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Read the classic poems the classic way

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Part1, Why Tang Poems?

The Tang poems is the gemstone on the crown of classic chinese literature, a renaissance after hundreds years of wars and land splitting after Han dynasty.

Why Tang poems became the peak hours of Chinese classic poems? In my humble understanding, there could be 3 main reasons.


First of all, the chinese language is with 4 tones, with overwhelming vowel than consonant. With carefully selected and engineered words and word sequence, reading a poem could sound very pleasantly when tones go up and down with rhyme, like a pop song. It is the Tang poets fully developed the rules of poem writing mainly based on tones and rhyme.This make the Tang poems a bit closer to pop songs, could be repeated or read everywhere by a normal person, without music band nor musician. The music band and musicians is always exclusive to royal families and high-ranking officials. Today, everybody is capable of composing or playing a song , thus pop songs replace the role of classic chinese poem very naturally.


Secondly, during the war time(三国魏晋南北朝), the tradition of singing songs(poems) was greatly changed. Before the war time, the Book of Songs(诗经) in Zhou dynasty and Musical Department Songs(乐府诗) in Han dynasty are all songs with music. Though the musical part was lost when dynasty changes , but some lyrics remain till today, treated as poetry. It is quite obviously that the Northern Songs and Southern Songs showed quite different characteristics in war time as the Musical Department splitted due to China splitted into countries. The Northern Songs continued the tradition since Book of Songs, it covered many kinds of topic like love, war, nature, rural life and legend, while the Southern Songs focused on love affairs only. The hundreds years of war also created a lot of hermit, who were gentlefolks in essence. These people wrote a lot of real poems, with their name attached, in other words, the first generation of Chinese poets born. These poets tried to adapt their poems/lyrics to a no musical accompaniment situation, in a rural life without musical band, made their poems/lyrics sound pleasantly only by reciting it. The changes of poem writing in war time(南北朝) could be treated as the starting point for Tang Poems: writing poems rather than lyrics, focusing on the tones and rhyme to make reciting poems easier and more pleasant. Most importantly, writing poems with their own signature.


At last, starting from Sui dynasty, China entered a new era : a normal person could enter the government once he passed the Imperial Exam. Before Sui, only the gentlefolks , the nobles were qualified to have access to political power by their blood. Tang dynasty continued the Imperial Exam, which encouraged a vast of population who never have the rights to climb up the social ladder, or contribute to the country in a big way. Writing poems is one of the key skill requested by the Exam. Thus , a vast of population of political ambitious poets formed. What is more, the vast , multi-culture, expanding, splendid Tang empire provided rich ingredients for Tang poems, so did the civil war(安史之乱) and declining of the dynasty. The genius of Tang tried out almost any topics, any combination of the tones , sentence patterns and mix-matches .With the crowd efforts, it is very clear today the best parts of Tang poems are not only the content, which covered all aspects of Tang people's life with true feelings, but also the creativity on the structure of the poems, on the wordings, the study and excellent use of the tones and rhyme. All the above made Tang poems became the pop songs to Tang people, that practised, recited, appreciated and refined by every Tang people. Since Tang, the poems are not exclusive to the gentlefolks any more.


What is more, the vast , multi-culture, expanding, splendid Tang empire provided rich ingredients for Tang poems, so did the civil war(安史之乱) and declining of the dynasty. The genius of Tang tried out almost any topics, any combination of the tones , sentence patterns and mix-matches .With the crowd efforts, it is very clear today the best parts of Tang poems are not only the content, which covered all aspects of Tang people’s life with true feelings, but also the creativity on the structure of the poems, on the wordings, the study and excellent use of the tones and rhyme. All the above made Tang poems became the pop songs to Tang people, that practised, recited, appreciated and refined by every Tang people.


Since Tang, the poems are not exclusive to the gentlefolks any more.


After Tang, the Chinese never came back to the height of Tang on poem writing.

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Would ancient and middle Chinese have had more than 4 tones? There are more than 4 in southern Chinese topolects, which is generally believed to be closer than modern 汉语 to the original Tang pronunciation. 

