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Shi (simplified Chinese: traditional Chinese: pinyin: shī) is the Chinese word for "poetry" or "poem". It can be used as an umbrella term to mean Chinese poetry in any form, including ci and qu, but it is most commonly used to refer to the classical form of poetry which reached its zenith in the Tang Dynasty. To distinguish the classical form from the vers libre developed in the 20th century, the former is known as jiushi (舊詩 "old poetry", not to be confused with gushi 古詩) and the latter xinshi (新詩 "new poetry", not to be confused with jintishi 近體詩).

Contents

Origins

Shi Jing (詩經 "Classic of Poetry") was the first major collection of Chinese poems, collecting both aristocratic poems (the "Odes") and more rustic poems, probably derived from folksongs (the "Songs"). They are mostly composed of four-character (四言) lines.

A second, more lyrical and romantic anthology was Chu Ci (楚辭 "Songs of Chu"), made up primarily of poems ascribed to Qu Yuan and his follower Song Yu. These poems are composed of lines of irregular lengths.

From the Han Dynasty onwards, a process similar to the origins of Shi Jing produced the yue fu (樂府 "Music Bureau") poems. Many of them are composed of lines of five-character (五言) or seven-character (七言) poems. These two forms were to dominate Chinese poetry until the modern era. They are divided into the original gushi (old poems) and jintishi. The latter is a stricter form developed in the early Tang Dynasty with rules governing the structure of a poem. The greatest writers of gushi and jintishi are often held to be Li Bai and Du Fu respectively.

Gushi

The term gushi (古詩 "old poetry") can refer either to the first, mostly anonymous shi poems, or more generally to the poems written in the same form by later poets. Gushi in this latter sense are defined essentially by what they are not: i.e., they are not jintishi (regulated verse). The writer of gushi was under no formal constraints other than line length and rhyme (in every second line). The form was therefore favoured for narrative works and by writers seeking a relaxed or imaginative style; Li Bai is the most prominent of these, but most major poets wrote significant gushi.

Jintishi

Jintishi (近體詩 "modern-form poetry"), or regulated verse developed from the 5th century onwards. By the Tang Dynasty, a series of set tonal patterns had been developed, which were intended to ensure a balance between the four tones of Middle Chinese in each couplet: the level tone, and the three deflected tones (rising, falling and entering). The Tang Dynasty was the high point of the jintishi. Wang Wei and Cui Hao were notable pioneers of the form, while Du Fu was its most accomplished exponent.

The basic form of jintishi is lüshi (律詩), with eight lines. In addition to the tonal constraints, this form required parallelism between the lines in the second and third couplets. The lines in these couplets had to contain contrasting content, with the characters in each line usually in the same part of speech.

Another form is the jueju (絕句), or quatrain which followed the tonal pattern of the first four lines of the lüshi. This form does not require parallelism.

The last form is pailü (排律), which extended lǜshi to unlimited length by repeating the tonal pattern and the required parallelism of the second and third couplets. Parallelism is not required for the first and the last couplets.

All forms of jintishi could be written in five- or seven- character lines. The six character-line form (六言) can be seen occasionally, but is not common. The rules on tones and parallelism are not strictly followed in all cases: when classifying poems as gushi or jintishi, commentators traditionally placed greater emphasis on following the tonal rules than on parallelism.

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