# Classical Chinese Poetry Quickstart Guide

2021/03/06

It is known that many programming languages are deliberately designed to do certain tasks well. Though origins of natural languages are much more complicated, I often couldn't help thinking that someone designed the Chinese language for writing poetry. And indeed historically the Chinese people have put the language's poetic qualities into good use: from emperors to peasants, from statesmen to outlaws, it seems that everyone was capable of casually blurting out some original poems. It is a bit crazy if you think about it: In Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the heyday of classical Chinese poetry, statesmen were elected based on the quality of their poem in the imperial exam.

I often think of poetry as half about the meanings, and half about the sounds, or the “musical qualities” if you will. For the meanings, it has already been proven by the work of many translators, that the translation of Chinese poems to English is exceedingly difficult: some meanings are inevitably lost in the process. As for the sounds, “music is universal”, or so I heard. Therefore, I'm writing this little tutorial as an experiment to introduce the world of Chinese poetry via sounds, by first comparing it to the meters of English poetry, and then bringing up some of its unique characteristics. At the end, I'll present some of my own translation attempts that try to preserve different aspects of the original poems, with a focus on the sounds.

No prior knowledge of the Chinese language is assumed.

## The Meter

A well known meter in English poems is the “Iambic pentameter”, or five “feet” each with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. For example, from Shakespeare's sonnets:

When I do count the clock that tells the time

If we follow the notation where / is used to mark stressed syllables and x for unstressed ones, the line can be annotated as：

When I do count the clock that tells the timex    / x  /     x   /     x    /     x   /

You can see that Shakespeare is pretty serious about sticking to the meter, as evident from the extra do.

Classical Chinese poems also have meters, though a bit different from English counterparts: The most commonly used meters consist of either five or seven characters, and as each character is a single syllable in Chinese, this amounts to either three or four feet. Moreover, they're almost always “trochaic” and not iambic, meaning that they start with a stressed syllable. Perhaps one can classify them into “trochaic tetrameter” and “trochaic trimeter”, though the very last unstressed syllable typically found in those meters is inexistent in Chinese five- and seven-character poems.

I've chanced upon two English verses that use the same meter as classical seven-character Chinese poems. (I have to admit I haven't read as many English poems as I've done Chinese ones). The first one is also from Shakespeare, in Macbeth where the witches sing:

Eye of newt and toe of frog,/   *  /    *   /   *  /Wool of bat and tongue of dog./    *  /   *   /      *  /

The other one I found while reading PKD's The Man in the High Castle, which quotes these two lines from HMS Pinafore by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan:

Things are seldom what they seem/      x   /  x   /    x    /Skim milk masquerades as cream/    x    /  x  /     x  /

Let's compare them to these two lines below by Bai Ju Yi (772-846 AD) from the poem Spring Outing at West Lake. I picked them because they have a very similar rhyme to the seem/cream one above. (Pinyin, or the standard romanization of modern mandarin Chinese, is on the second line. It however does not best represent how middle Chinese sounded like a thousand years ago, but we'll get into that later. Here Pinyin is provided so you can try reading it out aloud to feel the rhythm: we're not worrying about pronounciation just yet!)

孤   山   寺  北   賈  亭   西gu   shan si  bei  jia ting xi/    x    /   x    /   x    /水   面   初  平   雲   脚  低shui mian chu ping yun jiao di/    x    /   x    /   x    /

A rough translation to English keeping the same rythm (but inevitably losing some meaning):

North of Temple o' Lonely Hill/     x  /  x      /   x  /Water calm and rainclouds low/ x   /    x   /   x      /

That's it! You now know how to read all those seven-character Chinese poems. Legend has it that Tang Dynasty performers were able to sing all seven-character Jue Ju (one form of seven-character poems) to the same melody.

The other most common meter is the five-character one. Simple: just remove two syllables from the seven-character meter. (To be pedantic, from a historical perspective five-character poems are NOT derived from seven-character ones, and some scholars even consider that the latter comes from adding two syllables to the former, and not the other way around, though there've been debates about this). Here's an example, from Borderland Anthems by Lu Lun (739-799 AD):

月   黑   雁   飛   高yue  hei  yan  fei  gao/    x    /    x    /單   于   夜   遁   逃chan yu   ye   dun  tao/    x    /    x    /欲   將   輕   騎   逐yu  jiang qing ji   zhu/    x    /    x    /大   雪   滿   弓   刀da   xue  man  gong dao/    x    /    x    /

Again, given below is a bad translation whose only purpose is to preserve the rhythm:

Moonlit geese fly high/   x   /     x   /chieftain flees at night/    x    /     x  /Horsemen on his tail/    x   /  x   /wielding swords in snow/   x    /      x  /

“OK, so what's so special about Chinese poems?” You might ask. Now here comes the fun part.

## The Tones

You might have heard that modern mandarin has four “tones”, or the change of the frequency of your voice while pronouncing each character. The four tone classes are (unimaginatively) named the first tone, the second tone, the third tone and the fourth tone, and each Chinese character belongs to at least one of these 4 classes. Whereas in English, the tone of a sentence is largely a creative choice of the speaker, in Chinese, though we still give each sentence a global tone, locally, the pronunciation of each character has to conform to its defined tone.

