Overview of the Rules of Classical Chinese Poetry

Shigyeong - Gukpung

Classic of Poetry (詩經, 시경) – Airs of States (國風, 국풍) (Source)


Since most of the posts on this blog are translations of Classical Chinese poetry (漢詩, 한시), I thought it would be beneficial to briefly outline forms and the tonal meters. Most of what is written in this post I gathered from a book I reviewed awhile ago and on various Korean blogs. For the sake of brevity, I will be glossing over some of the minute details. There are tomes written about this subject.

Overview of Poetic Forms

Classical Chinese Poetic Forms

Classical Chinese poetic form (詩體, 시체) can be generally broken down into two categories: (1) archaic style poetry (古體詩, 고체시) and (2) recent style poetry (近體詩, 근체시). These categories have their own characteristics and can be further broken down into subcategories.

1. Archaic Style Poetry (古體詩, 고체시)

The most tale-telling indicator of archaic style poetry is the lack of strict adherence to form or rime. The term “archaic” in archaic style poetry is a bit of a misnomer, as there were plenty of archaic style poems written after recent style poetry was developed. Archaic style poems can have a varying number of lines and number of syllables per line (雜言, 잡언). To the extent an archaic style poem follows even a riming scheme, it uses near rimes (通韻, 통운) and may use oblique tones as rimes (仄韻, 측운). Other miscellaneous characteristics include the repetition of same character often throughout the poem, a trait not seen too often in recent style poetry.

2. Recent Style Poetry (近體詩, 근체시)

Recent style poetry first developed during the Southern and Northern Dynasties Period (南北朝時代, 남북조시대, 420-589) and fully formed during the middle period of the Tang Dynasty in the 8th and 9th centuries. In contrast to archaic style poetry, recent style poetry is marked by strict adherence to form. They are typically either quartets (絶句, 절구) or octets (律詩, 율시). Some are “extended regulation” poems (排律, 배율), which are extended versions of either quartets or octets and are typically 12 lines. For each line, recent style poems are either pentasyllabic (五言, 오언) or heptasyllabic (七言, 칠언). There is also a strict tonal meter of plain and oblique tones, and a riming scheme. With quartets and octets, there are additional rules regarding how the content should progress within the poem. The rest of this post will focus on the rules of recent style poetry.

Tonal Meter in Recent Style Poetry (平仄原則, 평측원칙)

For the purposes of this explanation, I will use the following, widely used notation. The basic rules are stated in terms of heptasyllablic poems, but can be generalized to pentasyllabic poems.

○ Plain tone (平聲, 평성)
● Oblique tone (仄聲, 측성)
◐ Preferably oblique tone, plain tone allowed
◑ Preferably plain tone, oblique tone allowed
◎ Rime (押韻, 압운)

1. Second and Sixth Syllables Should Be the Same; Second and Fourth Should Be Different (二六對, 이륙대; 二四不同, 이사불동)

The second, fourth, and sixth syllables of a heptasyllabic poem set the rhythm (節奏點, 절주점) in each line. In fact, a heptasyllabic line is meant to be read and interpreted in 2-2-3. (Rarely is it 3-2-2.) Under this rule, the second and sixth syllable should be of the same tone. In contrast, the second and fourth characters should be of different tones. For example, if the second syllable is of a plain tone (○), the fourth syllable should be oblique (●) and the sixth syllable should be again plain (○).  The first phrase in this rule is sometimes called 二六同(이륙동).

2. Over First, Third, and Fifth Syllables, Do Not Argue; Second, Fourth, and Sixth Syllables Must Be Certain (一三五不論, 일삼오불론; 二四六分明, 이사륙분명)

As for the other syllables, typically the first, third, and fifth syllables of each line follow the tone as the syllable respectively after each. They are, however, not strictly restricted in terms of which tone they have to be. Hence, “do not argue” (不論, 불론). On the other hand, the second, fourth, and sixth syllables cannot be changed. An exemplary line that complies with this rule is  雪花遣霰作前鋒(설화견산작전봉) (●○●●●○◎). In this example, the first syllable is an oblique tone, even though the second syllable is a plain tone.

3. Unaccompanied Plain Tones and Unaccompanied Oblique Tones Should Be Avoided (避孤平孤仄, 피고평고측)

A plain tone syllable that follows and comes before oblique tone syllables is called an unaccompanied plain tone (孤平, 고평). An oblique tone syllable that follows and comes before plain tone syllables is called an unaccompanied oblique tone (孤仄, 고측). Generally, unaccompanied plain and oblique tones should be avoided for the second, fourth, and sixth syllables in each line, because it is considered to break the rhythm and flow of the poem. This rule is not strictly followed, however, as it is not uncommon to see unaccompanied oblique tones in Classical Chinese poems. With Korean Classical Chinese poets, the rule was more strictly followed for the second syllable in a heptasyllabic poem and the fourth syllable in a pentasyllablic poem.

