Chinese Literature - Poetry - Ancient Poetry
In China "poetic education" in the original meaning is learning The Book of Songs. This is the first comprehensive anthology of Chinese poems including 305 poems of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 B.C.). It was originally called Shi (Poems) and Shi Sanbai (Three Hundred Poems). Each poem in The Book of Songs was set to music and could be sung. The compilers classified the 305 poems into folk songs, ceremonial songs, and sacrificial songs, according to their contents and the style of the music. Folk songs, which were popular among the people, made up the best part of The Book of Songs, while ceremonial songs and sacrificial songs were used mainly on sacrificial or ceremonial occasions to eulogize the merits and virtues of the Son of Heaven and of his forefathers.
Confucius (551 B.C. - 479 B.C.), a great philosopher and educator was very fond of The Book of Songs. He used to recite the poems from time to time, and used it as a textbook for his pupils. In the Han Dynasty, The Book of Songs was formally accepted as a classic of the Confucian school, called Shi Jing. The Book of Songs has over a long period of times been highly appreciated, and has exerted a profound and far-reaching influence on the development of Chinese literature, especially that of poetry, over a period of more than 2000 years. It has also served as important historical data for the study of ancient China from the early years of the Western Zhou Dynasty to the Spring and Autumn Period.
By the 4th century B.C. China's boundaries had expanded to include the vast area of the Yangtze river valley, where the strong State of Chu became even stronger. This region is very fertile and the life of the inhabitants was more highly developed than that of the northern people. They produced their own type of song, a representative collection of which was compiled under the name of the Chuci (楚辭 Songs of Chu). The songs in this collection are more lyrical and romantic. The style is different from that of The Book of Songs. It is called "poetic prose of Chu", or "the Sao style", in the history of Chinese literature. The representative poet is Qu Yuan (ca. 340-278 B.C.) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century B.C.).
In the following literary history, there were certain periods which were dominated by one distinctive predominant literary genre, such as fu (descriptive prose interspersed with verse) during the Han Dynasty, poetry in Tang, Ci poetry (a special poetic form) of Song and qu (singing verse) of Yuan.
During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), the Chu lyrics evolved into the fu (賦), a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers.
The Han was a period of cultural flowering. A poetic form that became the norm for creative writing, began to flourish. Emperor Wu created a music bureau, called "yuefu", 乐府, in Chinese, specially to collect and record ceremonial chants, but also the songs and ballads of ordinary people. Collected by the Han Music Bureau "Yuefu", many of these songs are anonymous, but also men of letters wrote these tunes, folk ballads, many of them are very narrative. Later, during the Eastern Han, poems with five characters to a line in imitation of the yuefu style appeared. The employment of five characters to the line was found to be a more rewarding measure, permitting a smoother and more melodious effect and the evocation of subtler human feelings.
The yue fu began to develop into shi or classical poetry- the form which was to dominate Chinese poetry until the modern era.These poems have five or seven character lines, with a caesura before the last three characters of each line. They are divided into the original gushi (old poems) and jintishi, a stricter form developed in the Tang dynasty with rules governing tone patterns and the structure of the content. The greatest writers of gushi and jintishi are often held to be Li Bai and Du Fu respectively. The Tang Dynasty was a period of great radiance in literary creation and was especially noted for poetry writing, for which it has been dubbed the golden age of poetry, a predominant genre among all literary forms popular with both the rulers and the populace for about 300 years. There had emerged during this period of time a considerable number of brilliant poets and outstanding poetic compositions.
Towards the end of the Tang dynasty, the ci lyric became more popular. Most closely associated with the Song dynasty, ci most often expressed feelings of desire, often in an adopted persona, but the greatest exponents of the form (such as Li Houzhu and Su Shi) used it to address a wide range of topics.
As the ci gradually became more literary and artificial after Song times, the san qu, a freer form, based on new popular songs, developed. The use of san qu songs in drama marked an important step in the development of vernacular literature.
After the Song dynasty, both shi poems and lyrics continued to be composed until the end of end of the imperial period, and to a lesser extent to this day. However, for a number of reasons, these works have always been less highly regarded than those of the Tang dynasty in particular. Firstly, Chinese literary culture remained in awe of its predecessors: in a self-fulfilling prophecy, writers and readers both expected that new works would not bear comparison with the earlier masters. Secondly, the most common response of these later poets to the tradition which they had inherited was to produce work which was ever more refined and allusive; the resulting poems tend to seem precious or just obscure to modern readers. Thirdly, the increase in population, expansion of literacy, wider dissemination of works through printing and more complete archiving vastly increased the volume of work to consider and made it difficult to identify and properly evaluate those good pieces which were produced. Finally, this period saw the rise of vernacular literature, particularly drama and novels, which increasingly became the main means of cultural expression.
From http://www.china-guide.com/culture/poetry.html (modified)
If you are interested in the English translation of Tang poetry, I'll give you more information about that next time.