Here's a simple diagram plotting frequency against time for mandarin tones:

       frequency-time graph for mandarin tones ^ freq | |  1st tone    2nd tone  3rd tone   4th tone |   ------        /       \    /       \ |                /         \  /         \ |               /           \/           \-+----------------------------------------------> time

An intuitive way of understanding the tones is by comparing them to interjections in English:

+--------+--------+--------+--------+| 1st(-) | 2nd(/) | 3rd(v) | 4th(\) |+--------+--------+--------+--------+| uhm... | huh?   | wow    | aha!   |+--------+--------+--------+--------+

The pronunciation of the Chinese characters have changed over its long history, and the tones of Middle Chinese, on which most authors of classical poetry since the Tang Dynasty based their poems (despite the vernacular pronunciation changing constantly), is quite different from mandarin. So to fully appreciate the music in classical poetry, it is quite important to have a rough idea of the tones of Middle Chinese.

Now since tape recorders were not invented back then, we don't know how exactly Middle Chinese sounded like. Many researchers have came up with different reconstructions by putting together bits of evidence they can find. There has been serious debates about which one is the most authentic, so we won't get into the controversial details but only focus on the big ideas which there seems to be a bit of consensus.

Middle Chinese also have 4 general tone classes, called 平(ping, or “level”) 上(shang, or “rising”) 去(qu, or “departing”) and 入(ru, or “checked”), from which the mandarin tones are derived. The diagram below shows the relationship between the two systems: 平(ping) can be further split into “陰平”(yin-ping) and “陽平”(yang-ping) (yes, it's that yin-yang) which are now called “first tone” and “second tone”. 上(shang) becomes the 3rd tone, 去(qu) becomes the 4th tone, and 入(ru), sadly no longer exists in mandarin, and the characters that belonged to it are re-distributed to the other three tones.

     平         上    去   入    PING       SHANG  QU   RU     Middle Chinese     /\          |    |     |    /  \         |    |     |      YIN-  YANG-    |    |     |  PING  PING     V    V     |  (1st  (2nd    3rd  4th    |     Mandarin  tone) tone)  tone  tone   |    ^    ^       ^    ^     |    |    |       |    |     |    +----+-------+----+-----+

While the characters are redistributed, how the tone themselves sound like also changed. It is speculated that in middle Chinese, the overall frequency of 平 (ping) is lower than that of the first tone of mandarin. It is also speculated that 上 (shang), as its name literally suggests, is an overall rising tone, (though some believe it to have a little downward thrust at the beginning). So here's one possible graph to plot the frequency of middle Chinese tones over time:

   frequncy-time graph for middle Chinese tones (speculated) ^ freq |     平         上         去      入 |    PING      SHANG        QU      RU |                  /        \      |                 /          \      . |    -----      \/            \-+------------------------------------------> time

Now you might be asking, what's up with that little dot for 入(ru) tone? Well 入 is very special and different from the other three. It is a very short sound with an abrupt stop. It sounds a little bit like swear words in English such as “shit!” and “f*ck!” (and indeed the Chinese character 入 itself was historically used as a swear in certain phrases). If you go to a Chinese restaurant, you might see “Bok choy” or Chinese cabbage -- and that “Bok”(白) is a 入 sound. The romanization is not from mandarin, but from cantonese, one of the many Chinese dialects that still keep their 入 tone till this day.

Several other 入 sounds that you might already know are probably from cantonese-based translation of people's names. For example, the “shek”(石) in Chiang Kai-shek, “yat”(逸) in Sun Yat-sen (leaders of the Republic of China), “fat”(發) in Chow Yun-fat (Hong Kong actor), and “ip”(葉) in “Ip Man” (martial artist).

You might notice the consonants “t”, “k” and “p” that ends the romanization of these characters. However, these consonants are in fact not explicitly pronounced: it should sound like being suddenly interrupted when you're just starting to pronounce them. If you listen carefully to how some cantonese speakers speak English, you'll notice that they tend to omit the consonant at the ends of words like “fat”, sounding something more like “fa!”, because that's just how they pronounce 入 sounds! This is contrasted with some mandarin speakers, who tend to slightly elongate the consonants at the end of these words as if by appending a vowel “e”, pronouncing “fat” somewhat akin to “fatter”, because of the lack of 入 sounds in mandarin.

Now the next question you might be asking is, does every Chinese character gets randomly assigned a tone? Or is there some sort of rule that governs them?

While how each character got its sound is a very complicated question, but if we just look at how they ended up, there seems to be some correlation between the meaning of a character and its tone:

• Characters with 平 (level) tones are often either sad or lyrical, or simply quite plain and doesn't have a strong emotion that might otherwise get it into the other three classes. This is the largest class in terms of number of characters that belong to it: It makes sense since most characters aren't associated with very strong emotions. Examples: 愁(sadness) 歌(song) 寒(cold)
• Characters with 上 (rising) tones are sometimes loud and excited, but sometimes pronounced as tender and fine. Examples: 美(beauty) 小(small) 起(rise)
• Characters with 去 (departing) tones are often firm or resolute with a clear and crisp feel. Examples: 正(righteous) 令(order) 耀(shine)
• Characters with 入 (checked) tones often express swiftness of speed, scantness in amounts, or strong emotion in swears and oaths. Examples: 血(blood) 一(one) 折(break)

Now not all characters conform to these observations, and indeed the examples I gave above are somewhat cherry-picked. But nevertheless it is oftentimes a huge giveaway of the emotions delivered in a poem, as Chinese poets seemed to actively made use of the quality of these tones to their advantage in their works.

