“You must be a firm rock, / I must be a pliant reed”; “If you idle in your prime, / You will have regrets in old age.” …Nowadays, many lines from classic yuefu are still being quoted, bringing aesthetic enjoyment to modern society. What is yuefu? It is an ancient Chinese form of poetry that derives its name from the Yuefu, or Music Bureau, established by the Han government (in 120 BCE) to collect folk ballads and musical scores to be arranged and sung at court rituals and ceremonies. Later generations called these songs yuefu shi (Music Bureau poems), or yuefu for short. In the Wei and Jin period (220–420) and thereafter, poems composed by literati in imitation of the Han yuefu form were also called yuefu. The history of yuefu reveals much about the social and cultural milieu of its time, such as the disappearance of yayue (court music), the establishment of music bureaus by dynastic courts, the introduction of foreign music, and the decline of poetry created by literati.
Notable features of yuefu are that they contain both lyrics and melodies; their titles and subjects are related; they come in various forms; and their subjects reflect social realities. The classification of yuefu fall broadly into two developmental stages, Han yuefu and Wei yuefu. Most Han yuefu are folk songs that embody the daily lives and sentiments of common people. These folk ballads feature skillful techniques of narration and subject matters that come from real life experiences vividly told through personas. The themes of yuefu songs speak of happiness and sadness, the rich and poor, love and hate, and life and death. The simple pleasures of a commoner’s life are vividly captured in the yuefu “Jiangnan” (South of the river) which conjures up an idyllic picture of life in the countryside. There are also many songs about the suffering of the people, such as “Zhan chengnan” (South of the walls we fought), a yuefu about the bitterness of war. During the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), there was a sharp contrast between the lives of the poor and the rich, and this divide is captured in the yuefu produced during that time. The poor subsisted on the verge of death while the rich lived extravagantly. A great number of Han yuefu are also about love and marriage. Compared to songs collected in the older Shi jing (The classic of songs), Han yuefu contain stronger expressions of sadness and anger, perhaps due to the strict social restraints of that dynasty.
Three metaphorical phrases “morning dew,” “candle blown out by the wind,” and “sparks ignited by a flint” lament the brevity of human life, indicating that constant anxiety about life and fear of death were on the increase in later Han society. These poems are like paintings depicting social realities, fully showing people’s lives and feelings.
Yuefu of the succeeding Wei dynasty display an important developmental stage of yuefu poetry. In the decades from 196 to 264, the number of yuefu poems increased significantly, and the genre flourished like never before. However, the originators of yuefu were no longer common folk, but educated literati. As such, the subject matter, language, and style of yuefu took on new features. Cao Cao and his sons, Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, known collectively as the “Three Caos,” played a pivotal role in this development. Previously, yuefu was a folk genre that was disdained by men of letters. It was now fully embraced by them. At the end of the Han and the beginning of the Wei dynasty, Cao Cao and his sons started adapting old yuefu into poetry that commented on current subjects. The “Three Caos” also devoted themselves to the technical aspects of composing yuefu and made changes in its form. Literati of that time were greatly influenced by them. Along with the “Seven Talents of Jian’an” (Kong Rong, Chen Lin, Wang Can, Xu Gan, Ruan Yu, Ying Yang, and Liu Zhen), the Three Caos created the golden age of Jian’an literature by forming a unique “Jian’an style” using strong and simple language, an impassioned and sorrowful voice, and bright and clear imagery to portray the devastation of war and to voice their ideals for the re-unification of China following the fall of the Han dynasty. Their compositions became poetic models followed by later poets.
The Han and Wei yuefu made significant contributions to the creation and development of later Chinese poetry. It inherited ancient traditions of realistic poetry and developed them more broadly and profoundly to reflect the social conditions of the time, reaching new levels of realism. It broke the centuries-old monopoly of four-syllable poems and Chu ci (Verses of Chu)-style poems. Poems with five and seven syllables became the main poetic form for Chinese poetry from that time onward. Its features include detailed descriptions of things, depicting inner feelings, employing scenery and imagery to highlight subjects, and using dialogue and monologue to narrate the plot. These are all hallmarks of the maturation of Chinese narrative poetry in the early centuries of the common era. This period also saw the beginning of the creative impulse that “poems should be based on real events,” which became the model for later generations.