her face
As she gently draws aside the curtain
Embroidered with blooming lotus,
And leans against the jewelled duck censer,
Her perfumed cheek on her hand, musing.
If she but rolls her eyes
She will immediately give herself away.
That first sweet meeting full of tenderest love!
She might as well send half a page
With endearing reproaches unburdening a pensive heart,
And have him come again
When the moon is moving the flower shadows."
In: WANG, Jiaosheng, op. cit., pp.42-43.
病 起 蕭 蕭 兩 鬢 華 臥 看 殘 月
上 窗 紗 萱 蔻 連 梢 煎 熟 水 莫
分 茶 枕 上 詩 書 閨 處 好 門
前 風 景 雨 來 佳 終 日 向 人 多 醞
藉 木 犀 花
"On Recovering from a Long Illness
Beside the window, convalescent I lie reclined,
My sparse hair greying at the temples,
My mind serene as I watch a waning moon
Climb the gauze curtains.
A drink of cardamom leaf tips boiled over a living fire
Will do for me instead of tea.
An idler's boon:
Reading leisurely propped on pillows;
Lovelier after the rain:
The view outside my door.
Sweet-scented cassia blossoms,
Delicate and loving,
Leaning towards me all day long."
In: WANG, Jiaosheng, op. cit., pp.92-93.
4.One poetical version by Li Qinzhao, for this tune.
夜 來 沉 醉 卸 妆 遲 梅 萼 插 殘
枝 酒 醒 熏 破 春 睡 夢 遠 不 成
歸 人 悄 悄 月 依 依 翠
簾 垂 更 rua 殘 蕊 更 撚 餘 香
更 得 些 時
"I smell the fragance of fade plums blossoms by my pillow
Last night, dead drunk, I dawdled
While undoing my coiffure,
And fell asleep with a spring of
Faded plum blossom in my hair.
The fumes of wine gone,
I was woken out of my spring sleep
By the pungent smell of the petals,
And my sweet dream of far-off love
Was broken beyond recall.
Now all voices are hushed.
The moon lingers and softly spreads her beams
Over the unfurled kingfisher-green curtain.
Still, I twist the fallen petals,
I crumple them for their lingering fragance,
I try to recapture a delicious moment."
In: WANG, Jiaosheng, op. cit., pp.64-65.
5See the following article: Short Analysis and Appreciation of Some Ci by Li Qingzhao, p. 139 — for this poem by By Li Qingzhao.
6See the following article: Short Analysis and Appreciation of Some Ci by Li Qingzhao, p. 137 — for this poem by By Li Qingzhao.
7See the following article: Short Analysis and Appreciation of Some Ci by Li Qingzhao, p. 136— for this poem by Li Qingzhao.
* QIN WEIXUN 覃維勛
1995. Colour ink drawing.
start p. 127