Let's look at a couple examples. From now on, we'll use - to denote 平(ping, level) tones, / for 上(shang, rising), \ for 去(qu, departing) and ^ for 入(ru, checked).

First, let's annotate Bai Ju Yi's “Spring Outing” poem we saw earlier with the new symbols, just to get an idea of how a “generic” poem looks like before we get into those that make more interesting uses of the tones.

-  -  \  ^  /  -  -孤 山 寺 北 賈 亭 西/  \  -  -  -  /  -水 面 初 平 雲 脚 低

We can see a pretty even distribution of the four tones, with the flat 平 tone being most common. This is largely due to the “Lüshi” verse form he was using, which dictates what tones can be for each position (we'll get into a ton of details about that later).

Now let's look at another poem, this time by Jia Dao (779-843 AD), a contemporary of Bai Ju Yi, written right after he succeeded in the imperial exam and therefore elligible to become a statesman:

^  ^  ^  ^  ^  ^  -昔 日 齷 齪 不 足 誇Gone is my unfortunate past unworthy of praise,-  -  \  \  -  -  -今 朝 放 蕩 思 無 涯today my thoughts go wild in rejoice.

The first line is pretty crazy! It uses six 入 sounds in quick succession (except for the last rhyming character), to express his disgust for his past self. (Try get the feeling by saying “shit! shit! shit! shit! shit! shit!” in quick succession)

That example above is a bit extreme, but it is very common for poets to carefully pick the tone for the rhyming characters, for the rhymes are the most important characters in the poems and must be given special emphasis if you were to sing the poem or read it out aloud.

The next example is from Li Bai (701-762 BC), in which the young poet compares his ambitions to the flight of a mythical great bird.

\  -  ^  ^  -  -  /大 鵬 一 日 同 風 起Once the great bird takes off in wind,-  -  ^  /  /  \  /扶 搖 直 上 九 萬 里upward it soars ninety thousand miles

As you can see 上, or the rising tone is used as the rhymes 起 (rise) and 里 (miles). And a very “rising” sounding verse indeed!

Another example with 入 sounds as the rhyme, written by an anonymous woman in Han Dynasty (202BC - 220AD).

-  -  -  -  /  -  ^山 無 陵 江 水 為 竭When mountains lose their peaks and rivers run dry,-  -  \  \  /  /  ^冬 雷 震 震 夏 雨 雪when thunder booms in winter and snow falls in summer,-  \  ^天 地 合when heaven and earth collapse into one,/  /  /  -  ^乃 敢 與 君 絕and that shall be the time when I break up with thee!

The abrupt sounding rhymes 竭(deplete) 雪(snow) 合(shut) 絕(cut off) have the effect of making the oath sound especially determined. In fact, throughout history, many oaths or oath-like pieces used 入 sound characters as rhymes.

In this section we sort of gained a general idea of what the tones are all about, and in the next one we'll see how Chinese poets developed fixed verse forms, or “formulae”, based on the characteristics of the tones and used them to their advantage.

## The Rules

Though it seems that poets in the age of Confucius were already consciously using properties of the tones to give their poems a boost, as evident in many examples from 詩經 Shi Jing, or Book of Poems, our oldest existing collection of poetry, it wasn't until the early Tang Dynasty (circa 600 AD), when a system of strict rules regarding tonal patterns, or 格律 (Ge Lü), were fully established and popularized. In the centuries to follow, both 格律詩, or poems that conform to the rules, and 古體詩, or “ancient style” poems that don't, coexisted in the works of most poets.

I sometimes compare the discovery of the tonal patterns in Chinese poetry to the discovery of perspective drawing by Renaissance artists. If I have to decide, then I'd say these discoveries are definitely important improvements overall; yet they're also a limitation to the expressive freedom of the artists. Wen Yi Duo (1899-1946) a renowned scholar, has an interesting quote in his book Tang Dynasty Poems: Miscellaneous Essays that describes 格律 poems as “dancing with shackles”, which makes the dance yet more beautiful; his contemporary, Hu Shi (1891-1962) another renowned scholar wrote about what a crappy joke 格律 is in his History of Vernacular Literature, a book that enthusiastically promotes non-格律 poems written throughout China's history.

Whether you agree with Wen or Hu, I think it is still most important to understand the rules to appreciate the large portion of Chinese poetry created from them. In fact, beginner poets are often given the advice to start with 格律 poems first: if you strictly conform to the rules, the worst you can get is a mediocre poem; if you don't, then there might be no limit of how terrible your poem can get.

So let's get started right away.

The 4 tone classes of middle Chinese introduced in the last section can be further divided into two metaclasses. The first metaclass is called 平, and as its name suggests, consists of only the 平(level) tone. The second metaclass is called 仄(ze), or “not-level/oblique”, which consists of all the other tones.

    平          仄PING/LEVEL  ZE/OBLIQUE    |           |    |       +---+---+     |       |   |   |   PING   SHANG QU  RU    平      上  去  入

And this fundamental contrast between “flat” and “non-flat” tones became the basis of all the tonal rules, which are in fact about nothing but where to place characters with 平 sounds and where to place the ones with 仄 sounds in a grid. Think of it as a fun board game with chess pieces!

Let's start with the simplest form of 律詩, called 五言絕句 (wu yan jue ju) and often abbreviated as 五絕.