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Regarding tones:



The four tones of Middle Chinese were first listed by Shen Yue around 500 AD.[65] The first three, the "even" or "level", "rising" and "departing" tones, occur in open syllables and syllables ending with nasal consonants. The remaining syllables, ending in stop consonants, were described as the "entering" tone counterparts of syllables ending with the corresponding nasals.[66] The Qieyun and its successors were organized around these categories, with two volumes for the even tone, which had the most words, and one volume each for the other tones.[67]


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@Luxiif you are talking the southern dialects, there is so many varieties. The most famous is cantonese with more than 4 tones.

While the Chinese culture is based on the yellow river area, the official sound is always the sound of the capital, that is why Putonghua is based on Beijing dialects. Sometimes China split into many countries for hundreds years. During this period, there is not a conclusion what tone/pronunciation is based on. Anyhow,  all the lasting and prominent dynasty choose their location in North China, especially Xi'an.  Zhou, Qin, Han , Tang , they all choose Xian. Song choose Bianliang(开封), Yuan /Ming/Qing/PRC choose Beijing. Confucious had put it very straight that" 子所雅言,《诗》、《书》、执礼,皆雅言也". It means Confucius  talk the dialect of 雅言 when he is teaching the classic literature. 雅言 is believed to be  the ancient language of Xian or Luoyang. This is the very first record that all the nobles or who read , should read the official tone/pronunciation ,  rather than  his own dialects. The official tone is always based on capital  tone.


@Wurstmann The 4 tones theory originated from south China, 南北朝, a time of splitted China. This might be practised since the time of Books of Songs.Becuase language is always changing , there is only a small portion of poems recognized with rules of tones  before Shen Yue.  Shen Yue  made his theory  most probably is based on the Han dynasty official language  and south dialects.  80 years later China reunited at capital Chang'An or Xi'an  today again. That means the many official tones reunited again.


The most modern theory is all based upon the people speak Yangtze and pearl river dialects, they developed hyposis of ancient chinese sounding based on their own assets. 唐音宋已經不傳, which means The Tang tone does not lasted to Song dynasty, while  Song capital is still in yellow river core area.


All in all,  the exact pronunciation and tones in Tang dynasty is lost, anything you saw is hypnosis or guesswork, including mine, LOL.


Two question you can ask you self,


1.why Tang people  tend to think only two tones of 平仄, or 4 tones, but cantonese is famous for 9 tones. From a language evolving point of view, what can you think of? With such rich Tang documents, why we can not find any argument on tones between Tang people but we do...?


2. In what extent the dialects changes through time? totally changed ? a little bit changed ? or never change? the oral language is referred here.

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Thanks both of you, @Bibu and @Wurstmann for helpful comments and references. Any more?  This is an interesting area but I don't even know where to start, and anyway, the poems are beautiful also in 普通话.


3 hours ago, Bibu said:

With such rich Tang documents, why we can not find any argument on tones between Tang people but we do...?


Good ground for thought. 






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@LuxiTry and see if you can secure a hard copy of 王力's 《诗词格律》 (special notations are employed, so an electronic version won't cut it). It's an old book, with many reprints. Chairman Mao's works are over-represented, but nonetheless quite useful as an introductory book.

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On 6/24/2019 at 10:23 AM, Bibu said:

The changes of poem writing in war time(南北朝) actually could be treated as the starting point for Tang Poems: writing poems rather than lyrics, focusing on the tones and rhyme to make reading poems easier and more pleasant.


Interesting discussion! I had a private teacher once who put a large emphasis on learning to read poetry and recite it out loud. She felt it was the best way for a foreigner to start paying more careful attention to the tones, rhythm, and rhyme of speech. Also made one more aware of the overall patterns of sentence inflection. We read some Tang poetry, but more of Mao Zedong.


She found video of famous actors and actresses reciting poems on-line. In some the poems were even read to music. I would imitate them out loud in a strong voice over and over as my homework. My neighbors probably wondered what was going on. It was fun, but she eventually moved on. The lady was a musician by profession, somewhat eccentric, only teaching Chinese to me as a part-time summer job.


