A Brief Explanation of Lyric Poetry (詞, 사)

Imperial Compilation of Lyric Poetry Rubrics (Ctext)

Imperial Compilation of Lyric Poetry Rubrics (欽定詞譜, 흠정사보) (Source)


Various genres of Classical Chinese poetry are associated with various eras of Chinese history. Lyric Poetry or Ci (詞, 사) is synonymous with the Song dynasty (宋, 송, 960-1279) as the genre reached its apogee then (and entered Korea). This form, however, was first developed during the Tang dynasty (唐, 당, 618-907) from an earlier form of Chinese poetry known as Music Bureau Poetry (樂府, 악부). Like its predecessor, Lyric Poetry was originally lyrics fit into actually sung tunes. The process of matching characters to the tune is referred to as “filling the lyrics (塡詞, 전사).” Over the ages, the music for the tunes were lost, but the lyrics remained and became the basis for future poems in the genre. Other names for Lyric Poetry include “Other than a Poem” (詩餘, 시여), “Long-Short Verses” (長短句, 장단구), “Relying on Tones” (依聲, 의성), and “Tune” (曲子, 곡자), among many others.

Form & Structure

All Lyric Poetry follow rubrics (詞牌, 사패) with tune titles (詞調, 사조) that specify the number of characters in total (句數, 구수), number of characters per verse (字數, 자수), rime for each line (押韻, 압운), and tone for each character (平仄, 평측 or 聲, 성). Tunes shorter than 58 characters are known as “Xiaoling” (小令, 소령), between 59 and 90 “Medium Melodies” (調, 중조), and beyond “Long Melodies” (長調, 장조) or “Gentle Songs” (慢詞, 만사). Furthermore, in contrast to Recent Style Poetry (近體詩, 근체시) that also developed during the Tang dynasty, the lines of Lyric Poetry can be of uneven length. One line can have anywhere between one to nine characters, with lines ranging from three to seven characters being the most common. In addition, its tones are much more variable than Recent Style Poetry. Note that there are four tones in Classical Chinese: plain tone (平聲, 평성), rising tone (上聲, 상성), departing tone (去聲, 거성), and entering tone (入聲, 입성), the last three of which are collectively referred to as oblique tones (仄聲, 측성). In Lyric Poetry, lines can end in multiple, differing rimes (換韻, 환운 or 叶韻, 협운), including oblique tone rimes (仄韻, 측운). Some rubrics also go beyond identifying whether a character is to be plain or oblique tone and particularize whether the character is to be plain, rising, departing, or entering tone. Poets, however, were a bit more flexible, often employing near rimes (通韻, 통운) and making slight modifications in the number of characters per line.

The Imperial Compilation of Lyric Poetry Rubrics, compiled during the reign of the Qing Dynasty’s Kangxi Emperor (康熙帝, 강희제, 1654-1722, r. 1661-1722), lists 826 tunes (調, 조) with 2306 variations (體, 체) in total for Lyric Poetry rubrics. As an example, the tune for Thinking of the Handmaiden’s Tenderness (念奴嬌, 염노교) is specified as the following:

雙調一百字, 前後段各十句, 四仄韻

Two verses with one hundred characters. Former and latter verses are each ten lines with four oblique rimes. (“O” can be either plain or oblique.)



The famous Song dynasty poet Su Shi (蘇軾, 소식 1037-1101) composed a Lyric Poem to this tune with slight tweaks.


To the Tune of Thinking of the Handmaiden’s Tenderness (Nian Nujiao):
Remembering the Battle of Red Cliffs

大江東去 대강동거 仄平平仄
浪淘盡 千古風流人物 랑도진 천고풍류인물 仄平仄 平仄平平平仄(韻)
故壘西邊 고루서변 仄仄平平
人道是 三國周郞赤壁 인도시 삼국주랑적벽 平仄仄 平仄平平仄仄(韻)
亂石崩雲 란석붕운 仄仄平平
驚濤裂岸 경도렬안 平平仄仄
捲起千堆雪 권기천퇴설 仄仄平平仄(韻)
江山如畵 강산여화 平平平仄
一時多少豪傑 일시다소호걸 仄平平仄平仄(韻)

The great river flows away to the east,
Its waves billowing, washing away the thousands of ancient honorable figures.
Upon the old citadel’s western bank,
People recall the Three Kingdom’s Zhou Yu (周瑜, 주유, 172-210) and Red Cliffs:
Boulders broke into the clouds and
Raging waves tore into the shores,
Rolling up thousands of heaps as though snow.
The rivers and mountains were as if a painting:
All at once, a number of heroic men.