+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |+---+---+---+---+---+

At this point, many sources simply state that there're 4 tonal templates to remember (namely A: 仄仄平平仄，平平仄仄平。平平平仄仄，仄仄仄平平。B: 仄仄仄平平，平平仄仄平。平平平仄仄，仄仄仄平平。C:平平平仄仄，仄仄仄平平。仄仄平平仄，平平仄仄平。D:平平仄仄平，仄仄仄平平。仄仄平平仄，平平仄仄平。). If you're that kind of person who're satisfied with templates, then there you have them. But the templates are in fact generated from a simple set of rules: If we understand the reason behind these rules, we'll know what good do they do, why we need to follow them, and even when to break them.

First things first: rhymes. The second line needs to rhyme with the fourth line. And in 五絕's case, the tenth character with the twentieth character. You can also make the first line rhyme (or nearly rhyme), though that is totally optional. What you absolutely cannot do is making the third line rhyme: that'd be over the top!

For now, we'll focus on the basic version where only the second and fourth lines rhyme.

The next question is, shall we use a level or oblique tone as the rhyme? You might think it doesn't matter, but think twice! Chinese poems are meant to be sung out aloud, and the last syllable of of each line tend to be elongated in singing, for melodramatic effects. Only the level tone can be elongated indefinitely (until the singer runs out of breath) as its frequency is constant. If you elongate, say 上, the rising tone instead, you might find yourself starting to scream in high pitch as you continuously raise the frequency as required by the tone.

So, the ancient Chinese people decided that only level tone characters can be rhymes in 格律 poems. Sorry, oblique tones! Let's fill in the grids, using - to denote the level tones:

+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

That's that. But what about all the other blanks?

Now, let me introduce the greatest idea behind 格律詩, the one rule to rule all rules! It's simple:

Don't be boring!

We've used level tones to end the second and the forth line. How boring it'd be to end the first and third lines with level tones too? Let's give oblique tones a chance, using | to denote them:

+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

Four down, sixteen to go. Luckily, it turns out that, for each line, the first and third characters don't do much to the overall melody of the poem: Despite them being “onbeat” as previously illustrated, it is the second and fourth syllables (and the rhyming syllable) that get elongated when the poem is sung. We'll see later that we still cannot put any tone we want for the first and third characters, (and the templates actually give “recommended values” for them), but for now we'll pretend it's alright, and use the + symbol for “either level or oblique”:

+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

This leaves us with just 8 variables. Remember the rule of “Don't be boring”? We definitely should put different tones for the second and forth character. But which one should be oblique and which should be level? Turns out either is acceptable. Let's stick to one option and fill it in for the first line.

+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

What about the second line? Again, “don't be boring”, let's invert the pattern of the first line:

+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

Now you might say: “OK! I know! The third line will be just the inverse of the second, and the fourth the inverse of the third. Maximum alternation, right?” Wrong! If you do that, you'll notice that the first two lines as a whole will look identical to the other two, and that's boring:

Wrong:+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---++---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

Instead, we make the second and forth characters of the third line the same as those of the second line, while those of the forth line inverts those of the third, like so:

+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

And done! We've reconstructed one of the four possible templates given at the beginning. Let's look carefully at what we've got: The second line is the exact inverse of the first line, the same way the third is of the forth. This phenomenon is technically termed “對” (dui, or “contrast”). The third line is almost the same as the second, save for the last character. This phenomenon is technically termed “黏” (nian, or “sticky”). The failure to produce these phenomenons are respectively called 失對 (shi dui, “lost contrast”) and 失黏 (shi nian, “lost stickiness”). The loss of stickiness is usually regarded as a less severe problem than that of the loss of contrast. Indeed, even great poets like Du Fu (712-77- AD) experimented with plenty of unsticky poems. Such poems that only partially follow the rules of 格律 are sometimes called “拗體” (or “awkward variations”).

Without further delay, let's see our new template in action, by filling in the grids with a real poem!

+------+------+------+------+------+|  |   |  |   |  -   |  -   |  |   ||  白  |  日  |  依  |  山  |  盡  || baek | nyit | jioj | srean| dzinX|+------+------+------+------+------+|  -   |  -   |  |   |  |   |  -   ||  黃  |  河  |  入  |  海  |  流  ||hwang |  ha  | nyip | xojX | ljuw |+------+------+------+------+------+|  |   |  -   |  -   |  |   |  |   ||  欲  |  窮  |  千  |  里  |  目  || ywok |gjuwng|tshen |  liX | mjuwk|+------+------+------+------+------+|  |   |  |   |  |   |  -   |  -   ||  更  |  上  |  一  |  層  |  樓  ||kaengH|dzyangX jit  |dzong | luw  |+------+------+------+------+------+

The poem shown above is “On the Stork Tower” by Wang Zhi Huan (688-742 AD), oftentimes the very first 格律詩 beginners would encounter, so we're following the tradition here. For each row, level/oblique symbols -/| for each character are drawn on the top, and we can see that they indeed conform to the template we have just derived.

You might notice the pronunciation annotation beneath each character is not Pinyin: yes, we're “upgrading” to a middle Chinese reconstruction, now that we've learned about the middle Chinese tones. The reconstruction used here are from Karlgren's Grammata Serica Recensa, using Baxter's transcription. As mentioned before, this is not the only reconstruction that exists, and there had been a lot of hot debates about which one is more authentic. Here we chose Karlgren's since it's well documented and indexed in this wikibook. Baxter's transcription is documented here. Notice that the trailing capital X and H are for indicating rising and departing tones respectively and are NOT to be literally pronounced as “ex” and “aitch”. Level and checked tones are not suffixed, but can be told apart from the checked tone's “t”, “k”, “p” endings.

