Song Ci in China
Song Ci 词 lyric in China is very different from the older shi 诗 type. Today we will introduce some basic knowledge about Song Ci.
Today the term ci simply means "word". While the older shi lyric - whose apogee is often placed in the Tang period 唐 (618-907) can be read without minding the underlying melodies - even if there existed some underlying melodies - ci poetry must be seen as written songs. Most of the poems do not even have a distinct title but are named after an original melody. Composers and writers used this melody to write a new poem that could be sung to the original famous melody or tune pattern (cipai 词牌), a technique called contrafactury. This is the reason why we often see the same title for a ci poem, like Dielianhua 蝶恋花 "Butterflies love blossoms", Mantingfang 满庭芳 "Scent fills the hall", or Yu meiren 虞美人 "Lady Yu". There are more than 800 tune patterns known. But the melodies of all of them are lost. That means that an expert is only able to tell the underlying tune pattern by an analysis of the verse length, the tone pitches of the particular syllables, and the rhymes.
Ci lyric emerged already during the Tang dynasty in response to the popularity of foreign musical tunes imported from Inner Asia. Already the outer shape of the ci lyric is apparently different to the shi style poetry: the verses have different length, while in a shi style poems all verses have the same length of 5, 7, or seldom 6, syllables. The early ci writers of the 9th century wanted to meet the needs of singing girls in the entertainment quarters in the lower Yangtse area and composed poems to well-known melodies. The most famous ci poets of Tang period are Wen Tingyun 温庭筠 (d. 870) and the last king of the Southern Tang (Nantang 南唐, 937-975), Li Yu 李煜 (r. 961-975, d. 978). Yet the apogee of ci lyric was the Song period 宋 (960-1279). Under the the influence of the great writer Su Shi 苏轼 (d. 1101) the ci poem began to free itself from its musical background and became primarily a literary creation. The poet did not know any more the underlying melody of the poem. During the Song period two different styles of ci poetry developed, the haofang 豪放 "heroic abandon", and the wanyue 婉约 "delicate restraint". Like shi poetry was still in use during the Song period, ci lyric was written all through the ages. It became again very popular during the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) as a very refined style of poetry. Even the communist dictator Mao Zedong 毛泽东 is considered having been a great ci poet - although his poetry is publicly known as shi.