The History of Chinese Poetry

Traditional Chinese Poetry is very similar to Western poetry.  Lines in Chinese poetry may have a fixed number of syllables and rhyme was required, so ancient Chinese poetry resembles traditional English verse and is not at all like the free verse in today’s Western culture.

Modern Chinese poets have written in free verse, but many still write with a strict form.

In the end, the form is not as important as what the poem says. Western poetry often focuses on love while painting an image of the poet as a lover.

Influenced by Confucius and Taoism, the ancient Chinese poet shows he or she is a friend—not a lover and often paints a picture of a poet’s life as a life of leisure without ambitions beyond writing poetry and having a good time.

According to legend, this Chinese poet killed himself to protest the corruption of the time, and it is said that the Dragon Boat Festival was named to honor his sacrifice.

By Qu Yuan (332-295 B.C.)

We grasp our battle-spears: we don our breastplates of hide.
The axles of our chariots touch: our short swords meet.
Standards obscure the sun: the foe roll up like clouds.
Arrows fall thick: the warriors press forward.
They menace our ranks: they break our line.
The left-hand trace-horse is dead: the one on the right
is smitten.
The fallen horses block our wheels: they impede the

Translated by Arthur Waley 1919

Note: The translation process from Mandarin to English would insure that the fixed number of syllables and rhyme required  of a traditional Chinese poem in its original language would not survive, but the contextual meaning should.

Discover China’s Holistic Historical Timeline


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

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China’s Holistic Historical Timeline

7 Responses to The History of Chinese Poetry

  1. […] Chinese Poetry is similar to Western poetry.  Lines in Chinese poetry may have a fixed number of syllables and […]

  2. Carmelo B. Mack says:

    Within this form of poetry the most important variations are “folk song” styled verse ( yuefu ), “old style” verse ( gushi ), “modern style” verse ( jintishi ). In all cases, rhyming is obligatory. The Yuefu is a folk ballad or a poem written in the folk ballad style, and the number of lines and the length of the lines could be irregular. For the other variations of shi poetry, generally either a four line (quatrain, or jueju ) or else an eight line poem is normal; either way with the even numbered lines rhyming. The line length is scanned by according number of characters (according to the convention that one character equals one syllable), and are predominantly either five or seven characters long, with a caesura before the final three syllables. The lines are generally end-stopped, considered as a series of couplets, and exhibit verbal parallelism as a key poetic device.

  3. vivien says:



  4. chennicole2013 says:

    It’s amazing to think that his poetry has lasted for more than 2000 years.

    • Not just his poetry but the work of many other poets has been kept alive through China’s publishing industry. My wife brought back more than one book with ancient Chinese poetry in both Mandarin with English translations. That’s where I found the poem I used in this post. There were a lot of poets from different dynasties to choose from but I thought his story was more compelling.

      The world’s first movable type printing technology was invented and developed in China by the Han Chinese printer Bi Sheng between the years 1041 and 1048 compared to the West where the printing press didn’t appear for another four hundred years or more.

      Maybe the idea behind the printing press that mass produced the Gutenberg Bible came from someone visiting China.

      I’ve had debates with Sinophobes that claim innovation can’t take place in a culture ruled by an authoritarian government like China’s. I cannot agree. The evidence—paper, the compass, the stirrup, gun powder, the first rockets, the printing press, etc. were all invented first in China—says otherwise. Even the arts seem to flourish under authoritarian rule.

      After all, in the West it was Nazi Germany that invented the U2 Rocket; the jet engine (and much more) and German scientists who were recruited after World War II helped the US during the space race.

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