Also notice that the second and forth lines rhymes with -uw: 流(ljuw) and 楼(luw).

Try reading it out aloud to feel the rhythm!

A rather literal translation of the poem is given below for reference.

Into the mountain the white sun vanishes,Toward the sea the yellow river flows.For the view of a thousand miles,Up one more floor one must go.

## More Rules

We're not done with the rules just yet! Remember when we said the first and third characters of each line can take any tone, but there're some exceptions? Yeah let's talk about that.

Take the last line of the template we derived earlier, for example:

+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

If we put - at the third character, what we get will be this:

Wrong:+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | - | - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

We get three consecutive level tones at the end, and that's pretty boring sounding! (Imagine ending a sentence with “uhm… uhm… uhm…”) So this situation, termed “三平調”(literally: 3 level mode) is actually banned by the 格律 rules. The only correct tone for the third character of this line would be:

+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | | | - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

Now let's look again at the 2nd line of the template this time:

+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

If we're free to use anything for the first and third slots, we might end up with something like this:

Wrong:+---+---+---+---+---+| | | - | | | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

Excluding the last rhyming character, we see that a lonely level tone at the second character is surrounded by oblique tones on the first, third and fourth characters! And just like the three-level-end situation, this does not make a good melody when sung or read out aloud in middle Chinese. So this situation, termed “孤平”(literally: lonely level) is banned too.

So acceptable tones for this line would be:

+---+---+---+---+---+| | | - | - | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+OR+---+---+---+---+---+| - | - | | | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+OR+---+---+---+---+---+| - | - | - | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

There're a slightly different definitions of what constitutes a lonely level tone. One theory states it happens whenever a level tone is surrounded by two oblique tones on each of its side. If there's only one slot on a side, then that slot alone speaks for its side. If the level tone is the first character of a line, then the rule doesn't apply to it. For example: |||-|, |||-||- and |-||--| are examples of lonely level tones (at positions 4, 4 and 2 respectively), while -||-- and -||--|| are OK.

Some people believe that it is OK to have lonely level tones on one line, as long as we put more level tones on the next line to “balance it out”. This “compensation” is a type of “拗救”, or “saving the awkwardness” technique.

In summary, we have more freedom for the tones at the first and third positions of each line, though we need to keep an eye on 三平調(three-level-end) and 孤平(lonely-level).

Now remember that we mentioned there were actually 4 templates for 五絕? Let's derive the other three.

Recall this step:

+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

We mentioned that the second and the fourth characters of the first line need to have different tones, and went with one possible configuration. Now we can swap the two to derive the other configuration:

+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

Remembering the rules of 對(contrast) and 黏(stickiness), we flip the first line to get the second, copy the second to get the third, and flip the third line to get the fourth:

+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

Tadah! We have the second template. If you compare it with the first one, you'll find that it's just swapping the first two lines with the last two lines.

What about the other two templates? Recall that we mentioned the first line can also rhyme, or nearly rhyme with the second and the fourth. In order to have that, we need to make the first line end with level tone too. Remember: 格律詩 only allows level rhymes.

Luckily this is pretty straightforward. We can just take the two templates we have, and change the last character of the first line to level tones.

+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | - |+---+---+---+---+---++---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+

That's it! We have all four templates. Let's make a master list for all of them below, with “officially recommended values” for the “free” characters put in parenthesis, and the additional bans for three-level-end and lonely-level appended.

仄起首句不入韻式         仄起首句入韻式Oblique-start,           Oblique-start,Non-rhyming-first-line   Rhyming-first-line+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+|(|)| | |(-)| - | | |    |(|)| | |(|)| - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+|(-)| - |(|)| | | - |    |(-)| - |(|)| | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+|(-)| - |(-)| | | | |    |(-)| - |(-)| | | | |+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+|(|)| | |(|)| - | - |    |(|)| | |(|)| - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+平起首句不入韻式         平起首句入韻式Level-start,             Level-start,Non-rhyming-first-line   Rhyming-first-line+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+|(-)| - |(-)| | | | |    |(-)| - |(|)| | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+|(|)| | |(|)| - | - |    |(|)| | |(|)| - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+|(|)| | |(-)| - | | |    |(|)| | |(-)| - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+|(-)| - |(|)| | | - |    |(-)| - |(|)| | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+三平調three-level-end+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+| | | | | - | - | - |    | - | | | - | - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+孤平Lonely-level+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+| | | - | | | | | - |    | | | | | | | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+      ^                                ^

Exercise: does the poem from Borderland Anthems we saw in the first section conform to the 格律 rules, given its middle Chinese pronunciation below?

+------+------+------+------+------+|  月  |  黑  |  雁  |  飛  |  高  ||ngjwot| xok  |ngaenH| pjioj| kaw  |+------+------+------+------+------+|  單  |  于  |  夜  |  遁  |  逃  ||dzyen |  hju | yaeH |dwonH | daw  |+------+------+------+------+------+|  欲  |  將  |  輕  |  騎  |  逐  || ywok |tsjang|khjieng gjeH |drjuwk|+------+------+------+------+------+|  大  |  雪  |  滿  |  弓  |  刀  || daH  |sjwet | manX |kjuwng| taw  |+------+------+------+------+------+

Well the answer is No and Yes. Let me explain:

The title of the poem indicates that this is supposed to be a “古樂府”, one of the 古體詩 or “ancient style” poems that does not need to conform to 格律. Thematically, it is also more similar to these poems. Moreover, unlike many typical 格律詩s, it does not make use of parallelism (a technique we'll learn about in the next sections).

