Ci (poetry)

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Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese

(pronounced [tsʰǐ]; Chinese: ), also known as chángduǎnjù (長短句 / 长短句, "lines of irregular lengths") and shīyú (詩餘 / 诗馀, "the poetry besides Shi"), is a type of lyric poetry in the tradition of Classical Chinese poetry. use a set of poetic meters derived from a base set of certain patterns, in fixed-rhythm, fixed-tone, and variable line-length formal types, or model examples. The rhythmic and tonal pattern of the ci are based upon certain, definitive musical song tunes.

Typically, the number of characters in each line and the arrangement of tones were determined by one of around 800 set patterns, each associated with a particular title, called cípái (詞牌). Originally, they were written to be sung to a tune of that title, with a set rhythm, rhyme, and tempo. Therefore, the title may have nothing to do with its content. Indeed, several ci often shared the same title. The titles did not refer to the content, but rather their shared rhythmic and tonal patterns. Some would have a "subtitle" or a commentary, sometimes as long as a paragraph, indicating the content. Sometimes, for the sake of clarity, a is listed under its title, followed by its first line.

most often express feelings of desire, often in an adopted persona, but the greatest exponents of the form (such as Chen Weisong 陳維崧/陈维崧 and Su Shi 蘇軾/苏轼) used it to address a wide range of topics.


Although the oldest surviving textual examples of are from 8th century CE Dunhuang manuscripts,[1] beginning in the poetry of the Liang Dynasty, the ci followed the tradition of the Shi Jing and the yuefu: they were lyrics which developed from anonymous popular songs into a sophisticated literary genre. In the case of the form some of its fixed-rhythm patterns have influenced poetry in Central Asia.

The form was further developed in the Tang Dynasty. Although the contributions of Li Bai (701 – 762) are fraught with historical doubt, certainly the Tang poet Wen Tingyun (812–870) was a great master of the ci, writing it in its distinct and mature form.[2] One of the more notable practitioners and developers of this form was Li Yu of the Southern Tang Dynasty during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.

However, the ci form of Classical Chinese poetry is especially associated with the poetry of the Song Dynasty, during which it was indeed a popular poetic form. A revival of the poetry form occurred during the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty which was characterized by an exploration of the emotions connected with romantic love together with its secularization, often in a context of a brief poetic story narrative within a poem or a linked group of poems in an application of the chuanqi form of short story tales to poetry.[3]



In Song Dynasty, two main categories of employed were xiǎolìng 小令 (the original form since Pre-Song) and màncí 慢詞 (starting after Liu Yong), depending on the song being either short and in fast tempo or long and in slow tempo. Mostly xiǎolìng were written in Pre-Song era.

Ming, Qing[edit]

Later in Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasties, the , or rather the cípái, became classified for the number of characters it dictates. It is called

  1. xiǎolìng 小令 if it's no more than 58 characters,
  2. zhōngdiào 中調 for 59–90, and
  3. chángdiào 長調 for over 90.

If the ci appears in one stanza, it's called dāndiào (單調). The largest majority is shuāngdiào 雙調 with two stanzas or què 闋 in identical or nearly identical patterns. There also are rare cases of sāndié 三疊 and sìdié 四疊, for three and four qüè, respectively. In terms of style, can also be classified as either wǎnyuē 婉約 (grace) or háofàng 豪放 (bold).


According to Chinese Pronunciation, "Mandarin is said to have four main tones and one neutral tone (or, as some say, five tones). Each tone has a distinctive pitch contour which can be graphed using the Chinese 5-level system."[4][clarification needed]

The Wikipedia page on Old Chinese phonology states that "The four tones of Middle Chinese were first described by Shen Yue around AD 500. They were the "level" (平 píng), "rising" (上 shǎng), "departing" (去 qù), and "entering" (入 rù) tones." The level is classified in 平 ping; and the rising, departing and entering are classified in 仄 ze. So, in any Cipai, the formation of Ci, each Chinese character in Ci will be required in detailed tones with 平 or 仄.


Cipai, also called Cige and Cidiao, is the name of various formations of Ci.[5] Most cípái consist of three characters. The literal meaning of a cípái can be rather obscure, making it difficult to translate. Some are taken straight from earlier poems, and some are clearly of Non-Han origin—mostly songs introduced from Central Asia. Some cípái have alternative names, usually taken from a famous piece of that very cípái. There also are variants of certain cípái, indicated by a prefix or a suffix. The formations of Ci are complicated, in different names of Cipai, the number of characters, syntactical structure, tones and rhyme are also different.[6]


For example, choosing the Cipai, Jiang Chengzi or "Riverside City" (江城子), the tone requirements of each character in this Cipai is following:



The following is a poem based on 江城子.



General translation:

Ten boundless years now separate the living and the dead.
I have not often thought of her, but neither can I forget.
Her lonely grave is a thousand li distant, I can't say where my wife lies cold.
We could not recognise each other even if we met again,
My face is all but covered with dust, my temples glazed with frost.

In deepest night, a sudden dream returns me to my homeland.
She sits before a little window, and sorts her dress and make-up.
We look at each other without a word, a thousand lines of tears.
Must it be that every year I'll think of that heart-breaking place,
Where the moon shines brightly in the night, and bare pines guard the tomb.
——Su Shi, 蘇軾,《江城子·十年生死兩茫茫》

In the title of this , "Riverside City" is the name of cípái. Su Shi was married when he was 19, and his wife was 16. His wife died when she was only 27. Because of his government duties, Su Shi moved to many different places in China, all far away from his hometown. One night in early 1075, about 10 years after her death, Su Shi dreamed of his wife, then composed this famous .

Famous poets[edit]

Tang Dynasty & Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
Song Dynasty

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Frankel, 216
  2. ^ Davis, lxvii
  3. ^ Zhang, 76-80
  4. ^ "Chinese Pronunciation - Tones". Retrieved 2018-11-20.
  5. ^ "詞牌", 维基百科,自由的百科全书 (in Simplified Chinese), 2018-03-08, retrieved 2018-11-20
  6. ^ "格律", 维基百科,自由的百科全书 (in Simplified Chinese), 2013-08-07, retrieved 2018-11-20
  7. ^ a b "江城子 (苏轼) - 维基文库,自由的图书馆". (in Simplified Chinese). Retrieved 2018-11-20.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kang-i Sun Chang. The evolution of Chinese tz'u poetry from late T'ang to Northern Sung.Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980.
  • Davis, A. R. (Albert Richard), Editor and Introduction,(1970), The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse. (Baltimore: Penguin Books).
  • Frankel, Hans H. (1978). The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) ISBN 0-300-02242-5
  • Marsha Wagner, The lotus boat: origins of Chinese tz'u poetry in T'ang popular culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
  • Zhang, Hongsheng (2002). "Gong Dingzi and the Courtesan Gu Mei: Their Romance and the Revival of the Song Lyric in the Ming-Qing Transition", in Hsiang Lectures on Chinese Poetry, Volume 2, Grace S. Fong, editor. (Montreal: Center for East Asian Research, McGill University).