Why poetry should enter into your Chinese language learning arsenal
Poetry can seem pretty dry and you might ask why you should learn Chinese with poetry when you could just watch Chinese TV. However, the Chinese poetic tradition is not only over 2,000 years old with roots in the 1st millennium BC, it also forms and informs the core of Chinese scholasticism and the Chinese language. Starting with the Book of Songs / Poetry (诗经) in c. 900BC, a core group of poems has been canonicalized within Chinese education system. Even today Chinese speakers old and young worldwide can recite the most famous poems from Chinese history by heart.
If you’ve ever wondered where many of the 4-character long chengyu you’ve encountered come from, the answer is often poetry. These bite sized pieces of art are one of the most efficient ways to elevate your language studies. Memorize a poem today and slowing and unconsciously gain insights into the Chinese for years to come. Language is inseparable from culture and context and by studying these poems you are going to the heart of Chinese culture and exploring the language in one of the most revealing contexts.
How to study Chinese poetry
Mandarin Study Guide is not a proponent of rote memorization. Language is not static and fixed, but alive and constantly changing. As such, language learning should be centered around developing a language sense and the ability to flexibly apply the vocabulary and sentence structures that you’ve studied. All this being said, Chinese poetry is meant to be memorized. Studying Chinese poetry moves beyond simple language learning and into the realm of cultural studies. To do this justice you need to memorize you poems.
Yes, this will obviously help you language studies and likely why you are memorizing Chinese poems in the first place. But, to get the most our of your poetry studies you should memorize these works in full AND read secondary works about these works and their importance in Chinese history. For memorization try writing the poem by hand 5 to 10 times, relying on the text less and less each time. After this initial learning phase, Anki cloze deletion cards are a great way to prevent yourself from forgetting the poem(s) you’ve just studied.
When learning Chinese with poetry you also need to focus on the deeper and hiding meanings within the text. Translation critiques in particular are very useful in identifying and studying depths to the poem in the Chinese language that you may overlook as a non-native speaker. This is the richness that is lost in translation and the site where you can most efficiently develop your Chinese language sense.
At the end of the day, if you are asked to produce an essay or other piece of writing in Chinese nothing is more impressive than a well placed poetry line / verse. Confucius and Li Bai have carried the Mandarin Study Guide team through their academic and professional writing obligations.
Resources for studying Chinese poetry
If all of this excites you are really serious about making poetry a part of your studies then you should get Chinese Poems for Students of Chinese: Volume 1. The book presents 28 Chinese poems in an accessible form; full translations, pinyin for every character, and English sections with insights on the poets and historical background are included for every piece.
There are also tons of free resources online for studying Chinese poetry. Chinese-Poems is a great option with lots of English translations for classical Chinese poetry. Unfortunately, the website does not translate on a character by character basis and doesn’t contextualize the pieces. It is still pretty rare to find Chinese text + English translation + secondary scholarship all in one place for a poem online. You don’t need Chinese Poems for Students of Chinese: Volume 1 if you want to regularly use poetry to learn Chinese – it just makes things a lot easier.
Quiet Night Thought 《静夜思》by Li Bai (李白)
If you are studying Chinese poetry for the first time, then《静夜思》is THE poem to study. This is one of the first poems taught to Chinese children and is arguably the most famous Chinese poem. Li Bai, the poem’s author, has been recognized from his own time (701 – 762) during the Tang Dynasty until today as a poetic genius. His poetry elevates everyday and mundane occurrences – in the ordinary, Li Bai reveals beauty. Quiet Night Thought draws from Li Bai’s personal experiences as a Confucian scholar detached from his hometown. Looking at moonlight – cast in his room and all of China – he misses home. As a shi poem, Quiet Night Though has a single quatrain with five-character regulated verses and a AABA rhyme scheme.
Moonlight before my bed
Perhaps frost on the ground.
Lift my head and see the moon
Lower my head and I miss my home.
Breaking the poem down by parts
On the surface level the poem is almost immediately understandable. Li bai begins by going to bed, but finding himself unable to sleep. He looks at the moonlight on his floor and wonders if the frost arrived early this year. Then, he sits up (likely moves to the window) and raises his head to gaze at the moon. Finally, he lowers his head lost in thoughts about his hometown.
On a second read, one cannot escape the Confucian themes infusing the work; displaying deep filially, Li Bai centers the work around family. Looking to the moon, a Chinese symbol of family reunion, he thinks of his home – currently lit by the same moonlight. As he raises his head to the sky, the moon lower’s its head to cast light upon his hometown (and at the foot of his bed as expressed at the start of the poem), suggesting perhaps that filial duty and family is with us wherever the moon shines. For a more in-depth analysis and line by line notes you should read Translation Critique – On Five English Translations of Li Bai’s Poem “Jingyesi.”
明月 = (míng yuè) moon
光 = (guāng) light
举 = (jǔ) raise
低 = (dī) lower
头 = (tóu) head
故乡 = (gù xiāng) hometown
Putting it all together
明月光 = (míng yuè guāng)moonlight
举头 = (jǔ tóu) raise head
低头 = (dī tóu) lower head
Let us know in the comments below if you’d like us to make a Chinese lesson on for a specific poem. Or if poetry isn’t for you, but you’re still looking for ways to study Chinese outside of just using textbook and flashcards, then you should check our MSG’s weekly Chinese music playlists and lessons on learning Mandarin via music. Like always, if you enjoyed this post please make sure to share it, pin it, or tweet it!