Beginning in Tang Dynasty (618~907), new music from Central Asia began entering China and soon became all the rage at the cosmopolitan Tang court and in Tang urban culture. From the lyrics set to this so-called banquet music (言乐, yanyue), there arose a new poetic genre, the ci (词), “song lyric”. The ci poems were written into hundreds of tune patterns, each of which strictly determined by the number of characters per line, the placement of rhymes, and the position of tones. Originally the ci were actually sung to these tunes, but eventually the tunes themselves were lost, and all that remained were the hundreds of ci patterns (词牌 cipai) with their many variations. To this day, one speaks of “filling in the words” to a song lyric (填词, tian ci) according to the matrix associated with its tune title.
This genre developed into a major alternative to traditional shi (诗) poetry during the Song Dynasty, when it is traditionally thought to have reached its height. In the famous ci poem “The Beautiful Lady Yu”, Southern Song Dynasty (1127~1279) poet Jiang Jie (c.1245~1310) tells his life story. The poem, which is commonly known as “Listening to the Rain” (听雨 Ting Yu), poignantly and powerfully calls attention to the different emotions at stages of the poet’s life, set against the sameness of nature. While nature seems to eternally repeat itself in a predictable way, human life can never really repeat itself in a predictable way. Human life can never really repeat itself without noticeable change, not even in such a seemingly innocuous act as listening to the rain. In fact, it is precisely the sameness of nature and the seeming sameness of the poet’s habit of listening to the rain that trigger his deepest pathos about the vicissitudes of life.
English translation by Xu Yuanchong
The Beautiful Lady Yu
While young, I listened to the rain in house of song.
Beside a candle red,
In silken-curtained bed.
In prime of life I heard the rain on river long
Beneath the cloud where wailed wiled wild geese
In western breeze.
Now that I listen to the rain in temple’s cell,
My hair bespeckled well.
Men meet and part with joy and sorrow.
Let raindrops drip until the morrow!
English translation by Joseph Needham
The Beautiful Lady Yu
As a young man, listening to the girls in the tower,
I heard the sound of the rain,
While the red candle burned dim in the damp air.
In middle age, traveling by boat on a river,
I listened to the rain falling, falling:
The river was wide and clouds drifted above;
I heard the solitary cry of a teal borne on the west wind.
And now in a cloister cell I hear the rain again,
My hair is grey and sparse;
Sadness, and happiness, separation and reunion, all seem one,
They move me no more.
Let the rain drop all night on the deserted pavement
Till the day dawns.
Original text in Simplified Chinese
Xu Yuanchong. (2007). Three hundred Ci of the Song Dynasty. China Translation and Publishing Company.
Cecile Chu-chin Sun. (2011). The Poetics of Repetition in English and Chinese Lyric Poetry. University of Chicago Press.
Zong-qi Cai. (2013). How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. Columbia University Press.