Chinese Rhymes


Arts & Culture


Everybody who cares anything for old poetry in English knows how it feels—knows how awful it feels—when a poem is rhyming away and then suddenly the rhyme goes off the rails for a second because English pronunciation has changed since the time the poem was written. Take a look at this gallery of specimens.

Exhibit A:

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove

Millions of examples of that. Love rhymed with prove or move. Elizabethan poetry is rife with this.

Exhibit B:

A winning wave, deserving note
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoestring in whose tie
I see a wild civility.

Tie used to be pronounced tee. Read it again and say tee where it says tie. Aha.

Exhibit C:

Leave such to tune their own dull rhymes, and know
What’s roundly smooth or languishingly slow.
And praise the easy vigor of a line
Where Denham’s strength and Waller’s sweetness join.

I don’t know whether Pope pronounced line “loin,” or join “jine.” But it must have been one or the other.

Exhibit D:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Eye was pronounced ee. Read it again.

Now, granted, it is possible to find these sonic derailments attractive, especially if you’re a modern undergraduate who is strongly prejudiced against rhyming poetry in the first place. In cases like that, the young, cutting-edge reader delights to find a surprising splash of “free verse” amid the “stupifying welter of couplets” or whatever. About these students we need say no more. The rest of us, of course, regret the loss of the intended effect.

What does all this have to do with Chinese? Well, if you don’t already know, you could easily guess that the Chinese language—with all its dialects, creoles, sister languages, and God knows what all—has changed a great deal in the last, oh, three thousand years. We have quite a bit of Chinese poetry from way back in there, and if I understand things correctly, the Chinese still like it. A generalization, but I’ll venture it. And indeed, there were centuries wherein one could not even pretend to be educated unless one could recognize at a glance any reference to any of the 305 poems in the oldest Chinese poetry anthology, the Shijing. This, despite the fact that what came out of your mouth when you recited the poems was quite drastically different from what the stuff sounded like when it was composed, a thousand, two thousand years before you got a hold of it. And here we come to the heart of the matter.

You would think that what I’m going to call “rhyme spoilage” would be a constant threat to classical Chinese poetry—and you’d be right. Those examples I gave of rhyme spoilage in English? The oldest specimen up there is about four hundred years old. What would happen if we looked at samples of English rhyming that were five times as old as that? (Which, of course, is impossible, since both the English language and rhyming poetry did not exist in Europe two thousand years ago.) You might think all Zhou dynasty rhymes would have been obliterated by now. But you’re in for a surprise. We’ll just look at one example.

Here is an English translation (by Burton Watson) of one of the most famous poems from the Shijing:

Peach tree young and fresh,
bright bright its blossoms:
this girl’s getting married,
she’ll do well in her home.

Peach tree young and fresh,
plump are its fruits:
this girl’s getting married,
she’ll do well in her rooms.

Peach tree young and fresh,
its leaves lush and full:
this girl’s getting married,
she’ll do right by her people

Here’s the same thing, word for word, according to Michael Fuller:

peach…….’s…….young and vigorous
this…….child…….is on…….going to husband

peach…….’s…….young and vigorous
there is…….plentiful…….its..…..fruit
this…….child…….is on…….going to husband

peach…….’s…….young and vigorous
that…….child…….is on…….going to husband

And here are the last words of each line, with the rhymes in blue bold (don’t worry about the diacriticals; you don’t need to understand those for our purposes here):




Want to hear somebody read the poem aloud in modern Chinese? Click here. Wanna see it written out in Chinese? Click here. And after you’re done screwing around with that, note that the second and third stanzas certainly rhyme just like they’re supposed to—even though the words a modern Chinese person enunciates sound nothing like the original pronunciations of the words.

I have right here in front of me an extraordinarily useful book that just came out from Harvard University Press called An Introduction to Chinese Poetry: From the Canon of Poetry to the Lyrics of the Song Dynasty, by the abovementioned Michael Fuller. There are other books where you can get word-for-word renditions of the poems, but this book also gives you the linguistic reconstruction of the original rhyme sounds, so you can see something about the poems that only a specialist would have been able to see, hitherto.

I, personally, don’t understand the linguistic hieroglyphics that are used here, but I can see what rhymed, and I can also see how different from modern Mandarin the various words were in 1000 B.C.E. For example, second stanza: the modern Chinese rhyme is {shí | shì}; the ancient Chinese rhyme was {*mə.lit | *s.tit}. I don’t know what “*mə.lit” sounds like, but I can tell you one thing it doesn’t sound like: shí. That’s how much the words have changed in three thousand years. Yet—and this is the crazy part—they still rhyme in their new forms. This can only be because all the vowels and the consonants shifted together and consistently, like with the Great Vowel Shift in the Indo-European languages. Or that other thing where all the p’s in Latin show up as f’s in English (pater/father, et cetera).

Meanwhile, in that first stanza, the rhyme looks dicey to me. The pair {huá | jiā}—is that a legit rhyme in Chinese? I can’t help but think it’s not the poet’s desired effect, but it’s hard for me to be sure; I’m out of my depth here. But look, if that particular example is not well chosen, trust me: I could pelt you with hundreds of cases about which there could be no doubt. Like, just opening the Shijing at random, I’m looking at a stanza where the end words are: ē, yōu, , and jiāo. Surely none of those rhyme with each other.

And see, this is where you come in. My questions are: Would it be right to say that a lot of old Chinese poetry has pretty much gone from being perfectly rhymed Robert Frost poems to being weirdly rhymed Emily Dickinson poems? As in:

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow
It is a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through

And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared

… and so on. Is that what we’re looking at? What I really mean is: Do modern Chinese-poetry enthusiasts have to develop a taste for Dickinson-style rhyming? And if so, is that fun for them? Or what.

Or put it this way: Does rhyme spoilage—spoil anything for them?

Here’s my other question. If I understand the thing, medieval (not ancient) Chinese poets intentionally used superannuated rhymes all the time in their stuff, based simply on the authority of the ancient classics. In other words, there were pairs of words that they considered good rhymes, despite the fact that the words did not rhyme to them, and indeed had not rhymed to anybody in a thousand years or whatever. It’s sorta like W. H. Auden doing this in 1939:

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Empties of its poetry.

But that was a stunt. Yeats was emptied of his poetry ’cuz he was dead, and that rhyme {lie | poetry} is “dead,” too, get it? But who in the world would deliberately use dead rhymes not to make a point but simply based on the reasoning, Well it was good enough for the ancients, so it’s good enough for me—? The answer to that question is apparently zillions of Tang- and Song-dynasty poets. So my question #2 is: What’s up with that? How can they possibly have done this? It just seems so, so counterintuitive …

Right now there are people reading these very words who know—who truly know—the answers to these questions. So I’m going to go ahead and announce a very exciting conference that is to be held in my gmail inbox. We are looking for papers that would speak to the two questions, above. As with all conferences, cranks and mental defectives are welcome. Here is my email. Now, I want to emphasize: I don’t know Chinese, I don’t wanna hear a lot of personal narrative, I don’t have all day. The conference is beginning right now. Here is your lanyard. Start talking, expert.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.