Chinese Rhymes

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the Chinese language—with all its dialects, creoles, sister languages, and God knows what all—has changed a great deal in the last, oh, three thousand years. We have quite a bit of Chinese poetry from way back in there, and if I understand things correctly, the Chinese still like it. A generalization, but I’ll venture it. And indeed, there were centuries wherein one could not even pretend to be educated unless one could recognize at a glance any reference to any of the 305 poems in the oldest Chinese poetry anthology, the Shijing. This, despite the fact that what came out of your mouth when you recited the poems was quite drastically different from what the stuff sounded like when it was composed, a thousand, two thousand years before you got a hold of it. And here we come to the heart of the matter.

You would think that what I’m going to call “rhyme spoilage” would be a constant threat to classical Chinese poetry—and you’d be right. Those examples I gave of rhyme spoilage in English? The oldest specimen up there is about four hundred years old. What would happen if we looked at samples of English rhyming that were five times as old as that? (Which, of course, is impossible, since both the English language and rhyming poetry did not exist in Europe two thousand years ago.) You might think all Zhou dynasty rhymes would have been obliterated by now. But you’re in for a surprise. We’ll just look at one example.

Here is an English translation (by Burton Watson) of one of the most famous poems from the Shijing:

Peach tree young and fresh,
bright bright its blossoms:
this girl’s getting married,
she’ll do well in her home.

Peach tree young and fresh,
plump are its fruits:
this girl’s getting married,
she’ll do well in her rooms.

Peach tree young and fresh,
its leaves lush and full:
this girl’s getting married,
she’ll do right by her people

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