Sound over Ideograph: The Basis of Chinese Poetic Art


The author argues that Chinese characters have shaped Chinese poetic art not through their ideographic form but through their monosyllabic sound. Specifically, the pauses in a Chinese poetic line tend to be determined by sound patterns. Since monosyllabic sound is nearly always endowed with meaning, sound patterns tend to be semantic groupings as well. These groupings of meaning, in turn, determine syntax and, by extension, the organization of an entire poem. Given the semantic denseness of Chinese poetry, this structure is crucial to the overall meaning of a poem, to how we read or understand it. So what we have is something like sound ⇒ prosodic pattern ⇒ semantic grouping ⇒ syntax ⇒ structure. A multilayered integration of all these elements seems to represent the gestalt of Chinese poetic form, with monosyllabic sound as its foundation. At its best, this gestalt engenders a dynamic interplay of all its elements, from which poetic vision emerges.