An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Shipin 詩品

Jun 18, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Shipin 詩品 "Classification of poetry" is a literary critique of poetry written by the Liang period 梁 (502-557) scholar Zhong Rong 鍾嶸 (c. 468-518). Zhong concentrates on five-syllable regular poems (wuyanshi 五言詩) and writes critiques to the most important authors from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) down to his own times. Like eminent familes of that time were categorized into one of nine moral groups he attributed all poets one of three ranks. In the imperial bibliography Jingjizhi 經籍志 in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書, the book is called Shiping 詩評 "Critique on poetry".
In his preface Zhong Rong described the theoretical principles of poetry and his methods of ranking poems. He describes the literary characteristics of each poet and his particular style. Zhong also mentioned bad habits in poetry prevailing in his own time, like a missing adherence to principles and exemplary precedents. Instead, he argues, poets wrote just what they wanted without respecting literary conventions. Zhang Rong apparently disliked the easy-minded style (qingtan 清談) preferred by the writers of the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420~589).
His first point of critique is a style overladen with quotations from the classics. This method leads to a form that reminds a conceptional draft and not a vivid poem. The meaning becomes enwrapped in a purely structural text. Zhong Rong goes even further than the literary critic Liu Xie 劉勰 in his Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 and says that the meaning does not have to be subject to sound and shape.
His second point of critique is that many contemporaries stressed the importance of four-syllable verses as the orthodox form given in the Confucian Classic Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs". The commonly used five-syllable verses and the seven-syllable verses gradually being favoured were actually not correct poems. Liu Xie also says that, although already obsolete in his times, four-syllable verses were actually the correct form of poetry. Zhong Rong opposed this view and stressed that the time of the four-syllable poems was over and that the five-syllable poems was a form more adequate to modern times.
A third point observed by Zhang Rong is that authors often write in an articifial way and with affected poses, not referring to genuine feelings. A poem, he sad, had to have a certain taste that was inspired by sincerity and a strong, genuine and natural feeling of the author towards his topic. This syle of authoring is called zhenmei 真美 "truthfulness and beauty". Similar arguments had been brought forward by Liu Xie.
Zhong Rong also observed how styles and pecularities of poets were transmitted to younger writers. He was thus able to establish a kind of family tree of poets. Unlike Liu Xie he does not only criticize poetry in general but also particular writers and their pieces, like Ruan Ji 阮籍 whom he laudes as bringing to the whole outer world what he has in his eyes and his ears. One weakness of Zhong Rong's approach is that he neglects the personal backgrounds of the authors and sees their poems as isolated from the authors' lives.
In spite of the narrow timeframe it covers, the Shipin is a very important book because it is the first literary critique on poetry.
The most common versions of the Shipin are those included in the collectanea Jindai mishu 津逮秘書 and Xuejin taoyuan 學津討原. Xu Wenyu 許文雨 has written a commentary called Shiping jiangshu 詩品講疏, Chen Yanjie 陳延杰 a commentary called Shipin zhu 詩品注.

Fisk, Craig (1986). "Shih-pin 詩品", in William H. Nienhauser, ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 701-704.
Min Ze 敏澤 (1986). "Shipin 詩品", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 735-736.
Wixted, John Timothy (2015). "Shi pin", in Cynthia L. Chennault, et al., eds. Early Medieval Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley), 275-288.