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An Introduction to the Chinese Shih form

Thomas M Catterson

Before explaining the construction of a stop short (chueh-chu, etc) in the English language, it is necessary to understand this form through the eyes of a Chinese poet.

While most Asian forms have given us a wealth of their characteristic poetry, few have been transmuted into English prosody. The reason is simple: their structure depends on their peculiar linguistic characteristics. So it is with the Chinese language.

The Chinese Shih poem, which developed in the sixth and seventh centuries, is based on four tones (two at each level: flat or level, and deflected or sharp). The flat is constant in pitch, while the sharp changes in pitch. These occupy fixed positions, just like metric feet (eg iambs, dactyls, trochees, etc) in the construction of Western verse. As a result, the natural order of words is sacrificed to the exigencies of tone. This tends to make it more difficult both for the writers to convey their thoughts and feelings and for the readers to grasp them.

It is not a simple matter to write a stop short, which dates back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD) but which did not reach its perfected state until the T’angs (618-907AD) were in power. Our first encounter with the shih form comes from their earliest anthology, the Shih Ching, or Book of Odes. It customarily used a line made up of 4 characters or Chinese words. In later centuries this was replaced by versions of the shih using a 5-character or 7-character line. Rarely found are poems of a 3- or 6-character line, including those of the so-called mixed-lined form (tsa-yen) which uses lines of varied length.

Although there are only 20 to 28 words in a stop short, depending on what measure is used, this form can be troublesome to produce. The stop short is a 4-line epigram in which only the words stop, not the sense, which goes on and ends in a surprise or shock of awareness. Another point to keep in mind is that most poets preferred to construct the third line first, since it acts as the lead-in to the final line. Next, we find end rhyme employed from the earliest use, usually appearing at the end of even-numbered lines as well. In this form a single rhyme is customarily used throughout, while the longer forms, such as the lu-shih (8-line modern regulated verse) or the ku-shih (old-style verse, mostly 10 lines or longer), may change their rhyme as often as the poet desires.

Chinese poetry uses numerous rhetorical devices, such as similes, metaphors and personification in the same manner used by Western poetry, but with much greater restraint. Thus the use of verbal parallelism is usually accomplished in the form of couplets, in which both lines follow exactly the same syntactical pattern.

Now the first thing one must keep in mind when creating a stop short directly in the English language is the use of punctuation in effecting the abruptness of this form. Since the English language does not rely on sharps and flats to produce these effects, you may find that the use of ellipses helps indicate omission, halting speech, or an unfinished sentence in dialogue.

The Chinese have always looked upon poetry as the chief glory of their literary traditions, particularly the shih form, which helps give a freer means to express the power and imagination of thought. Thus, in keeping true to the aforementioned guidelines within this essay, and a healthy mystic imagination — CREATE!

Ian B Saxon is accredited to write and train the Chinese Shih forms and interested parties can arrange for one-on-one training sessions by contacting ibsaxon@yahoo.com. His work can be seen in the “published poets” section.

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