I was a slow learner. She would give me a copy of the text of the poem double spaced and we would mark it up together to make it almost like a sheet of music, with arrows and exclamation points and some syllables underlined. I would carry that practice poem everywhere I went during the week; take it out sometimes and mentally review, silently reading phrases while on the bus or waiting for my food at lunch. 


Now I seldom read poetry. Maybe I will dip my toe in that stream again. Just see how it feels in the year 2019. 

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1 hour ago, abcdefg said:

She felt it was the best way for a foreigner to start paying more careful attention to the tones, rhythm, and rhyme of speech


That is my point as well. But the purpose is a bit different, because  the tone pattern in  poems is carefully engineered,  far from oral dialogue. That is why  reading out loud  feels pleasant.


Anyhow ,  a practice on spelling of 4 tones is for sure, learning new words and idioms as well. the classic poem is one of the foundation for an educated chinese, or an advanced chinese learner, for wording and its history background

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8 hours ago, Luxi said:

the poems are beautiful also in 普通话.


Every dialects take a lot from the so called official Chinese spelling , so a lot words spells similar in different dialects. In the north China,  the difference between dialects is quite small when compared to so many southern dialects, bigger than Espanola to ingles


In an area like Europe,  China has many different languages in my view, but for the one country sake, we tend to call other languages dialects. Just remember it is recorded very clearly, the first emperor destroyed at least 6 other languages(written form, basically in yellow river area) and united Chinese language as today, and he simplified the character as well, LOL.


Keep the official language circulated  through the country is always a task for the central GOV since 2000 years ago...So the Singapore know the very truth about Chinese language, they take Beijing as official , LOL.

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@Dawei3 very interesting , too academic, all guesswork with few knowledge of Chinese history. They can continue their excellent guesswork for quite a while. Anyhow some assumption is quite popular but with not much considerations, not to say evidence. My argument:


1. There is no words how the official Chinese was defined,  if yes, why they never mentioned Xian or Luoyang through history?

2. how do they define some south dialects more close to middle age Chinese ,  Canton is still a very primitive and under-developed area in Song dynasty. Even today, in a walking distance, you hear Cantonese, Hakka and Minnan in different villages, what does this mean?

3. How language evolves, in the long run, it get more complicated or or simple? for lexical, it is for sure, for tones?


Before they have some solid facts, I would not waste my time on tone hypothesis

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Part2: A history review of Chinese poetry. For video Great Chinese classic poem illustrated 古诗朗诵和讲解

As Benedetto Croce said , all history is contemporary history. This could be interpreted at least two ways by myself. The history is closely related with today’s life , or even it is part of the life today. On the other hand, history would always be examined by today people, by today’s knowledge , thus a new view, aspect or theory toward the past history might be created. Not only archeology, physics, mathes, astronomy, biology, arts etc. , but new things in daily life like social media, photo, cooking, fishing, gaming , touring etc. might give us a brand new understanding to the past or something in the past. The new recognition on the past definitely would impact today’s people more or less, in turn the history is always with us for every moment today. The bottom line, the DNA connect creatures from the very beginning till the end of world if had.


With Croce’s words, classic poems could be read and interpreted in many ways as time moving forward, also the classic poems has some level of impact on today’s people , especially the Chinese grows up with classic poem reciting. You might noticed a lot of time in the diplomatic events, the Chinese diplomats or leaders nowadays like to end up his talk with a quotation to classic poem: the classic poem get into the most serious and political field, not to say the normal life of Chinese. One quotation example: in 1972, Chairman Mao quoted Du Fu: 射人先射马, 擒贼先擒王 to express his opinion that if China want to build diplomatic relation with the United States, better talk to the president of USA directly, rather than through other countries or other person.


Here comes my first rule of reading chinese classic poems: 诗无达诂. It expresses the very similar idea of Croce from another angle: You can never explain or decipher a poem perfectly. In Shakespeare’s words: There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes. They are all telling the same meaning. So if you have some arguments with my poem videos, that is not a big deal, just put your idea on the table.


