Yuan poetry

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Qian Xuan - Early Autumn

Yuan poetry refers to those types or styles of poetry particularly associated with the era of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), in China. Although the poetic forms of past literature were continued, the Yuan period is particularly known for the development of the poetic aspects included in the complex mix of different art forms which characterize Chinese opera, namely the qu or fixed-tone pattern type of verses that were delivered by the actors of these shows. Although the language of Yuan poetry is still generally considered to be Classical Chinese, a certain vernacular aspect reflecting linguistic changes can be seen in some of the fixed-rhythm verse forms, such as Yuan ci and qu. Certain aspects of Yuan poetry can be understood in the context of the social and political changes which took place as part of the process of the Mongol conquest of the Jin and Song Dynasties and their subsequent establishment of the Yuan dynasty.


The history of Yuan poetry involves both the received legacy of Classical Chinese poetry together with innovations, in part related to linguist and other changes in regard to aspects of the cultural background.


Woodblock edition of a zaju play entitled Zhuye Zhou.

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Founded in 960, the Song dynasty reunified most of the traditional Chinese heartland from the North Central Plain to the area of the Yangzi River. This ushered in an era known for its poetry, particularly the fixed-rhythm verse form of the ci, and painting, particularly landscape painting, as well as other developments artistic and otherwise. However, primarily due to military reasons, in 1127, the dynasty was forced to relocate south of the Yangzi River, with the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115–1234) assuming control in the North. Nevertheless, this "Southern" period of the Song dynasty was one associated with economic robustness and population growth, together with continued Chinese artistic achievements. However, in a series of military events associated with the growth of the Mongol Empire, the Yuan dynasty was established by its fifth Great Khan, Kublai, which included the former territories of both the Jin dynasty and the Southern Song. Despite the sometimes disastrous nature of this process, there was a certain continuity of Chinese culture, including poetry; although, due to the loss of records and so on, the historical details are not always clear. However, some of the known relevant changes include the changes in the economic system, such as through the tax structure, partly through the establishment of the Appanage system within China; the facilitation of trade and the communication along the Silk Road; and the establishment of a new imperial court in Dadu.

Received tradition

An important poetic legacy received by Yuan dynasty poets was the works of the poets of the Song dynasty, which together with the Jin dynasty in the north, preceded the Yuan dynasty. An example of this cultural legacy can be seen in the case of Yuan Haowen (1190-1257), a northern writer and poet who served under the Jin administration, but went into retirement at the advent of its fall to the Mongols.[1] One example of poetic continuity from the Song to the Yuan period is the case of Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), who although a member of the royal family of the Song dynasty, both produced poetry and became rector of the Hanlin Academy under the Yuan.[2] Although older forms of verse continued to be practiced, such as the shi form, most of innovative developments involved the fixed-rhythm Chinese poetry forms. However, the political and social disruptions associated with the founding of the Yuan dynasty have resulted in a relative lack in terms of surviving material to provide detailed information in this regard.[3] Some information, however is available through knowledge of contemporary theater and the surviving associated documents.


There are various characteristic elements to Yuan poetry, as known today, which are important to understanding this poetic phenomenon.

Yuan opera

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In mid Imperial China, characters in theatrical performances wore elaborate costumes and stereotyped facial makeup, shown here in a large Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 AD) mural in a hall of the Guangsheng Temple in Hongtong, Shanxi province.

Surviving knowledge of the Yuan opera, such as through written scripts, allows some insight. Yuan opera was a type of opera, or more specifically Chinese opera, which as a theatrical art form allowed for a large amount of poetic material to be integrated into it, in various ways; although, as the tradition no longer exists in its historical form, most of the knowledge thereof relies upon literary sources: however, this sourcing has indeed favored the survival of the incorporated poetry involved in these performances.

Jurchen influence

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The Jurchens were a Tungusic people who inhabited the region of Manchuria (present-day Northeast China) until the 17th century, when they adopted the name Manchu. Certainly, the rhythms of Jurchen music, at least as moderated through the Yuan opera, greatly influenced the fixed-rhythm types of Yuan poetry.[4]

Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism

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The three major religious influences in Yuan China also appear in Yuan poetry, in various ways.

Painting and calligraphy

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To what had become by this point, the traditional linkage between poetry, painting, and calligraphy, continued through the Yuan dynasty. An example of an artist in this respect is Gao Kegong (1248-1310), a poet, though more known for his ink-paintings of bamboos.

Fixed-tone verse forms

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Development of various fixed-tone verse forms are particularly associated with Yuan poetry.

Yuan poetry of death and destruction (sangluan)

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A certain genre of Classical Chinese poetry is known as sangluan (traditional Chinese: 喪亂; simplified Chinese: 丧乱; pinyin: sāngluàn; Wade–Giles: sang-luan). This type of verse has to do with the death and destruction of war, especially that which lead up to and was involved in the initial establishment of the Yuan dynasty and the consolidation of its power. In fact, according to one student of Yuan drama in this period, J. I. Crump:

Much poetry written during this period is called sang-luan verse, or "poetry of death and destruction," and sang-luan verse in many ways is a far more accurate measure of the emotional battering the Chinese underwent at the hands of the Mongols than any amount of historical documentation.[5]

Practitioners include Yuan Haowen.

Cultural Legacy

In 1368, the Yuan dynasty was overthrown by revolution, which ended with the establishment of the Ming Yuan dynasty. The poetic legacy then entered a new phase, namely that of Ming poetry, which lasted to the end of Ming, in 1644, and beyond.

See also


  1. Davis, xxviii
  2. Davis, xxix
  3. Crump, 3
  4. Crump, 24-30
  5. Crump, 20


  • Crump, J. I. (1990). Chinese Theater in the Days of Kublai Khan. (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies The University of Michigan) ISBN 0-89264-093-6.
  • Davis, A. R. (Albert Richard), Editor and Introduction,(1970), The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse. (Baltimore: Penguin Books).