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There is one form of Chinese poetry which reads as if the Muses had been building their own coffins. They made them smooth, square and symmetrical. Then their bones began to rattle inside on account of the oppressive rigidity they had imposed upon themselves. The name for that ragid form is lu shi (lu shih) which I shall call code verse. Such verse must contain two or more of what we call parallel couplets. The following is such a couplet in seven-syllable lines by Du Fu (Tu Fu).

Noun for noun, verb for verb, vegetable kingdom for vegetable kingdom, one part of the hermitage for another — that is a parallel couplet. Two more examples by the same poet.

Hitch together forty or fifty of those couplets; rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye, merry-go-round. Thousands upon thousands of such endless double-filed processions march down the history of Chinese literature. Only a nation capable of staging a Beijing wedding procession can produce the chang lu (ch'ang lu) or long code verse on a large scale. Fortunately for us, the orthodox code verse from the Tang Dynasty to the present day is composed of only four couplets of which the first and the last are as a rule not parallel. So there is variety in uniformity.

Otherwise, I am afraid, the lu shi could not stand continuous reading. The Tang poets sometimes sported with parallelism. Occasionally they made the first couplet of an orthodox code verse also parallel in content and very, very rarely even the last one, but to have all four couplets parallel would have been downright vulgarity.

I wish this were all to a parallel couplet. In addition to parallelism in content there is also a phonetic parallelism or a parallelism of tones. The classical language of the Chinese poets is rhythmical almost to an excess, though not inherently musical. Prosody is based on changes in pitch as well as in accent. All tones are divided into two classes, the ping sheng (p'ing sheng) or even tone which can be maintained without any change of pitch, and the ze sheng (tse sheng) or inflected tone which may be ascending, descending or retroverting. For instance,

Long o as in go is even.
o-O (representing ascent of pitch) is ascending.
O-o is descending.
Short o as in got is retroverting, i.e., going back upon one's own speech organs.

In a parallel couplet not only must the content, the parts of speech (if we may use an English grammatical term), the mythological and historico-geographical allusions, be all separately matched and balanced, but most of the tones must also be paired reciprocally. Even tones are conjoined with inflected ones, and vice versa. In seven-syllable lines the second, fourth, sixth and seventh pairs allow of no freedom except in the hands of the great masters. Those who can swim can rock the boat; others must try to feel as comfortable as they can while observing rules.

The two couplets just cited are to be accented as follows:

Liang ge(i) huang li(e) ming cui(i) liu(i)
(Liang ke huang li ming ts'uei liu)
Yi hang(e) bai lu(i) shang qing(e) tian(e)
(I hang pai lu shang ch'in t'ien)
Chuang han(e) xi ling(i) qian qiu(e) xue(i)
(Ch'uang han hsi ling ch'ien ch'iu hsueh)
Men bo(i) dong Wu(e) wan li(i) chuan(e)
(Men po tung Wu wan li ch'uan)

In the above (e) is even, (i) inflected. The second and fourth lines are rhymed but the vowel quality of chuan has greatly changed since Du Fu's days. Note also the relation of the two couplets in the order of the tones. There is a complete reversion except for the last pairs which are rhymed. In all the forms of Chinese poetry which come later than the Odes and the Elegies only characters belonging to the same tonal class can be used for rhymes. So even tones can be rhymed only with even tones and in the most rigid code verse tradition excludes rhyming with inflected tones.

There are minor rules which I do not need to mention here. In general it can be said that the earlier code verse writers did not consider such a rigid pattern a formal necessity. It became more and more fossilized in the later literary examinations.

Roughly speaking we have two tonal patterns for the seven-syllable code lines and the same number for those of five syllables. Here I give the two seven-syllable patterns as they were given us to chant when we were children. P (ping) stands for even tone, Z (ze) for inflected tone, and (r) marks the rhymes.

P P Z Z P P Z

Z Z P P Z Z P(r)

Z Z P P Z Z P(r)

P P Z Z Z P P(r)

Z Z P P P Z Z

P P Z Z P P Z

P P Z Z Z P P(r)

Z Z P P Z Z P(r)

Z P P Z P P Z

Z Z P P P Z Z

Z Z P P Z Z P(r)

P P Z Z Z P P(r)

Z Z P P P Z Z

Z P P Z P P Z

P P Z Z Z P P(r)

Z Z P P Z Z P(r)

I know you must be wondering why the Chinese should care to versify if to do so is thus to suffer. Yes, you suffer a while, intensely. Then you forget your close collar and high heels. Your social standing depends upon such formality, your official career, nay, your very rice and wine. Someday you may be riding a white horse in the Purple Forbidden City. Women may fall head over heels in love with you. To be fair to our ancients and to our contemporary old masters, there has been some very pretty poetry written in that fashion. I shall quote from Li Shang Yin, one of our most beloved love song writers of the ninth century. Let the heap of verbiage stand as it is, but I shall offer a few words of explanation.