4. Last Three Syllables Should Not Be the Same Tone (下三連, 하삼련)

To have the last three syllables of a line (下三字, 하삼자) be of the same tone is thought to break the rhythm of the poem. As such, the last three syllables should not be of the same tone. It is, however, relatively more acceptable to have the last three syllables with oblique tones (下三仄, 하삼측) than with plain tones (下三平, 하삼평). For example, in a heptasyllabic line, ○○●●● is more acceptable than ○○○●●. Korean Classical Chinese poets adhered strictly to this rule, and avoided both having the last three syllable be of the same tone.

5. Inversion and Adhesion Rule (反粘法, 반점법)

This rule deals with the tonal meter between each line within a couplet and in the two lines between two couplets. The inversion rule (反法, 반법) applies to the two lines within a couplet, and specifies that the second, fourth, and sixth syllable of the two lines be of different tones. For example, if the first line is ○○●●●○◎, then the second line should be  ●●○○●●◎. The adhesion rule (粘法, 점법 or 簾法, 염법) applies to the two adjacent lines between two couplets, and specifies that the second, fourth, and sixth syllable of the two lines be of the same tone. For example, if the second line of the first couplet is ○○●●●○◎, then the first line of the second couplet should be ○○●●○○●. Poems that do not follow the adhesion rule are said to have “adhesion loss” (失粘, 실점 or 失簾, 실렴). Such poems are common in earlier recent style poems from the 5th to 8th centuries.

6. Riming Scheme (押韻, 압운)

In recent style poems, all rimes are plain tone. For pentasyllabic poems, the second and fourth lines end with a rime. For heptasyllabic poems, the first, second, and fourth lines end with a rime, though it is possible to not have the first line with a rime.

Summary of Recent Style Poetry Tonal Meter

To summarize, the following are the possible tonal meters under the rules. For pentasyllabic quartets (五言絶句, 오언절구) and octets (五言律詩, 오언율시), it is more common to start with an oblique tone (仄起式, 측기식). For heptasyllabic quartets (七言絶句, 칠언절구) and octets (七言律詩, 칠언율시), it is more common to start with a plain tone (平起式, 평기식).

Jeolgu Summary

Oeon Yulshi Summary

Chileon Yulshi Summary

Rules on Content

In addition, there are rules regarding the content in recent style poetry. There are separate rules for quartets and octets.

Begin, Continue, Develop, Conclude (起承轉結, 기승전결)

This rule applies to quartets, and refers to the general progression of the theme through each line of the poem. Under this rule, the first line is supposed to introduce the theme of the poem (起, 기), the second is supposed to continue or add (承, 승), the third is supposed to change, develop, or climax (轉, 전), and the fourth and final is supposed to conclude (結, 결). This is a relatively simple rule.

Couplet Pair Rule (對偶法, 대우법)

The couplet pair rule applies to the middle two (second and third) couplets of octets. Under this rule, within the couplet, each character of the first line is supposed to be an opposing pair (對偶, 대우) with the respective character in the second line. This rule can be satisfied a number of ways, typically with the characters of same genre or kind. Take for instance the couplet  雨中黃葉樹 / 燈下白頭人(우중황엽수 / 등하백두인) (“In the rain, a yellow leaved tree / Beneath the lamp, a white haired man”). The first characters of each line are inanimate objects, namely the rain (雨, 우) and the lamp (燈, 등). The second characters refer to a position, amid (中, 중) and beneath (下, 하). The third characters are colors, yellow (黃, 황) and white (白, 백). The fourth characters are appendages, the leaves (葉, 엽) and head (頭, 두). The fourth characters are living objects, the tree (樹, 수) and the person (人, 인). There are many other possible pairings.

Appendix – Rime Table


Rimes are important in Classical Chinese poetry. The pronunciation of a Chinese character can be divided into two parts: (1) the initial consonant, referred to as Seongmo (聲母, 성모) and (2) the rime, which consists of the medial vowel and the final consonant, referred to as Unmo (韻母, 운모). All rimes fall into one of 106 rimes, as seen in the Riming Table above. 30 of these rimes are of the plain tone (平聲, 평성); 29 are of the rising tone (上聲, 상성); 30 are of the departing tone (去聲, 거성); and 17 are of the entering tone (入聲, 입성). These last three tones are classified collectively as the oblique tone (仄聲, 측성).

  1. setohj said:

    Bravo! This is an excellent and helpful post. I will find myself coming back to it often. Thank you.

    • 歸源 said:

      Thank you. I would note that there does seem to some minor differences in rules. For example, the book noted that 下三連 is strictly followed in Korea but not so in other countries. A Korean blog I read noted that it was strictly followed for civil service exams.

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