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Chinese Literature
Gushi shijiu shou 古詩十九首 "Nineteen Ancient Poems"

The Gushi shijiu shou 古詩十九首 "Nineteen ancient poems" is a collection of anonymous regular poems from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). The arrangement known under this name first appears in the Liang period 梁 (502-557) anthology Wenxuan 文選 by Xiao Tong 蕭統 where they are grouped under the miscellaneous poems (zashi 雜詩). All nineteen poems are written in the style of five-syllable verses (wuyan shi 五言詩). They are not written by one author and were composed over a longer period of time. The term gushi "ancient poems" came up during the Three Empires 三國 (220-280) and Jin 晉 (265-420) periods for anonymous poems from the Han period with their particular style and themes (love, friendship, farewell, mourning). At the same time the gushi were also given a standard status that could be imitated. Many famous poets from the Jin and the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589) periods wrote poems in the gushi style, for instance, Lu Ji 陸機, Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 or Bao Zhao 鮑照. The literary critics Liu Xie 劉勰 (Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍) and Zhong Rong 鍾嶸 (Shipin 詩品) described the particular features of the gushi. As an important and popular genre they were also included in anthologies like the Wenxuan and Xu Ling's 徐陵 Yutai xinyong 玉臺新咏. These authors also fixed the rules for the definition of gushi as dating from the Han period and written by an anonymous author. The same critera apply for the "music bureau poems" (yuefu 樂府) from the Han period so that gushi are also often counted to the same category of poetry like the yuefu poems.
During the Liang period there were in total 59 "ancient poems" recorded of which only 30 have survived until today. Liu Xie who praised the gushi for their beauty mentioned two authors to which some of the gushi could be attributed, namely Mei Sheng 枚乘 and Fu Yi 傅毅. Zhong Rong wondered if the one or other gushi was not written by Cao Zhi 曹植 or Wang Can 王粲, famous authors from the Jian'an reign 建安 (196-219) of the very late Han. The Ming period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Wang Shizhen 王世貞 brought forward arguments for the authorship of Mei Sheng, Zhang Heng 張衡 or Cai Yong 蔡邕. Modern scholars date the Nineteen Ancient Poems to the second century CE.
The political conditions of that time were often unfavourable for members of the mid- and lower class of state officials and literati. A lot of them had to leave home to find a better outcome. The hardship of journey and farewell to parents and family are therefore an often-mentioned theme, just like the shortness of life and poverty. Yet the lavish and opulent sides of life which could be enjoyed by the landed aristocracy happy enough to possess wealth are also depicted. Love between wife and husband, or the hope to become an immortal can also be found as central themes. The Nineteen Ancient Poems are thus an excellent source of social life and the private conditions under which literate people lived during the Later Han period. Many poems are written out of the view of a women yearning for her husband or lamenting his infidelity or death.
The literary quality of the gushi poems is relatively high and corresponds to the old pattern of invoking (xing 興) a situation by the description of a natural scene that then immediately goes over into the sphere of private grief. Topics, themes or wordings are often similar to those in the songs of the Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs", but much more intimate than in the older anthology. The familiarity of the gushi with the yuefu poems can be seen in the outer shape, the themes, and also in the wordings, which are often very similar of even identical. Yet compared with the yuefu poems the gushi poems are more refined and skilled.
Except the Nineteen Ancient Poems, there are still some other gushi poems surviving in anthologies like Yuefu shiji 樂府詩集 or Yutai xinyong or in the encyclopedia Yiwen leiju 藝文類聚. The oldest commentary to the Nineteen Ancient Poems is to be found in the Wenxuan. The modern scholar Sui Shusen 隋樹森 has written the commentary Gushi shijiushou jishi 古詩十九首集釋.

Ni Qixin 倪其心 (1986). "Gushi shijiu shou 古詩十九首", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學, vol. 1, pp. 192-193. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.

1 行行重行行 Xingxing chong xingxing On, on, ever on and on
2 青青河畔草 Qingqing he pan cao Green, green riverside grass
3 青青陵上柏 Qingqing ling shang bo Green green the cypress on the ridge*
4 今日良宴會 Jinri liang yan hui We hold a splendid feast today*
5 西北有高樓 Xibei you gao lou Northwest there is a tall house
6 涉江採芙蓉 She jiang cai furong Wading the river I pluck hibiscus
7 明月皎夜光 Ming yue jiao ye guang Clear moon brightly shining in the night*
8 冉冉孤生竹 Ranran gu sheng zhu Bit by bit the orphan growing bamboo
9 庭中有奇樹 (庭前有奇樹) Ting zhong you qi shu (Ting qian you qi shu) In the garden front there is a wondrous tree
10 迢迢牽牛星 (苕苕牽牛星) Tiaotiao qian niuxing Faraway Herdboy star
11 迴車駕言邁 (驅車駕言邁) Hui che jia yan mai (Qu che jia yan mai) I turn the carriage, yoke and set off*
12 東城高且長 Dong cheng gao qie chang East city wall high and long
13 驅車上東門 Qu che shang dong men I drive my carriage from the Upper East Gate*
14 去者日以疏 (去者日已疏) Qu zhe ri yi shu They day you left is long gone**
15 生年不滿百 (人生不滿百) Sheng nian bu man bai (Ren sheng bu man bai) Life's years do not last a century
16 凜凜歲雲暮 Linlin sui yun shu Chill, chill, the year now fades
17 孟冬寒氣至 Mengdong hanqi zhi Fierce winter's cold air has come
18 客從遠方來 Ke cong yuan fang lai A traveller came from faraway
19 明月何皎皎 Ming yue he jiaojiao Bright moon white, so white
Translation of titles according to Anne Birrell (1982), New Songs from a Jade Terrace: An Anthology of Early Chinese Love Poetry, London: Allen & Unwin; Anne Birrell (1988), Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China, London: Unwin Hyman; *Burton Watson (1984), The Columbia Book on Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, New York: Columbia University Press; ** Ulrich Theobald.
Chinese literature according to the four-category system

July 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail