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A Feast of Lanterns, by L. Cranmer-Byng, [1916], at

Chinese Verse Form

In a previous book, A Lute of Jade, I have referred to the structure of Chinese verse. It is necessary to remember that the Chinese language is made up mostly of monosyllabic words expressing root-ideas. There are also a sufficient number of diphthongs to give variety. As Sir John Davis points out in his Poetry of the Chinese, such words as sēen and lēen correspond nearly to the English lion and fluid. Chinese is essentially a language in which vowel-sounds prevail and the few consonants are far from being harsh. In the literary language, used by all the great poets,

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the only terminal consonant is n, as in Ch‘un, and its nasal ng, as in Hong. The only harsh initial is Ts, as in Tsin and Tsz. There are only about four hundred different sounds in Chinese, and, in order to discriminate between words of similar sound, resort has to be made to tones which are akin to musical notes. Of these tones only two count in the making of Chinese poetry, namely, the Ping, or even tone, and Tsze, or accentuated, with its three modifications known as Shangsheng, the rising note, Khu-sheng, the entering note, and Ruh-sheng, the sinking note. These tones, as Mr. Charles Budd points out 1 in his interesting essay on the Technique of Chinese Poetry, "are used to make rhythm as well as to express meaning." Rhymes occur in the even lines of a poem. In five-syllable verses there is a cæsura which comes after the second syllable, and in poems of seven syllables after the fourth.

Another form of Chinese verse construction is that of parallel lines. This particular form is well known to us in Hebrew poetry, especially the Psalms. It does not follow that each word and line should answer its fellow, but there must be "a marked correspondence and equality in the construction of the lines—such as noun answering to noun, verb to verb," etc.

The following is an example quoted by Sir

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[paragraph continues] John Davis in his essay on the Poetry of the Chinese:

A hundred—a thousand, ten thousand projects are hard to accomplish;
Five times—six times—ten years very soon arrive.
When you have found a day to be idle—be idle for a day;
When you have met with three cups to drink—then drink your three cups.

Chinese poems generally consist of four, eight, twelve, or sixteen lines. There are, indeed, longer poems, but the whole idea of a Chinese poet is to condense and suggest. Professor Giles says: "There is no such a thing as an epic in the language." As regards metre, the four-character line is chiefly confined to the ancient collection of national ballads made by Confucius and known as The Book of Odes. The usual metres of the great poets of the T‘ang dynasty were five and seven-character lines. These are called Shih, or regular poems. The six or eight-character line is only to be met with alternated with others in poems of irregular metre.


31:1 Chinese Poems, translated by Charles Budd, Henry Frowde & Co.

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