诗无达诂 is from a famous scholar, Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒) in Han dynasty. You can still find his famous tomb in Xi’an city. Why Mr. Dong came up such an idea? because he was with a similar situation as we do today, but with more significance . When Han people read their classic poems, the Book of Songs(诗经), they found a big variety of explanations to one same poem, same sentence. That phenomena was so called 断章取义, which means take one or two sentences from a poem, use that sentence to represent your own idea that might not comply to their original meaning in the poem. Like in this story, in the period of Warrior States(战国), from 春秋左氏传襄公二十七年(see quotation at very end). It depicts a diplomatic event between two kingdoms most probably with different languages: the visiting guest asked the hosts from the most powerful 7 clans under the king, to recite one or two sentence from The Book of Songs, with which to tell their mind and will(以观七子之志). The guest finally deciphered from the quoted sentences that the king would soon be killed, while there is nothing related with this conclusion in the original poems. This is a very typical situation of 断章取义, the poems in the Book of Songs is interpreted per the situation per the person who deciphers. This poem decipher skill was taught to noble kids , It is a must-to-have skill in life , especially when they became a diplomat, use the Book of Songs as the middle language. Confucius pointed out the same story : 诵诗三百,授之以政,不达;使於四方,不能专对;虽多,亦奚以为? In Han dynasty, people saw too much interpretations for the Book of Songs in their history book, and argued all the time : what is the real meaning by the author when he writing it? The final decision by Mr. Dong is : stop argument, let it be.


Here comes my second rule: 诗言志, means poem tells will and feeling. 诗言志 is from 舜典, an ancient royal document might dated 4000-5000 years ago, which founded the true spirit of chinese poem. 诗言志 means poems is about willingness, desire and feeling, the oldest character of 志 is as the picture, the logogram is of two parts, one is the heart figure below, it always refers to thoughts and feelings for Chinese, the upper part is , which means going for. The combination , or the character  means something the heart like to go for, or your mind and feeling like to pursuit. During the time from 舜典 to the Book of Songs, this rule of poem executed thoroughly.


No matter what the poem was about: birds, animals, plants, insects, activities or stellar, it is all a indirect way to express the author’s thoughts and feelings. Keep in mind the majority authors in the Book of Songs are gentlefolks of nobles or hereditary high-ranking officers. Even some is confirmed as folklore, it is still via the selection and refinement by the officers. From this angle ,the Book of Songs reflected the value and mindset of the gentlefolks , which was represented by Han scholars that poems is for 美刺, praise or blame. Clearly enough, the person that could afford of the praise and blame by all gentlefolks is the king, or the heaven(), which is the real boss for everything on the earth, the king or emperor is just the son of heaven(天子) who behave on behalf of heaven. I could not totally agree with the Han scholars, but it is very clear that the poems is closely associated with the king, the heaven, they hold the full duty to the country and people that under heaven. The poems wrote about almost everything on earth: by reflecting the status of things under or belong to heaven, as well as his own favors implied, the political attitudes of the gentlefolks was expressed euphemistically.


诗言志 has two side effects to Chinese poems. First, talking indirectly, a basic quality for a politician as well. That is inherited from the Book of Songs, when things were related to some positive or negative feelings, finally the thing itself looks that way to Chinese. For example: 硕鼠, 关雎, 鹿鸣, 桃夭. Till Qu Yuan(屈原)’s time, he take this to a new level by using 香草美人 to represents personality. The endeavor continued in Chinese history , to create new images or visions to a given subject. Sometimes, a subject was given multiple visions through the history, that makes the poem interpretation more difficult or inaccurate, it is hard to tell which vision or all the visions the author employed in a specific poem. For example, water(), in classic Chinese means river. Most time it resemble the vision of the time passing by, sometime it refers to things that would never come back, like the river going into the sea. Sometime it is considered as the tenderness or endless of love.


