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2015 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon VI: Classical Chinese Poetic Prosody and Parallel Prose Prosody


At the ICS Luncheon on 30 November 2015, Professor Feng Shengli from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature presented his recent research on Classical Chinese Poetic Prosody and Parallel Prose Prosody.


Feng Shengli

Department of Chinese Language and Literature, CUHK

Professor Feng graduated from the Department of History at Beijing Normal University and the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught language, culture and linguistics for 15 years at the University of Kansas and Harvard University. In 2010, Professor Feng joined the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at CUHK. His research interests include exegesis, historical syntax, prosodic syntax and prosodic poetry. In addition to more than a hundred articles published in academic journals in China and abroad, he has published several books, including Prosody, Morphology and Syntax in Chinese, Prosodic Syntax in Chinese, Prosodic Grammar in Chinese, A Preliminary Theory of Chinese Poetic Prosody, and The Prosodic Syntax of Chinese.


Professor Feng first stated that as a linguist, he studied Chinese poetry and parallel prose (pianwen 駢文/四六文) from a linguistic perspective. He pointed out that Western linguistics has indeed influenced studies of modern linguistics profoundly, but Chinese scholars with an educational background in Chinese language and literature were more often interested in particular issues concerning Chinese language and literature itself. Taking Chinese poetry as an example, the disyllabic line was the earliest poetic form in China. Several issues remain unquestioned: Why did the disyllabic line disappear after the tetrasyllabic line (Shijing) became popular? Why did the tetrasyllabic line appear earlier than the trisyllabic line (Jiaosige)? Why did the pentasyllabic line develop after the trisyllabic line? Why was the trisyllabic line no longer popular after the pentasyllabic line flourished? Why did hexasyllabic poems not appear after the pentasyllabic line? Why was the hexasyllabic line adopted most widely in rhapsodies of the Han Dynasty and parallel prose? Why did the number of syllables in Chinese poems evolve in such an order? According to Professor Feng, these are very valuable research questions to understand the several thousand years of Chinese poetic evolution. He hopes that his own research can serve as a starting point or provide certain primary explanations for further studies of these questions.

Professor Feng talked about the chanting of Chinese poems. Taking the pentasyllabic poem 鋤禾日當午as an example, it seems that the line could either be chanted with three pauses (marked by ‘#’) as 鋤禾#日當#午or one major pause as 鋤禾#日當|午. Similarly, a heptasyllabic line could either be chanted with one major pause as一片|飛花#減卻|春or four pauses as一片#飛花#減卻# 春. From a linguistic perspective, these readings reflect two different metrical patterns.一片#飛花#減卻#春 is a four-metre pattern of 2+2+2+1, whereas 一片|飛花#減卻|春is a twometrical-unit pattern of 4+3.

Professor Feng continued to discuss which way of chanting was closer to ancient people’s intuition of poetic metrics . Pentasyllabic poems first appeared during the late Han, and heptasyllabic poems appeared around the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern dynasties and flourished during the Tang. Professor Qi Gong, a descendant of the Qing royal family and a famous specialist in classical Chinese literature, has written on the prosody and chanting methods of Chinese poems. According to A Full Collection of Qi Gong, Volume I, tetrasyllabic lines should be chanted in two metres. Hexasyllabic lines such as 儼驂騑于上路, 訪風景于崇阿 are also chanted in two metres for each line. The fist character of each metre is not counted. The first character of the first metre is “extra-metrical” (like anacrusis in music), and the first character of the second metre is the extra character in between the two metres. A heptasyllabic line such as 爽籟發 而 清風生 is also chanted in two metres, and the character 而 in the middle is not counted metrically (i.e., not metricalized). Another heptasyllabic line, 落霞 與 孤鶩 齊飛 is chanted in three metres; the character 與 is also not metricalized. Metres are thus not separated according to the number of characters in a poetic line. Function words are usually not counted in metres, and some characters are extra-metrical. Chinese poems are governed by particular prosodic principles. Bianzhao Jingang (774-835), a monk in the Tang Dynasty, talked about Chinese poetic prosody in his Wenjing Mifulun《文鏡秘府論》. He summarised a principle of “two-pause prosody” (兩句律, a pause is used to separate two metrical units): for a trisyllabic line, there is a pause separating the first two charactersthe last character; for a tetrasyllabic line, there is a pause separating the first two characters and the last two characters; for a pentasyllabic line, there is a pause separating the first two characters and the last three characters; for a heptasyllabic line, there is a pause separating he first four characters and the last three characters”. According to Bianzhao Jingang, poem lines of three, four, five and seven syllables are all chanted with one pause, that is, a poetic line is separated into two prosodic units. Bianzhao Jingang’s method of chanting poems reflects the prosodic principle for Chinese poems at the time. In Prosody of New Style Poems and Poetic Language (2000), the renowned contemporary scholar and poet Lin Geng summarises such a principle “half-pause prosody” (半逗律) and notes that a poetic line was “separated into two relatively balanced prosodic units with a metrical pause in between”. He writes: “Based on the principle of ‘half-pause prosody’ and different super-foot units (a standard foot in Chinese is formed by two syllables while a super-foot is formed by three), typical poetic lines of different length are thus formed, and particularly, the super-foot unit always locates at the end of the line”. The reasons for the particular position of the super-foot unit in Chinese poetic lines are still unclear today.

