A Writer's Handbook



Western Ci, Anyone?

Cristian Mocanu, RO


 It happened many times that I felt tempted to write using the rhythmic pattern of some tunes I had heard. Sometimes I even gave in to that temptation and wrote a few such poems (not mentioning anything about the tunes). The result was gratifying; yet something was missing. I couldn’t escape the thought that mentioning the actual tunes could greatly add to the reader’s enjoyment. But before I embarked on such an endeavour I had to know: was there such a poetic form?

                 The Psalms and Classical Chinese Ci

Indeed, the idea seems to be anything but new: Opening the Hebrew and Christian  Bible, we find some very interesting things in the Book of Psalms. Many of  those Psalms (which actually made up the Hymnal of the Jerusalem Temple) start by indications given to the “choirmaster”. These are just that: technical indications addressed to the Temple’s leading musicians on how to play and sing the psalm in question. These indications make up verse 1 of each psalm foreseen with them and are usually omitted when the psalm is recited chorally or just read publicly (one starts with verse 2) (Not all psalms have such indications).

Upon examining these first verses we find not only indications like:

To the choirmaster. On a string instrument. On the octave. (Psalm authored) by David (psalm 6)

To the choirmaster. To the sound of flute. (Psalm authored) by David  (Psalm 5).

but also very interesting ones, like (list not exhaustive):

To the choirmaster: According to the tune of the “Gittim” (Psalm 8).

To the choirmaster:  On (the tune of) “The Death of the Son” (Psalm 9/10).

To the choirmaster: On the tune of “The Doe of the Dawn” (Psalm 22/21)

To the choirmaster: On the tune of “The Lilies” (Psalm authored) by the sons of Kore. An epithalamum (Psalm 45/44).

To the choirmaster: (Psalm authored) by the sons of Kore  On  (the tune of) “The Virgins”  (Psalm 46/45).

To the choirmaster: According to (the tune of) “The Lilies of Witness” (...) As a lesson (Psalm 60/59).

And so on.

We don’t know those tunes, of course. No one preserved them for us. Modern exegetes would have it that those were very popular songs (very high in the charts as it were) or even more likely, what we now call “oldies but goldies”, enduring songs, popular from generation to generation. Songs which everybody was likely to know by heart. At least some of them seem to have been pretty secular in character, too  What seems to have taken place is: the text of the psalm (which, according to its literary genre, is a poem) was purposefully set to a pre-existing popular tune, undoubtedly also in order to facilitate memorization. By the way, if we allow our imagination just a little breathing space, couldn’t we say that in the last of the above examples (Ps. 60/59), the “lesson” referred to the fact that the tune of “The Lilies of Witness” was very adapted for beginners to learn to play those string instruments so much favoured in the Temple? Much in the way that somebody learning classical guitar today would necessarily learn Terraga’s “Adelita”, record themselves playing it, post the video on youtube and ask for criticism?

 But was there ever an “institutionalised” poetry form which would use pre –existing popular songs to fit original poetry into their rhythmic pattern? I asked some seasoned poets this question and (via Karina & John) our distinguished Outlaw poet  Jeffrey Woodward responded, pointing to the classical Chinese “Tz’u” poetry. I duly thank him now.

I have done some research of my own on this form.

First of all, Wikipedia, Sinorama, China Radio International and a Sinologist friend I consulted, all agree that the modern, accepted transcription of the name for this form should be “Ci” so this is the form I, too, will use. In any case, the word is pronounced approximately “Tsih” or “Tsee”. The above are also the sources for this part of my article.

The form originated during the Liang dynasty with 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, reaching the climax of popularity during the Song dynasty. How did it work?

Both the number of characters and the arrangement of tones in a “ci” poem were set according to one of some 800 pre-existing patterns, provided by some well-known tunes. The title of the pattern song and NOT another was used as title of the “ci” poem (even though it may have had nothing to do with the poem’s actual text). This “pattern title” was called the “cipai” (pronounced approx. tsee-pie). It was not uncommon for several poets to have written poems on the same “cipai”. Let’s put it in modern (and Western) terms. Can you imagine such a C & C?:

“The “ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ written by Jack does not match that written by Peter; but Jack’s “Yesterday” is better than Peter’s. But the best “ci” poem written that year is, by far, Mary’s “Sound of Silence”.

Sounds peculiar for us today, but it was not uncommon to hear similar things in Song dinasty  literary circles.

However, this eventually led to some confusion; which is why one started to refer to a certain “ci” poem by cipai+first line. This is standard practice for Chinese scholars today.

The “ci” poems are classified in 2 categories: If they were short (up to 58 characters) and the pattern song’s tempo was a fast one, they were called xiaoling. Longer poems using a slower paced song as a  pattern, were referred to as manci.

Here’s an example from a great “ci” master, Su Shi (11th century):

To 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.

As with most Eastern poems, the circumstances of its writing are important:

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.

Admittedly, it’s a very beautiful and moving poem in its own right. However, much is lost, I think, by the fact that we ignore the mysterious “Riverside City” song.

Here’s another example, by an earlier master, Li Yu. It was written during the time when the "cipai" was used on its own.  You can notice the discrepancy between the title and contents of the poem.

 Washing Sand in the Stream

The morning sun has already risen
Fully thirty-feet-high.
Golden tripods, one after the other, are filled
With incense animals.
The red brocade carpet
Rufles with every step.

The lovely one dances tip-toe
Her golden hairpin slippen out;
Nauseated by wine, she often plucks
Flower buds to smell,
While from the other palace is heard dimly
The music of fifes and drums.


English translation by Lu Wuqi

Taken from the

Later masters include Ouyang Xiu, Jiang Kui, Xin Qiji, Nalan Xingde.

Mao Zedong was a huge fan of “ci” poetry and even wrote some. His “ci” “Chang sha”, written in 1925, is considered to have such a high literary value, that even thoroughly anti-Communist diaspora Chinese scholars mention it among the outstanding “ci” of modern times

The Western Ci

I would now like to present the Western ci form and the rules I thought out for it. I chose not to use simply “ci” because a breakup with the Chinese model is unavoidable: most of our languages are not tonal and even China has lost most of the original 800 or so pattern songs, keeping just the scheme for them. Also the term “modern ci” or “contemporary ci” would be misleading, as Chinese creations using their own traditional cipai have a rightful claim to that categorisation. I therefore chose the term “Western ci” as both the patterns and formal specifications are Western.

The rules are simple:

The poems will follow the rhytmical and length patterns of a popular Western tune (which can be taken either from Classical music or from pop/country/ethnic music, on the condition that the tune in question be reasonably widely known).

The poems will have both a title (related to the actual contents of the poem) and a cipai/acknowledgment, stating the title of the song used as a pattern.

The poems will follow the structure of the pattern song, following the verses’ and the chorus’ patterns (if appropriate) in the succesion in which they appear in the song.

The length of the pattern song is not binding for the poem. However, the poem should not be disproportionately long (let’s say maximally twice as long as the pattern song).

The poets to whom the short&fast/long&slow-paced distinction feels important, may qualify their poems as xiaoling or manci, but this is no absolute requirement.

Read three examples of Western Ci written by Cristian Mocanu.



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