Nevertheless, all the tonal rules of 格律詩 check out for this poem. If we just compare it to the templates, we'll find that it fits into “Oblique-start, rhyming-first-line” (The tone of the poem is |||--,--||-,|--||,|||--). And There's no lonely-level or three-level-end.

So what's happening here? The truth is, the author is not obliged to conform to 格律, yet he did it anyways! In fact, the ideas of 格律 is so deeply entrenched in the minds of many poets, that they tend to write lines or whole poems that conform to it, even when they're supposed to be writing in “ancient style” that doesn't require it!

## The Meanings

In the last sections we learned all about the tonal rules of 五絕, or four-line five-character regulated verse form. Though it is only one of the six forms of 格律詩, the other five are based on almost the same rules, so they're going to be straightforward to grasp once I introduce them. But first, let's take a small break from the tone patterns, and take a look at the literal meanings of classical Chinese poetry.

While in English poetry meters only constrain the number of syllables in each line, in classical Chinese poetry it also has a constraint on the grouping of the meanings of the characters. Let me explain:

For five-character poems, the five characters are typically divided into 2+3, meaning that the first two characters usually form a phrase, while the other three form another. Take our previous Stork Tower poem for example:

白 日        -- 依 山 盡White sun    -- by the mountain it vanishes黃 河        -- 入 海 流Yellow river -- into the sea it flows

And the Borderland Anthems example:

月 黑              -- 雁 飛 高The moon is dark   -- the geese fly high單 于              -- 夜 遁 逃The enemy chieftain-- flees at night

For seven-character poems, the grouping is 4+3, (which sometimes can be further grouped into (2+2)+3). Take our previous Spring Outing poem for example:

孤 山 寺 北                            -- 賈 亭 西North of the Temple of Lonely Mountain -- west of Jia's Pavilion.水 面 初 平                            -- 雲 脚 低Water surface is level                 -- clouds are low.

It is rare for poems to have groupings other than 2+3 and 4+3. Thus, when reading or singing the poems out aloud, it also advisable to have a pause before the third to last character of each line, and elongate the character before the pause.

Recall the English example we had at the beginning of this tutorial, even though the meter is the same as a seven-character classical Chinese poem, it does not have the same grouping of meanings, especially on the second line:

Things are seldom -- what they seemSkim milk masque  -- rades as cream

One rare example of a classical Chinese poem that also breaks this convention this excerpt from a (very long) poem by Li Bai:

天 上                         -- 白 玉 京In the heavens                -- (there's a) white jade city十 二 樓                      -- 五 城(with) twelve towers          -- (and) five citadels仙 人                         -- 撫 我 頂(where) an immortal           -- touched my head結 髮                         -- 受 長 生(thus ever since I was) young -- (I was) blessed with immortality

Notice on the second line 十二樓--五城, instead of 2+3 like the other three lines, the poet had a 3+2 grouping. Why, you might ask? Couldn't the poet write 五城--十二樓(five citadels and twelve towers) instead? The answer is rhyming. 城(dzyeng) rhymes with 京(kjaeng) and 生(sraeng) in middle Chinese. The numbers 五(five) and 十二(twelve) are from legendary records of “white jade city”, so the poet cannot arbitrarily change them either. While another poet might consider restructuring their poems to avoid this issue, Li Bai, known for his unbounded imagination and creativity, cannot be bothered to be constrained by the “mortal” rules.

Additional to the grouping within each line, every two lines of a poem also forms a group regarding their meanings.

This is pretty obvious in all the poems we listed before. For example, in the previous Stork Tower poem, the first two lines describes the view on the tower, while the last two combined forms the logic of one full sentence: to gain an even further view, one must climb upstairs. In the excerpt from Li Bai's poem we just saw, the first two lines depicts the legendary “white jade city”, while the next two accounts his (probably imaginary) encounter with the immortals there.

In a typical 4-line poem, the progression of the meanings often goes like this: The first two lines usually “paint a picture”, or “set a scene”, sometimes making use of parallelism. Both the meanings and sounds in these two lines tend to be “catchy”. The third line builds the suspense or initiates a twist, or otherwise make “preparations” for the final line; And the final line itself is usually the most “transcending” and “poetic” one intended to give a lasting impression.

The Stork Tower and Borderland Anthem poems are both very good examples. Another particularly interesting example is this Sorrows in the Chamber poem by Wang Chang Ling (698-765 AD):

閨 中 少 婦 不 知 愁A young woman knows not the meaning of sorrow,春 日 凝 妝 上 翠 樓Dressed up in her chambers she looked down at the spring scenery below.忽 見 陌 頭 楊 柳 色Suddenly she spotted the color of the weeping willows,悔 教 夫 婿 覓 封 侯Now how she regrets sending her husband to the war for seeking the ranks of a noble!

Note: the weeping willows turn green in spring time, which reminds the heroine that his husband hasn't returned for yet another year, and thus suddenly triggering her concealed sorrow.

Not all 4-line poems follows this mode however, and indeed many poems turned out to be outstanding by breaking this norm.