遙想公瑾當年 요상공근당년 平仄平仄平平
小喬初嫁了 소교초가료 仄平平平仄
雄姿英發 웅자영발 平平平仄(韻)
羽扇綸巾 우선륜건 仄仄平平
談笑閒 强虜灰飛煙滅 담소한 강로회비연멸 平仄平 平仄平平平仄(韻)
故國神游 고국신유 仄仄平平
多情應笑我 다정응소아 平平仄仄仄
早生華髮 조생화발 仄平平仄(韻)
人間如夢 인간여몽 平平平仄
一尊還酹江月 일준환뢰강월 仄平平仄平仄(韻)

From a far, think of Gongjin that very year,
After he first married Xiao Qiao (小喬, 소교),
His gallant pose and his valiant radiance.
With a feathered fan, a silk-thread hood,
And levity of chattery laughter, his mighty foes turned into fluttering ashes and dispersed smoke.
To the old country, my spirit journeys;
Many sentiments indeed make me laugh,
With my early life and my graying hair.
Mankind is as if a dream:
One goblet of wine is again poured onto the river’s moonlight.

  • Gongjin (公瑾, 공근) is Zhou Yu’s courtesy name (字, 자).
  • Xiao Qiao (小喬, 소교, ?) was Zhou Yu’s wife.
  • This poem employs near rimes, all of which are in the entering tone, not present in Mandarin. The riming characters are: 物(물), 壁(벽), 雪(설), 傑(걸), 發(발), 滅(멸), 髮(발), and 月(월). The character 物 falls under the riming character 物(물). The character 壁 is the most divergent from the other riming characters, as it has a /-k/ (ㄱ) terminal consonant and falls under the riming character 錫(석). The character 雪 falls under the riming character 屑(설). The remaining characters 傑, 滅, 髮, and 月 fall under the riming character 月(월).
  • Korean translation available here.

Additional Sources:

  1. 廣東師傅L said:

    The line 一尊還酹江月 where you rendered 尊 as 준 as opposed to 존 is very fitting, because it implies 樽(준).

    One thing to note:
    故壘西邊 고루서변, where you render 壘 as 루. Not being Korean, I have a propensity to pronounce it as 뢰, following the Cantonese dictionary…
    The only example it gives as reading it as 루, is for the name of the 문신 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Door_god) 鬱壘(우루). There are probably other examples, it’s interesting the Koreans tend to pronounce it as 루 over 뢰. But this is just another issue that Chinese has. A couple months ago, a friend and I were arguing about when to pronounce 車 as 차 or 거 depending on the phrases.

    And a final question:
    羽扇綸巾 (우선륜건): I always have trouble with transforming the initial ㄹ to either ㅇ or ㄴ, of a Sino-word but in 표준말, I’ve been told it should be pronounced “우선윤건”.

    • 歸源 said:

      Thank you for noting the typos. I have corrected them.

      As for 壘 , While the Naver’s Hanja dictionary lists 뢰 as a pronunciation, it does not list any word that uses that pronunciation. It is interesting you mention the different pronunciations of 車. In some southern Korean dialects, the word for bicycle, 自轉車 is pronounced 자전차, not 자전거 as in standard Korean.

      Under the Initial Sound Rule (頭音法則, 두음법칙), it should be 윤건 as you can break the phrase into two words. But I (following other Korean authors) tend to not comply with this rule when transcribing Classical Chinese. For example, I transcribed 浪淘盡 as 랑도진 instead of 낭도진, even though 浪 appears at the beginning.

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