An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

gongtishi 宮體詩, palace-style poetry

Jun 23, 2022 © Ulrich Theobald

Palace-style poetry (gongtishi 宮體詩, also called yutaishi 玉臺體 "jade-terrace style" or Xu-Yuti 徐庾體 "style of Xu [Ling] and Yu [Jianwu]") is a poetic style popular during the Liang 梁 (502-557) and Chen periods of the age of the Southern Dynasties. The term was first used in a critique towards Xiao Gang's 蕭綱 (503-551, i.e. Emperor Jianwen 梁簡文帝, r. 549-551) works, but the style appears to have already been à la mode in early Liang-period pieces of Shen Yue 沈約 (441-513), Emperor Wu 梁武帝 (r. 502-549), Wu Jun 吳均 (469-520), He Xun 何遜 (468-518) Liu Xiaowei 劉孝威 (496-549) and Liao Xiaochuo 劉孝綽 (d. 539). Apart from Xiao Gang, the most famous users of the style were Xiao Yi 蕭繹 (508-555), Xu Chi 徐摛 (474-551), Yu Jianwu 庾肩吾 (487-551), Yu Xin 庾信 (513-581) and Xu Ling 徐陵 (507-583), as well as Chen Shubao 陳叔寶 (553-604, i.e. the Last Emperor of Chen 陳後主, r. 582-589) and his adherents.

Even if critics focus on the prevalent depiction of female life and particularly that of courtiers, many gongti-style poems are dedicated to the description of feelings and things, yet with the use of soft words and abundant, flowery language expressing beauty. The style is said to be not very contemplative and focusing within a narrow frame of topics. The form was, however, more regular and formal than the style of the Yongming reign-period (yongming ti 永明體) that had been popular during the Southern Qi period 南齊 (479-502). About 40 per cent of gongti-style poems obey the rules of regular poetry (lüshi 律詩, Cao 1986). A large number of poems consisted of quatrains and five-syllable verses, often without rhymes.

Origins of the gongti style with their topic of relation between females and lords at the court can be found in both the "Airs of the states" (guofeng 國風, see Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs") and the Poetry of the South (Chuci 楚辭), as well as in Music-Bureau-type (yuefu 樂府) poems and songs as flourishing in the early Southern Dynasties period in the southeast.

Palace-style poetry exerted a deep influence on poetry of the Sui 隋 (581-618) and early Tang 唐 (618-907) periods and contributed much to the emergence of the famous regular-style poems of the Tang era, and the genre of "palace lament" (gongyuan 宮怨). Gongti poems are characterized by many quotations from older literature (diangu 典故), flowery language (cizao 辭藻), and luxuriant vocabulary (nongli 穠麗). The gongti poems rated as best are assembled in Xu Ling's anthology Yutai xinyong 玉臺新詠.

Quotation 1. "The one I love" (Yong de you suo si 詠得有所思) by Yu Jianwu 庾肩吾
My sweet promise in the end has not come home.
Springtime nature. I sit in scented fragrance.
Dusting a box I find your fan of departure:
Opening a case I see my dress of parting.
Catalpa by the well grows not in full leaf,
The palace pagoda-tree unfurls but sparse.
I will never match mud-bearing swallows,
Together they come, in pursuit they fly.
Source: Birell (1982), 214.
Birell, Anne (1982). New Songs from a Jade Terrace: An Anthology of Early Chinese Love Poetry (London: Allen & Unwin).
Cao Daoheng 曹道衡 (1986). "Gongtishi 宮體詩", 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. 1, 184.
Marney, John (1986). "Kung-t‘i shih 宮體詩", in William H. Nienhauser, ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 515-517.
Wu Zuoqiao 吳作橋, ed. (1992). Zhong-wai wenxue liupai cidian 中外文學流派辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 62.
Xibei Shifan Xueyuan Zhongwenxi Wenyi Lilun Jiaoyanshi 西北師范學院中文系文藝理論教研室, ed. (1985). Jianming wenxue zhishi cidian 簡明文學知識辭典 (Lanzhou: Gansu renmin chubanshe), 47.