## Parallelism

Now let's talk about parallelism, arguably the most frequently used device in Chinese poetry, and according to some people mandatory in 格律 poems.

Recall the rule of “contrast”(對) in 格律 poems covered in the previous section: in groups of two lines, the tones of the second line is the inverse of the first line.

It turns out there is also a rule of contrast in the meanings of the lines, termed 對偶 or 對仗. For two lines, or “couplets”, that conform to this rule, every character in corresponding position should have matching part of speech as well as different but related meaning.

The Shakespearian lines we saw in the first section is an example of parallelism in English poems:

Eye  of newt and toe    of frog ,Wool of bat  and tongue of dog  .

… though classical Chinese poems usually have more sophisticated forms of parallelism. Take the first couplet of the Stork Tower poem for example:

+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+|   白   |   日   |   依   |   山   |   盡   || white  |  sun   |   by   |mountain|  ends  |+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+|   黃   |   河   |   入   |   海   |   流   || yellow |  river |  into  |  sea   | flows  |+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+

Looking at the English translation of every character, observe how “yellow” corresponds to “white”, being both colors, how “sun” corresponds to “river”, being both related to landscape, how “by” corresponds to “into”, being both prepositions, how “mountain” corresponds to “sea”, being both terrains, and how “ends” correspond to “flows”, being both verbs.

Some poems entirely consists of couplets, take this poem by Du Fu for example:

+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+|   兩   |   箇   |   黃   |   鸝   |   鳴   |   翠   |   柳   ||  two   |  (CLF) | yellow | orioles|  chirp |  green | willow |+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+|   一   |   行   |   白   |   鷺   |   上   |   青   |   天   ||  one   |  row   | white  | egrets |  soar  |  blue  |  sky   |+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------++--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+|   牎   |   含   |   西   |   嶺   |   千   |   秋   |   雪   || window |contains|  west  |mountain|thousand| autumn |  snow  |+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+|   門   |   泊   |   東   |   吳   |   萬   |   里   |   船   ||  door  |  dock  |  east  |   Wu   | myriad |  mile  |  ships |+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+

Note: (CLF) stands for “classifier”. In English, it seems less common to use a classifier for singular items, perhaps with “a piece of candy” and “a grain of sand” being exceptions. 千秋, or “Thousand autumns” is an idiomatic expression to mean “many years” or more specifically “over the long course of history of China”. 東吳 (literally East Wu) is a part of China that corresponds to the eastern regions that contains Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, etc. today. It is quite far away from Szechuan where the poet was living in at the time, and therefore he described the ships as having sailed ten thousand miles.

Sometimes these couplets can become very intricate, and make use of homophones (same pronounciation multiple meanings) and homographs (same character multiple meanings) to make the parallelism immaculate. Take this one by Liu Yu Xi (772-842AD) for example:

+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+|   千   |   尋   |   鐵   |   鎖   |   沉   |   江   |   底   ||thousand| fathoms|  iron  |  chain |  sink  |  river | bottom |+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+|   一   |   片   |   降   |   幡   |   出   |   石   |   頭   ||  one   |  piece |surrender banner |comes out  rock  |   top  |+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+

The couplet talks about the historical event of Jin Dynasty's conquer of Wu during the late Three Kingdoms era. It was said that the Wu Emporor tried to stop the Jin Warships by putting iron chains across the Yangtze river, a defence which ended up being burnt down by the Jin Army. Hence the first line “iron chains of a thousand fathoms long sank to the bottom of the river”. The second line is very interesting: it apparently matches “sink to river bottom”(沉江底) with “comes out from rock top”(出石頭) character by character, but in fact 石頭 is the name of the capital city (石頭城) of the Kingdom of Wu. So what the line actually mean is “the surrender flag was raised in the capital city of Wu”.

The couplet is especially interesting, since it is common to have couplet's describing a landscape or depicting a scene, as with the couplets we saw earlier; yet the lines of this couplet has a logical progression describing two different yet subsequent events: Only after the chains were sunk, the kingdom of Wu has no choice but to surrender. This is sometimes called 流水對, or “flowing water couplet”.

Not only can two lines form couplets, some poems go as far as creating “couplets within couplets”. For example, from Du Mu (803-852 AD):

+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+|   鳥   |   去   |   鳥   |   來   |   山   |   色   |   裏   ||  birds |   go   |  birds |  come  |mountain|  color |   in   |+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+|   人   |   歌   |   人   |   哭   |   水   |   聲   |   中   || people |  sing  | people |  weep  |  water |  sound |   in   |+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+--------+

Not only do the characters of the two lines match each other: “bird” with “people”, “mountain” with “water”, and “color” with “sound” etc., within each sentence, “birds go” also matches “birds come”, and “people sing” also matches “people weep”!

A little explanation of the second line here: “people sing” and “people weep” are not decribing simultaneous events. They refer to ceromonies and funerals respectively, so the phrase actually mean “residents of this place spend their entire lives here” (It is a reference to a passage of 禮記 or Book of Rites). So the two lines as a whole is in fact depicting a peaceful and serene human settlement.

Now don't forget that in addition to parallelism, these couplet also need to match the tonal rules described in the previous sections! Threfore, as writing these couplets requires nontrivial skill and wits as well as familiarity with historical references, they have become a particularly popular pass time activity for literate Chinese people until this day. Sometimes it is also played as a “duel of wits” where the challenger comes up with the first line, and the challenged tries to come up with the matching second line. For poets and aspiring poets, the skill is considered one of the most fundemental and important, and “perfect” couplets are highly sought after. There's even a story about how one reknowned poet tried to murder another in an attempt to plagarize an unpublished couplet from the victim, though the story is proved to be unlikely true.

