English Gushi?

As you go on your Amazing Animals of Asia safari, your job is to guess the identities of the animals. But, while you are sleuthing, have a look at the form of the poems. Notice anything? (Hint: Count the syllables.) No, the poems aren't haiku. (Haiku is Japanese.) These poems follow a Chinese poetry form: gushi (pronounced goo-shuh).

Gushi, in Chinese, means 'ancient poetry.' Though gushi can be much older and have varying forms, it reached its peak of expression during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Poets Li Bai and Du Fu of this period are China's most famous poets.

Tang gushi usually consists of four lines. There are two main kinds: qi yan shi (seven character poems) and wu yan shi (five character poems). The four lines of qi yan shi, as the name implies, have seven Chinese characters each and the four lines of wu yan shi have five each. In Chinese, all characters are only one syllable long. So, the poems have a steady and distinct rhythm thanks to the repeated number of syllables in each line. The lines may or may not rhyme. If they do, the rhyme scheme may vary, adding character to the rhythm.

Our guess-who animal poems are modeled after gushi, but because Chinese and English are such different languages, they can't really be true gushi. The animal poems have the same syllable-patterns as real gushi (count them for yourself!). They also have varying rhyming patterns -- or no rhyming at all -- like gushi. Also, the syllable and rhyming patterns create a distinct rhythm. But Chinese is a tonal language (with four different tones) and real gushi, along with syllable-pattern repetition, use repeated sequences of tones to create even more intricate rhythms that cannot be matched in English.

(To compensate for our rhythm deficiency, we use alliteration [repetition of letter sounds] in many of the mystery animal poems.)

More or Less Meaning

Also, five or seven syllables in Chinese can pack more meaning than five or seven syllables in English. Can you figure out why? It’s because in Chinese all words are only one syllable long and in English many words have more than one syllable. So, if we choose multi-syllable words for our lines, we have to use fewer words to get the syllable numbers correct and maintain the traditional rhythm. In the the last line of Mystery Animal #12, for example, we only use two words, Chinese medicine, to reach five syllables, whereas in Chinese those two words – zhong yao – are only two syllables long.

Also, real gushi often uses conventional word-combination patterns, such as adjective-noun-verb-preposition-adjective-noun. In English, we can’t always follow such a pattern and still make the line only five or seven syllables. Still, it’s lots of fun to write English gushi. Maybe you can choose an animal and give it a try!

A Look at Some Famous Gushi

To understand gushi better, let's take a look at a few famous ancient Chinese poems. The first one is called Praising the Plum Flower. It was written by a Song Dynasty poet named Wang An Shi.

Praising the Plum Flower

A single branch of plum flowers tucked away in a corner
Opens all alone in the crisp air
From afar, one knows it is not snow
For the subtle fragrance that passes

In China, the plum flower is usually the first bloom of spring and sometimes blooms while there is still snow on the ground. Since it opens when it is still cold, it is a symbol of faith and persistence in the face of hardship. Often Chinese poets draw parallels between something in nature and human virtue. So, here, the poet is suggesting that he and others must follow their beliefs despite a hostile environment.

Look at the poem in pinyin, a phonetic way of writing Chinese:

Yong Mei

Qiang jiao yi zhi mei,
Ling han du zi kai.
Yao zhi bu shi xue,
Wei you an xiang lai.

Notice that there are five Chinese characters (and therefore syllables) in each line. The last words of the first and third lines rhyme (mei and xue rhyme with the English word way). Likewise, the last words of the second and fourth lines rhyme (kai and lai rhyme with the English word eye). These features of the poem are lost in translation.

Here’s a famous gushi poem that many Chinese school children recite before they eat. It was written by a poet named Li Sheng during the Tang Dynasty.

Working in a field under the high noon sun
Sweat drips down to the earth
Do we consider the food in our plates?
Every grain of rice comes from hard work

Do you consider the food in your plate before you eat it – how far it has traveled and from where – and how much work it took to get it there?

Have a look at the same poem in pinying to see if you can figure out the original rhyme scheme:

Chu he ri dang wu
Han di he xia tu
Shei zhi pan zhong can?
Li li jie xing ku.

The last words of the first, second and fourth lines rhyme, which of course gets lost in translation along with the original rhythm (count the syllables in each line).

Here's another example of gushi written by a boy named Cao Chong during the Three Kingdoms Period. Cao Chong was the eldest son of the emperor, Cao Cao, at the time. Legend has it, he had the intelligence of an adult at age six. Unfortunately, once his father died, he was imprisoned by his own brother (since they were competitors for the emperorship). Cao Chong died young from illness while still in prison, but not before he wrote a famous poem in which he implied the question to his brother, ‘We were born from the same root, why are you so anxious to hurt me?’ It’s a line that many Chinese parents still use today – when brothers or sisters or cousins are not behaving nicely to each other.

Here’s the gushi that Cao Chong wrote (rendered in pinying):

Zhu dou ran dou ji,
Dou zai fu zhong qi.
Beng shi tong gen sheng,
Xiang jian he tai ji!

Notice the rhyme scheme and the number of syllables in each line. The translation is:

Beans boil over beanstalk fire
The beans cry in the pot:
We are born from the same root
Why are you so anxious to burn me?

In the poem, the fire is made of dried beanstalks; so the beans are asking the question to the beanstalks.

Typically, gushi poems end with a line that makes the reader think or feel an emotion, sometimes connecting the content of the poem to a historical event, a philosophy or an observation about life. Or the poems end with a twist – something that is not expected. You might have noticed that we’ve tried to do that in some of our guess-who animal poems, too.

Get Gushiing!

People in China have been writing gushi for centuries and centuries. And, why not? It's fun to write and a great way to express your creativity (and maybe even your most profound thoughts and ideas!). So, what are you waiting for? Get your pen out and give it a whirl!


Index of Animal Poems

Mystery Animal #1 Mystery Animal #8 Mystery Animal #15
Mystery Animal #2 Mystery Animal #9 Mystery Animal #16
Mystery Animal #3 Mystery Animal #10 Mystery Animal #17
Mystery Animal #4 Mystery Animal #11 Mystery Animal #18
Mystery Animal #5 Mystery Animal #12 Mystery Animal #19
Mystery Animal #6 Mystery Animal #13 Mystery Animal #20
Mystery Animal #7 Mystery Animal #14 Mystery Animal #21

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