An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

gexing 歌行, songs and verses of the music-bureau style

Oct 7, 2022 © Ulrich Theobald

Gexing 歌行 is the designation of many songs and verses of the music-bureau style (yuefu 樂府). It became popular during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) and was used through the ages, also single-character shape like ge 歌 or xing 行.

Ge 歌 "song" and xing 行 "verses" were originally two slightly different types of song or poem.Typical examples of the early time, when the two types were still differentiated, are Sima Xiangru's 司馬相如 (179-117 BCE) Qinge 琴歌 "The zither song", Liang Hong's 梁鴻有 Wuyi ge 五噫歌 "Five sigh songs", Cao Cao's 曹操 (155-220) Duan gexing 短歌行 "Short verses", or the anonymous Dongmen xing 東門行 "Verses of the east gate".

The poetry critique Shanhugou shihua 珊瑚鉤詩話 written by Zhang Biaochen 張表臣 (mid-12th cent.) expounds that ge songs experienced an intensive modulation in lengthy descriptions (yiqian yiyang yongyan 猗遷抑揚永言), whereas xing verses had a distinguished tension and velocity to achieve brilliant composition (buzhou chicheng feiran chengzhang 步驟馳騁斐然成章). Xu Shizeng 徐師曾 (1547-1580) explained in his poetic theory Shiti mingbian 詩體明辨 that ge songs were characterized by miscellaneous, but detailed description of feelings, as can be seen in the accompanying melodies of the zither. Xing verses, however, had a rather fast tempo with wide and unrestricted flow of words. It can thus be seen that the difference of ge and xing was seen in their musical character.

Yet in the late second century CE, the difference between ge and xing was already obsolete, and the combined term gexing emerged, like in Cao Pi's 曹丕 (Emperor Wen 魏文帝, r. 220-226) Yan gexing 燕歌行 "Swallow song" or Bao Zhao’s 鮑照 (416-466) Dai fang gexing 代放歌行 "A song according to the topic 'set free'".

From the Tang period 唐 (618-907) on, gexing was the title of many poems with seven-syllable verses that were not named after Han-period Music Bureau songs. Famous gexing writers of that time were Li Bai 李白 (701-762, with the songs Meng you Tianlao yin liubie 夢游天姥吟留別, Xiangyang ge 襄陽歌 or Jiangxia xing 江夏行), Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770, with the songs Bingche xing 兵車行, Xinhun bie 新婚別, or Maolu wei qiufeng suo po ge 茅廬為秋風所破歌), Cen Shen 岑參 (c. 718-c. 769) and Li He 李賀 (790-816), but also Bai Juyi 白居易 (772-846) with his famous Pipa xing 琵琶行 "Verses of the lute".

The topics of Tang-period gexing poems are manyfold, but they were mainly used for the description of spectacular scenes, for moving stories and to express warm feelings. Many gexing poems imitate the spirit of rhapsodies (fu 賦) that describe in great detail the life at the court and of the nobility. With that intention, gexing songs also make use of the intricate and complex language typically used in rhapsodies. Somewhat different from these purely descriptive rhapsodies are ballads like Bai Juyi's Changhen ge 長恨歌 "Lament everlasting" which relates the story of Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) and Yang Guifei 楊貴妃 (719-756).

Typical headlines of song-verses are xxx xiao gexing 笑歌行 "joyful song", bei gexing 悲歌行 "sad song", yan gexing 豔歌行 "song of beauty", ju gexing 鞠歌行, duan gexing 短歌行 "short song", chang gexing 長歌行 "long song", yan gexing 燕歌行 "swallow song", zhao gexing 櫂歌行 (棹歌行) "boat song", yuan gexing 怨歌行 "song of resentment" or fang gexing 放歌行.

The length of gexing poems and that of its verses was not fix, and the rhymes were relatively free, but most gexing poems had one rhyme in four verses. During the Tang period, five- and seven-syllable verses became the standard, as can be seen in Du Fu's poem Liren xing 麗人行 "Verses of a beautiful person".

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