I cannot tell what the fifty strings in the first line refer to. Li Shang Yin died at forty-five. The sage Zhuang (Chuang) in the third line was Zhuang Zhou (Chuang Chou) who once dreamed he was a butterfly and began to wonder whether he dreamed of the butterfly or the butterfly dreamed of him. King Wang, a good chieftain of the western country, loved his people so that his departed soul came back in the form of the cuckoo. Men heard the cuckoo and shed tears. If you believe myth is dead, go to the modern province of Sichuan (Szechuan) when the cuckoo calls. The pearls in the fifth line belong to the lonesome mermaid as you can easily infer. There was once a poor man who planted jade in the Mountain of the Indigo Field. The jade flowered. He ate of the fruit and with it also won his lady love. The last couplet of the poem needs no interpretation.*


*  In the English version of this poem now existing Zhuang Zhou's butterfly has multiplied itself. Not only is the poet's sentiment grossly violated but there seems to be a total lack of understanding of the poem as a whole. Sad to say, the translation was made with the collaboration of a Chinese scholar.

The above quotation might have left you with the impression that the style of the code verse is inevitably heavy, that classical allusions have to dangle, from its shoulders. I must hasten to correct myself. One of Li Shang Yin's contemporaries, Yuan Zhen (Yuan Chen), launched a movement to free poetry from classicism. Together with Bai Ju Yi (Pai Chu I), who must be quite familiar to some of you, since he is Mr. Waley's most favored poet, he developed a plain, homely, prosaic style even for the code verse which in contrast to the intricate designs of the Li Shang Yin school becomes very convincing. Yuan married when he was poor. His wife did not live to share his better days nor did she leave any child. There is a whole collection of Yuan Zhen's elegies to his lost love, so naively written that they never fail to touch us with their simple pathos. I shall translate for you three stanzas in seven-syllable lines. I do not hesitate to render them in a most prosaic way so as to be faithful to the original.

Qian Lou (Ch'ien Lou) was a notoriously proud beggar near Confucius' time who never forgot to make a scrupulous difference between "Hey, come and get it" and "Please come and get it".

One could have deleted many of the nonessential words in the above rendering without materially affecting the subject-matter of the poem. Or out of respect for English prosody one could have changed the order of some of the phrases. I have left the translation as it is because I am speaking for Yuan Zhen the prosaic. Yuan Zhen the plebeian. I have tried my best to preserve the parallel code verse form which is really the point under discussion. I hope you can visualize the hard struggle in a poor but cultured home that is here represented. My brother once told me he had a friend who chanted those verses so many times over that his wife finally had to commit suicide.

Incidentally you have probably noticed that I have presented you with two types of Chinese love poems, and both are of the love of man for woman. Li Shang Yin was what you would call a romantic lover, but not one who could have played the guitar in moonlight underneath a verandah of overhanging roses. Yuan Zhen's love for his departed wife was particularly human and he expressed it in a way that your romanticists would have been ashamed of.

I might just as well confess to you that I selected those examples with the hope of clearing up a little misunderstanding. In her preface to the Chinese section of Poetry of the Orient Eunice Tietjens seems to lament "the almost complete absence, after the very early days, of poems dealing with the love of man for woman".* Quoting Waley she also said, "The most conspicuous feature of European poetry is its preoccupation with love ... The poet tends to recommend himself in a romantic light; in fact, to recommend himself as a lover. The Chinese poet has a tendency different but analogous. He recommends himself not as a lover but as a friend".** These statements are only statistically true and Mrs. Tietjens seems to me to have overshot the mark. Our poets go at love in a more roundabout way. Love is more likely to begin with the wedding instead of ending there. The first years are also the most difficult with us, but we wait until the worst is over. Then reminiscence will tie us together. It is of such abiding sentiments that our poets sing.


*   Poetry of the Orient, ed. by Eunice Tietjens. New York, 1928, pp.181-2.
**  170 Chinese Poems, p.4.

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