Experimental Poetry in Medieval China

I have recently been reading through a lovely book on Dunhuang poetry, called Dunhuang shige daolun 敦煌詩歌導論 (An Introduction to Dunhuang Poetry) by Xiang Chu 項楚. Starting on page 211, he discusses a variety of odd, “miscellaneous” poetry, what we’d call “experimental poetry” today. One I find particularly interesting is something called lihe shi 離合詩 (“split-merge poetry”). Here is an image of a several split-merge poems, as reproduced in Xiang Chu’s book:


In these poems, a five-character line of poetry is written in three characters. The first character does triple duty: first, it’s split in half to form two different characters, then the whole character is used.

The first (topmost) poem in this image should read:

日日昌樓望    Day after day, the singer gazes from her tower,
山山出沒雲    Mountain after mountain juts up through no clouds.
田心思遠客    Heart full, she thinks of a distant traveler,
門口問貞人    At the gate, she asks of her journeying man.
口之足法用    But word of mouth must be sufficient:
不見覓之人    Without looking, she searches for that man.

Line 1: 昌 = 倡
Line 3: 田 = 填
Line 4: 貞 = 征
Line 5: 之 = 知

As you can see, in the first line, 昌 is split into 日+日. In the second, 出 splits into 山+山; in the third, 思 = 田+心; etc. One of the things that’s so interesting to me about these poems is that at the same time they exploit both the visual and auditory aspects of the Chinese writing system. The visual, obviously, is exploited because one character is split apart and read as three. The auditory, too, is used because of all the borrowings used to make the poems work. For example, line 4’s zhen 貞 (Middle Chinese: *treing; ‘upright,’ ‘loyal,’ ‘faithful’) must be read as zheng 征 (Middle Chinese: *tsyeing; ‘traveling,’ ‘journeying,’ ‘one who serves as a soldier’) to fit the conventions of boudoir poetry, in which the lonely woman pines for her long-lost male companion who is off fighting wars on the frontier. So the poem both looks and sounds strange, forcing the reader to dig a little deeper and figure out the doubly-layered puzzle.

Moreover, the poem still manages to rhyme on even lines (even if lines 4 and 6 end with the same character), and feature a certain amount of parallelism: the first couplet contrasts reduplications (日日 and 山山), the second contrasts internal and external desire (she thinks and asks about the man), and the third couplet contrasts sound and sight (word of mouth and searching without seeing).

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