How I Teach Chinese Poetry

Wang Yifan

In the previous issue of Teaching Assistance, Huang (2019) claimed that it was quite important for learners of Japanese as a foreign language in China to have a thorough understanding of their Chinese mother language, as well as when Chinese students continue their studies in Japan. In this issue, a graduate from Dalian Foreign Language University explains how she approached the teaching of poetry to high school students in China. Thinking it would brighten her life, when Wang Yifan was a little girl her mother made her recite poetry day after day until it was committed to memory. When she entered a teacher education course, she in turn experimented with different learning methodologies for poetry, thinking it could brighten a high school classroom (Figure 1). Wang Yifan came to Japan in 2015 with the intention of furthering her research in comparative linguistics by studying at graduate school. She employs the Chinese, Japanese and English languages to explain how charming Chinese poetry can be for students in Japan and the rest of the world. She believes that native-speaking Chinese teachers are well-positioned to help students make a positive transition from their Chinese mother tongue to the acquisition of Japanese as a second language.

When I was asked by my practicum supervisor to try teaching poetry at Hu Lu Daoshi Secondary High School, I jumped at the chance. In China, learning poetry is a fundamental part of public education. From kindergarten to high school, students learn poetry in language classes.

I usually begin my classes about Chinese poetry by talking about the great languages of the world. On the first day, I offer three hypotheses to students: When we talk today about Rome, we can learn that Romans founded a great empire in B.C 27. When we talk about Japan, we can learn about the Edo period and its samurai in 17th century Japan. When we talk about China, we can learn that the foundations of the Great Wall were placed during the Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C. Then I ask students, “How can we learn about these great periods of time?” Usually a few hands pop up and students answer that we can look at photos. Yes, I say, adding that we can also visit the colosseums, castles, and fortresses that archaeologists help to preserve. Then I press forward by asking how people who didn’t have cameras, cell phones, or laptops might share stories about who lived in these buildings? People with written languages could share their stories by writing historical records about what they saw and felt, I explain, adding that Latin, Japanese, and Chinese languages are important examples of this. I finish my lesson warm-up by saying there is one other way to learn about how people lived, and that is by reading their poetry. Ancient collections of poetry contain many wonderful stories about historical figures.

I lecture that the oldest classical poems, Shi, can be traced back to 9th century B.C. Later, Ci and Qu traditional poetry forms were developed, as well as the literary form Fu. During the modern period, Western style free verse became popular. Of these types of poetry, I inform students that my favourite is Ci, which was composed during the Song Dynasty from 960 to 1279. Therefore, Ci is also referred to as Song poetry. Several forms of poetry developed during the Song Dynasty.

I then tell the class, that I am going to write on the blackboard one particular pattern of poetry which is called “Yu meiren” (named after Lady Li Yu, a royal beauty and concubine). “Yu meiren” is penned in two 4-line stanzas each made up of 2 rhyming couplets of different line-lengths in a 7-5-7-9 Chinese character pattern. The form and rhyme scheme of the entire poem can be diagrammatically represented as 7A/ 5A/ 7B/ 9B// 7C/ 5C/ 7D/ 9D//. The numbers represent the number of Chinese characters on a line and the capitalized letters represent the rhyming segments. I then recite 8 lines in Chinese from a fine example of Song poetry. Then I count aloud the characters in Chinese.

When I explain this process to English-speaking classmates and teachers at my graduate school in Japan, I demonstrate the form and rhyme of Song poetry by performing a step-by-step analysis. First, I recite 8 lines from a poem in Chinese and its English translation. I then count aloud the characters in Chinese, followed by the syllables in English. Pointing out that there are more syllables of English than characters of Chinese on each line, I count aloud the number of syllables placed before the comma on each line of English. The number of syllables placed before the comma in the example below corresponds to the number of Chinese characters. Then I insert romanization at the end of the lines, and underline the rhyming couplets as shown below.

Spring flowers and autumn moon, (7 syllables) O when will all these end?
،K‮*‬ف،َ‮$‬ً‮&‬پ.ة‮$‬F(7 characters, the final sound is liao)

How much of my past, (5 syllables) do I comprehend?
‮)٩(‬ئ‮*>&‬h‮$‬ض(5 characters, the final sound is shao)

Last night to my loft once more, (7 syllables) the vernal east wind came;
‮$‬p‮<‬س،Q‮)‬‭]‬‮$‬S‮*‬F‮-٧‬ (7 characters, the final sound is feng)

In moonlight I could not bear to look, (9 syllables) back towards my homeland rid of my name.
،G‮٠‬ي‮$#٣‬ٹ‮&‬‭^‬‮-:‬‮ ‬‮$‬ً‮)‬ڑ‮$$‬(9 characters, the final sound is zhong)

Jade steps and carved railings may, (7 syllables) still as ever be there,
‮❊‬Jؤن٪ة،ل❊‮٣٥‬S‮&‬b(7 characters the final sound is zai)

Though changed faces fair. (5 syllables)
٪u،O‮&٦‬颜‮'‬ُ(5 characters, the final sound is gai)

O how great how grave I ask, (7 syllables) can my woe and sorrow be?
‮٠]'‬g‮/‬ـ&‮٣٤‬X‮&‬h‮٧‬T (7 characters, the final sound is chou)

Just like the River’s swelling spring-tide, (9 syllables) water rolling east to the sea.
‮+‬ي‮&|$‬@‮&‬؟،K‮$‬ٹ‮  &‬V‮*‬F،y (9 characters, the final sound is liu)

When students start to learn traditional Chinese poetry, I believe it is a good idea for them to know who the poet was. For example, a poem’s historical background can be understood by studying the biography of a composer such as Li Houzhu (also known as Last Ruler Li). He was the third ruler of the Southern Tang state and lost his kingdom during the Song Dynasty. The above poem was written after his kingdom was taken. Knowing this fact, as students read his poetry they can perhaps share his sentiment and feeling of hopelessness.

After giving students information about the poet, I teach them how to interpret the meaning of certain words. The words, written 1,000 years ago, often have different meanings today. Learning how to interpret the old meanings is essential, for example, “東風” means “East wind” in modern times, but in the above poem, it meant the winds of spring and all the weather that they bring in the springtime.

Such famous poems usually have outstanding stanzas that to me are important to memorize. I think it is necessary for students to recite and remember famous stanzas, if not the whole poem. This principle is not difficult for students in China to accept—Chinese education curriculum supports the maxim that famous poetry should be remembered. So, explaining the meaning of a stanza and asking students to memorize it is a generally accepted way of learning (Huang, 2019).

Teaching poetry, however, is not only about finding ways to make students memorize a famous poem. As a final step in my lessons, I encourage students to share their own thoughts about the poem and to discuss how they had participated in class. Letting students express themselves aloud is perhaps the most important part of learning poetry because it can activate passion and feelings. This is my opinion. There are many other ways to teach Chinese poetry and to handle classrooms. Whichever way we may prefer to teach or to study, perhaps the best way to learn is to reflect on our own way of learning.


Huang, W. (2019). Strategies for Improving the Japanese Writing Ability of Chinese Students. The Language Teacher, 43(2) 30-32.