Books that lists common phrases that make perfect couplets were written as elementary-school-level teaching material for children. One popular book starts like this:

-   |   |   -   | |   - -   - -   | |   | |   - -   - | |   | - -   | |   - -雲對雨。雪對風。晚照對晴空。來鴻對去燕。宿鳥對鳴蟲。三尺劍。六鈞弓。嶺北對江東。Clouds to rain, snow to wind, twillight to sunny, returning goose to departing swallow (referring to migration), resting bird to chirping insects, sword that is three feet long, to bow that requires six units of force to draw,west of mountain to east of river.

## Back to the Rules

Hopefully you still remember that we've only covered the tonal rules of 五絕, or four-line five-character poems. Now we'll look at the rules of other verse forms, which are based on very similar ideas.

First, let's derive the tonal pattern for 七言絕句 (abbreviated as 七絕), or four-line seven-character poems. Same as before, let's start with an empty grid:

+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+

Placing the level-toned rhyming characters at the end of lines 2 and 4, and using the “non-boring” rule to put oblique tones at the ends of lines 1 and 3, we get:

+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|   |   |   |   |   |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+

Recall that the tones of first and third character of 五絕 can be freely chossen (with some restictions). For seven-character poems, this formula generalizes to the first, third and fifth characters. Or in other words, odd-indexed characters except the last of each line.

+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | + |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | + |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+

Again using the “non-boring” rule, put alternating tones at even indexed characters on the first line (Recall how we used -| or |- for characters 2 and 4 of five-character lines, now we can choose between -|- or |-| for characters of 2, 4, and 6 for seven-character lines. Here we're going with the option one first):

+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | + | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | + |   | | |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + |   | + |   | + |   | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+

Flipping the first line to get the second, copying the second to get the third, and flipping the third to get the fourth, just like before:

+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | + | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | + | | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + | | | + | - | + | | | | |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| + | - | + | | | + | - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+

Tada! We've just derived the first template of 七絕 using a process very similar to that with which we derived those of 五絕.

And just like the 4 templates of 五絕, now with the 2 choices of tonal patterns of the even-indexed characters on the first line, and 2 choices of whether or not to have a rhyming first line, we can obtain all 4 templates of 七絕:

仄起首句不入韻式                 仄起首句入韻式Oblique-start,                   Oblique-start,Non-rhyming-first-line           Rhyming-first-line+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|(|)| | |(-)| - |(-)| | | | |    |(|)| | |(-)| - |(|)| | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|(-)| - |(|)| | |(|)| - | - |    |(-)| - |(|)| | |(|)| - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|(-)| - |(-)| | |(-)| - | | |    |(-)| - |(|)| | |(-)| - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|(|)| | |(|)| - |(|)| | | - |    |(|)| | |(-)| - |(|)| | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+平起首句不入韻式                 平起首句入韻式Level-start,                     Level-start,Non-rhyming-first-line           Rhyming-first-line+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|(-)| - |(|)| | |(-)| - | | |    |(-)| - |(|)| | |(|)| - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|(|)| | |(-)| - |(|)| | | - |    |(|)| | |(-)| - |(|)| | | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|(|)| | |(-)| - |(-)| | | | |    |(|)| | |(-)| - |(-)| | | | |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+|(-)| - |(|)| | |(|)| - | - |    |(-)| - |(|)| | |(|)| - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+

Don't forget that the ban on 三平調 (lines that end with three level tones), and 孤平 (lonely level tones) are still effective for seven-character poems:

三平調three-level-end+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| - | - | | | | | - | - | - |    | | | - | - | | | - | - | - |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+孤平Lonely-level+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+| | | - | | | | | + | - | + |    | + | - | + | | | | | - | | |+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+    +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+      ^                                                ^

Excercise: Check which templates the poems “兩箇黃鸝鳴翠柳” by Du Fu and “閨中少婦不知愁” by Wang Chang Ling we encountered earlier belongs to, given their middle Chinese pronounciation below?

+------+------+------+------+------+------+------+|  兩  |  箇  |  黃  |  鸝  |  鳴  |  翠  |  柳  ||ljangX| kaH  | hwang|  lej |mjaeng|tshwijH ljuwX|+------+------+------+------+------+------+------+|  一  |  行  |  白  |  鷺  |  上  |  青  |  天  || jit  |haeng | baek | luH  |dzyangX tseng| then |+------+------+------+------+------+------+------+|  牎  |  含  |  西  |  嶺  |  千  |  秋  |  雪  |tsrhaewng hom | sej  |ljengX|tshen |tshjuw|sjwet |+------+------+------+------+------+------+------+|  門  |  泊  |  東  |  吳  |  萬  |  里  |  船  || mwon | bak  |tuwng | ngu  |mjonH | liX  |zywen |+------+------+------+------+------+------+------++------+------+------+------+------+------+------+|  閨  |  中  |  少  |  婦  |  不  |  知  |  愁  || kwej trjuwng|syewH |bjuwX | pjut | trje |dzrjuw|+------+------+------+------+------+------+------+|  春  |  日  |  凝  |  妝  |  上  |  翠  |  樓  |tsyhwin| nyit |nging tsrjang|dzyangX tshwijH luw |+------+---