Based on his own studies of Chinese poetic prosody, Professor Feng found that lines of poetry actually follow a principle of natural feet, which means that from left to right, every two characters/syllables form a standard foot and the last odd number character/syllable will join the previous foot and become a super-foot unit at the end. Such a combination of metrical feet results in the prosodic patterns qizheng lü (齊整律, regular metrical pattern), xuancha lü (懸差律, contrasting metrical pattern) and changduan lü (長短律, metrical pattern with long and short feet, or uneven metrical pattern), which form a complete system with different prosodic functions. Different prosodic patterns have different pragmatic functions and literary styles. Qizheng lü (齊整律) represents an elegant and formal style, and xuancha lü (懸差律) often results in a humorous effect. These are the stylistic meanings of prosody; for example, xuancha lü (懸差律) is often used in a kind of “three-and-a-half line poem(三句半)” to create a strongly humorous effect.

Based on the prosodic principles mentioned above, Professor Feng summarised a few characteristics of Chinese poems. According to the principle of “half-line-pause prosody” (半逗律), one poetic line must consist of at least two syllables, therefore monosyllabic poems do not exist, and a disyllabic line is the shortest poetic line and so was the disyllabic lines (二言詩) in pre-archaic Chinese. However, if a foot is formed minimally by two syllables as mentioned above, one syllable cannot stand alone (cannot form a standard foot) in disyllabic lines, which implies that the prosodic systems of archaic Chinese poems must have changed significantly at a certain time. It also proves that tetrasyllabic poems were not developed directly from disyllabic poems because they followed different prosodic systems and rules . The sinologist Angus Charles Graham (1919–1991) noted that Chinese prosody underwent great changes after the time of the West Zhou Dynasty. Disyllabic line poems occurred just before the West Zhou (Graham 1969).

Unlike dialogue, poetry makes use of the musical properties of language, and an intrinsic property of melody is repetition. As a result, musicality and repetition constitute the basic features of poetic language. Poetic language is orderly language with regular repetitions refined from the prosody of colloquial language, and the repetitions result in the rhythm, rhyme and pingze (平仄, level and oblique tones) of poems. Changduan lü (長短律) follows the natural rhythm of speech and develops a prose style. Xuancha lü (懸差律) follows the stressed and unstressed feature of language to create humorous effects.

Professor Feng continued to analyze parallel prose (駢文). He pointed out that parallel prose is a combination of poem and prose. It is not prose, but a form with linguistic features of both prose and poem. Why is parallel prose not a poem? The answer is explained by his student Lu Guanzhong (2013) as follows: “poetic prosody is different from prose prosody. A poetic line consists of two metrical units, but a hexasyllabic line does not meet the requirement. In contrast, prose prosody allows different stresses and lengths within a line, resulting in great varieties”.

At the end of his talk, Professor Feng summarised the minimality condition of poetry-making in traditional Chinese: one syllable cannot form a foot, one foot cannot form a poetic line and one line cannot form a poem, which means: a minimal foot = two syllables; a minimal line = two feet (or two prosodic units); a minimal melodic unit = two lines (a couplet); a minimal poem = two melodic units (a stanza, quatrain or絕句). These are the basic prosodic structures of Chinese poems. From the perspective of prosody, if a line of parallel prose is separated into a 2+2+2 metrical structure, it goes against the principle of “half-line-pause prosody” (半逗律), and if it is chanted in a 2+4 or 4+2 metrical structure, it disrupts the balanced and regular metrical pattern of poetic language. As a result, the poetic effect of hexasyllabic lines is very different from that of pentasyllabic and heptasyllabic lines. This is one of the reasons that hexasyllabic poems have never been popular in classical Chinese literature. The poetic effect of a hexasyllabic line is not strong, but its prose effect is very strong. Many other phenomena in the history of Chinese poetry can be explained from the perspective of prosody, including the questions raised at the beginning of this talk.


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