The Best Chinese Ci Poems: A Bilingual Approach to Interpretation and appreciation (唐宋詞雙語析賞). Translated and annotated by Edward C. Chang. Emnes Publishing, 2012. 


Can You Create Your Own Cipai?

E. C. Chang

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     Although there are so many established tunes, the basic principles under which tunes were composed are actually quite similar, if not the same. If ancient musicians or poets could create their tonal patterns, why can’t modern people do the same by applying the sample principles? As pointed out earlier, the tonal patterns for each poetic line, usually ranging from two to seven characters, are rather limited. To refresh our memory, let us list those basic line patterns below:

(2a)○○ (2b)△△ (2c)△○ (2d)○△

(3a)○○○ (3b)○○△ (3c)△○○ (3d)○△△ (3e)△△○ (3f)△△△

(4a)○○△△ (4b)△△○○ (4c) △○○△ (4d)○△△○ (4e)○○○△ (4f)△△△○

(5a)○○△△△ (5b)△△△○○ (5c)△△○○△ (5d) ○○△△○

(6a)○○△△○○ (6b)△△○○△△ (6c) △○○△△△ (6d) ○△○○○△ (6e)△○○△○○

(7a)○○△△○○△ (7b)△△○○△△○ (7c)△△○○○△△ (7d)○○△△△○○ (7e)△○○△○○△ (7f) ○△△○○△○

     As you read more and more ci poems, you will notice that most tunes used to compose those great ci poems are quite similar in terms of their basic line patterns. If you happen to be interested in writing ci poetry, there is no reason why you cannot create your own cipai by arranging the above line patterns that sound pleasant to your ears. Of course, if you find it more convenient to write your ci poems based on the established tunes, you certainly can do that too.

     Let me cite two poems that I wrote as examples for writing ci poems without the established cipai. These “cipai-less” poems may be called “simplified ci poetry” so as to distinguish them from those written on the basis of set patterns.

     Allow me to add that I did not construct a set tune before I started composing the poem. Rather, whichever line pattern came next was dictated by the pace of my thought and emotion. In other words, I chose words that are consistent with line patterns, not the other way around.

     My poems of course are in no way near the quality of those great poets whose works are included in this book. But the quality of the two examples is not at issue here. I just want to demonstrate that you can write your own ci poems if you don’t want to be confined with certain established patterns.

     In my first poem, I use the ping-tone characters to set up my rhyme scheme. Notice that the ping-ze arrangement in each line is enclosed in the parenthesis. The line number is also given for easy reference.


林木改新妝。(○△△○●) 5b
綠葉變紅黃。(△△△○●) 5b
又是秋涼。(△△○●) 4b
又是重陽。(△△○●) 4b
年年今日,(○○△△) 4a
矚目神傷。(△△○●) 4a
萬里孤墳誰去掃?(△△○○○△△) 6b
誰人化紙共燒香?(○○△△△○●) 7d
慈母淚,(○△△) 3d
游子恨,(○△△) 3d
最難忘。(△○●) 3c
流光數十載,(○○△△△) 5a
歲歲斷人腸。(△△△○●) 5b

The Double Nine Festival

Trees in the woods have put on new dresses.
Green leaves have transformed their colors
to yellow and red.
Once again the cool autumn has arrived.
It is the Double Nine Festival Day.
Every year on this day, I feel especially sad.
Who will sweep the site of a lonely grave
that is ten thousand miles away?
Who will burn joss money and joss sticks
in front of her burial place?
How can one forget a mother’s tears,
and a wandering son’s regret?
Suddenly many years have already passed.
Each year, there is always one day
to especially remind me of her face.

     In the next poem, I tried a different approach: alternating a ze-tone rhyme with a ping-tone rhyme to generate some contrasting effect. As you can see, the line patterns chosen are the most typical ones in traditional poetry.


高峰聳立陰明滅。(○○△△○○▲) 7a
冰河埋積千秋雪。(○○△△○○▲) 7a
碧水映藍天,(△△△○●) 5b
雪山十里延。(△○△△●) 5d
飛瀑雲中裂。(○△○○▲) 5c
流泉聲不絕。(○○○△▲) 5e
冰塊訣冰川,(○△△○●) 5b
玲瓏清澈,(○○○△) 4e
彷若小冰船。(△△△○●) 5b
蒼坡湖壑接。(○○○△▲) 5e
孤鳥高飛悅。(○△○○▲) 5c
滄桑靜變萬千年,(○○△△△○●) 7d
四時景物憑誰說。(△○△△○○▲) 7e)

The Glaciers

Standing tall are the mountain peaks.
They are shining bright at times,
if not gloomy or in the mist.
For thousands of years, the glacier
is the burial ground of accumulated snow.
The blue sky is reflected on
the emerald water below.
Snowcapped mountains
extend over ten miles.
From behind the clouds,
cascades of water come out to fly.
Streams never cease flowing over the rocks.
Breaking away from the glacier are the
crystal boat-like icebergs.
The green slope is joined by
the lake and valley.
A lone bird is flying high happily.
Slow and imperceptible changes take place
over thousands of years.
How can one accurately describe the scenery
at a particular time of the year?

As mentioned, there are more than eight hundred tunes of cipai that can be used as models for composing ci poems. Actually the number would be significantly reduced if those tunes that are infrequently used are excluded. The poems selected in this book were written by the masters of ci poetry. The tunes to which they wrote their poems are among the more popular ones.

The Best Chinese Ci Poems: A Bilingual Approach to Interpretation and Appreciation. Translated and Annotated by Edward C. Chang.

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