Second, 风骨 is valued the most for a poem. It is hard to explain 风骨 even in Chinese, which is wind+bone by hard translation. Below is my guesswork.  or wind is from the Book of Songs, the name of most important chapters , the praise and blame poems. The Book of Songs was called as 风 for short as well. With such, wind is more of politics related to country and people. Very naturally, politics is the born duty and most concerned thing for gentlefolks, he should always keep this topic as his central interests, not to say serving the king or emperor, which is the most important area of politics. Keeping the mindset and feeling on politics is wind.


The concept of 骨 or bone is invented at the end of Han dynasty. It tells a person’s virtual and character by his wording, or the character of his wording. The wording and his personality reflected is considered as bone. Since Han dynasty, more and more poems and articles has an author’s name on. By reading poems of a specific person, the personality of the author could be recognized. In the age of the Book of Songs, poems never had author’s name on , even with the poems considered by big names of the time. With such history background, bone concept was established and considered as the watermark of a person’s wording. The wording with bone watermark is simple, strong, pleasant and positive when looking, reciting or just feeling it. The rules on tone fall in the area of bone.


With 风骨 together, the poet should write to the point with true feelings, as well as show his own personality by wording. Without a strong personality on wording, or the wording does not serve the content, in other words , without bone, how can this gentlefolk to carry his duty to the king and the people, how can his poem lasts in the history because of the inability showed in his wording. Without extreme careness to the king, to the people, which could be reflected from the content and feelings in his poem, in other words, without wind, this officer is totally unqualified to his duty, to his blue blood. There is so many arguments in Chinese history, what exactly is wind and bone, which one is more important to writing, there is not a conclusion yet. What is definite, is that the wind and bone were lost after Tang dynasty, as poems much focused on personal feelings rather than the careness to emperor, to people, and less personality revealed. The first chinese book on literary theory 文心雕龙 has a careful review on wind and bone(风骨) like below: 用以怊怅述情,必始乎,沉吟铺辞,莫先于。故辞之待,如体之树骸,情之含,犹形之包气。结言端直,则文成焉;意气骏爽,则风生焉.


Rule third: 知人论世. This is the classic methodology to read and analysis a poem proposed by Mencius, still widely used in today’s Chinese middle school as the primary tool, it is the methodology employed in my video as well. 知人, know the person , know the people, which means you should know the poet background, his social status, his family, his friends, his life stories etc. It also indicated knowing the emperor, society, or the public. As far as 诗言志, the poet tries to express his feeling toward political issues, the public, the government and emperor are all key factors.


 means 30 years of time, or a generation. 论世 means review the subjects in 30 years time frame or in multiple 30 years time. When reading a poem, know the writing time is far not enough, we should review the subject, poet and people in the period of generations. The biggest puzzle in Tang poet is Li Bai(李白), there is so many hypothesis to his ancestors, with royal blood or not? This difference might impact the interpretation of his poems. A similar situation is Li He(李贺), he is with royal blood, some unique characters in his poem might be traced down to his royalty. Yet, you still can deny this explanation, because of 诗无达诂.


Above is the three rules employed in my poem videos, it naturally limited my selection of Chinese classic poetry to Tang poetry and pre-Tang. After Tang, the wind and bone was much lost. Before Tang, the bone was still weak, yet we can take the advantage of 知人论世, review the subject in time frame of its history, have a better understanding of it.


One thing should be pointed out that there is a bunch of so called 应制诗, which basically was written under request to praise the emperor, not covered in most poetry collections today, these poems does not apply to 诗言志 neither. The hermit poems, it sounds quite opposite to 诗言志, which means focusing on politics. Hermitage was practised at least as early as the time of the Book of Songs, and more importantly, it is a rational choice for aristocracy or failed politician, so it is still part of the politics, part of 诗言志. The Mountain River and Farming Field poems(山水田园诗) is derived from hermetic spirit.


There are always new methodologies of reviewing or representing Chinese classic poetry, from different angles, with the latest knowledge and tools, with current mindset, as Croce put it, all classic poetry is contemporary poetry. My videos are just on the facts and history, with the 2000+ years old methodology, try my best to figure out the very original feeling expressed, 一枝一叶总关情, that is classic poems.



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