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Ci (词)
Learn Chinese - History and Culture


Ci (cí 词) is a kind of lyric Chinese poetry. For speakers of English, the word "ci" is pronounced somewhat like "tsuh". It is also known as Changduanju (cháng duǎn jù 长短句 "lines of irregular lengths") and Shiyu (shī yú 诗馀).

Typically the number of characters in each line and the arrangement of tones were determined by one of around 800 set patterns, each associated with a particular title, called cipai (cí pái 词牌). Originally they were written to be sung to a tune of that title, with set rhythm, rhyme, and tempo. Therefore, the title may have nothing to do with its contents, and it is common for several ci to appear to have the same title. Some ci would have a "subtitle" (or a commentary, sometimes as long as a paragraph) indicating the contents. Sometimes, for the sake of clarity, a ci is listed under its title plus its first line.


Ci most often express feelings of desire, often in an adopted persona, but the greatest exponents of the form such as Li Houzhu (lǐ hòu zhǔ 李后主) and Su Shi (sū shì 苏轼) used it to address a wide range of topics.


Beginning in the Liang Dynasty, the ci followed the tradition of the Shi Jing and the yue fu: they were lyrics which developed from anonymous popular songs (some of Central Asian origin) into a sophisticated literary genre. The form was further developed in the Tang Dynasty, and was most popular in the Song Dynasty.

Most cipai consist of three characters. The literal meaning of a cipai can be rather obscure, making it difficult to translate. Some are taken straight from earlier poems, and some are clearly of Non-Han origin — mostly songs introduced from Central Asia. Some cipai have alternative names, usually taken from a famous piece of that very cipai. There also are variants of certain cipai, indicated by a prefix or a suffix.





altTo the Tune of Riverside City - For ten years here I wander and there you lie
“For ten years here I wander and there you lie./ I don't think about you often,/ yet how can I forget you!/ With your grave a thousand miles away,/ where can I confide my loneliness?/ Even if we met, could you recognize me,/ with dust all over my face/ and hair like frost?/ Last night I had a dream in which I returned home./ By the window,/ you were combing your hair./ We Looked at each other silently,/ with tears streaming down our cheeks./ There's a place which every year will be my misery:/ the moonlit night,/ the hill of short pines.

In the title of this ci, "the Tune of Riverside City" is the cipai, followed by the first sentence of the poem. Su Shi got married when he was 19, his wife 16. His wife died when she was only 27. Because of his government duties, Su Shi had moved to many different places in China, all far away from his hometown. One night in early 1075, about 10 years after her death, Su Shi dreamed of his wife, then composed this famous ci.

Famous Ci Poets

Li Houzhu (lǐ hòu zhǔ 李后主)
Liu Yong (liǔ yǒng 柳永)
Ouyang Xiu (ōu yáng xiū 欧阳修)
Su Shi (sū shì 苏轼)
Huang Tingjian (huáng tíng jiān 黄庭坚)
Jiang Kui (jiāng kuí 姜夔)
Xin Qiji (xīn qì jí 辛弃疾)
Li Qingzhao (lǐ qīng zhào 李清照)



      词有词牌,即曲调。有的词调又因字数或句式的不同有不同的“体”。比较常用的词牌约100个。词的结构分片或阕,不分片的为单调,分二片的为双调,分三片的称三叠。按音乐又有令、引、近、慢之别。“令”一般比较短,早期的文人词多填小令。“引”和 “近”一般比较长,而“慢”又较“引”和“近”更长,盛行于北宋中叶以后,有柳永“始衍慢词”的说法。依其字数的多少,又有“小令”、“中调”、“长调”之分。



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