Kanshi is traditional Chinese poetry. It is a style of verse. More specifically, kanshi is poetry established in the age of the Later Han dynasty as the national art of China.
History of Kanshi
Historically, Chinese literature had centered on verse, except for historical pieces and pieces about the philosophy of religion, and the oldest anthology of Chinese poems is "Shi Jing", which is one of the Five Classic Texts of Confucianism. "Shi Jing" mainly consists of four-syllable poems.
About 200 years after "Shi Jing", "Chu Ci" (Songs of Chu) was composed in the Chu dynasty and during the Han dynasty "Fu" style, which was descended from "Chu Ci", flourished. They are considered to be in a different style from poetry. However their form hugely influenced the form of poetry which followed.
In the Former Han dynasty an office called "gafu," which collected civil songs, was established. This collection and subsequent songs were also called "gafu." Gafu were originally poems accompanied by music, but the music was lost as time went by and only the words and their titles were passed down. In some gafu, the length of phrases are not equal and such gafu are called "zogon-shi" (irregular style poetry). Five-syllable poems (each line of the poems consisting of five syllables) were composed, by the influence of popular songs of the former Han dynasty. In the Later Han dynasty, literati started to produce five-syllable poems. For several hundred years after that, five-syllable poetry were mainstream kanshi. In the empire of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period, a father and his two sons (known as the three Caos) established kanshi as a national art: Emperor Wu Cao Cao, Emperor Wen Cao Pi, and Cao Zhi (192 - 232), most importantly the father Cao Cao. Ruan Ji (210 - 263) amongst others in the same period is also famous.
Tao Yuan-Ming (365 - 427) was popular in the period of the Southern and Northern dynasties when culture, such as the tea ceremony, developed.
Poetry starting to be composed outside the court in the period of the Tang dynasty, together with poets such as Li Bai (701 - 762), Du Fu (712 - 770), and Wei Wang, led to the increasing popularity of Chinese poetry. Around this time modern style poetry, such as a zekku (quatrain) or a risshi (a poem of eight syllables), was added to the old, conventional poetry. The poet Bai Juyi was popular in the late eighth century. Poetry produced in the period of the Tang dynasty is called Tang poetry.
Kanshi in Japan
Kanshi was born as Chinese literature but later it also began to be produced in Japan when Chinese civilization was introduced.
In 751 "Kaifuso" (Fond Recollections of Poetry), which is regarded as a very early collection of Kanshi in Japan, was compiled. In the ninth century, three chokusenshu (anthologies of poems collected by Imperial command) were compiled: "Ryounshu"(Higher Than Clouds) in 814, "Bunkashureishu" (Spectacular Phrase Collection) in 824, and "Keikokushu" (The Prosperous Country) in 827. It was not until "Kokin Wakashu" (Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry) was compiled in 905 that waka (Japanese poetry written in Japanese characters rather than Chinese characters) stood on an equal footing to kanshi in Japanese literature. In stories of the Heian period, the word "a poem" without any modifier meant a kanshi, and the Japanese reading of the word added next to it meant "Chinese song." The influence of kanshi literature continued to be strong for a long time. Bai Juyi, many of whose poems were listed in "Wakan roei shu" (Collection of Japanese and Chinese poems to sing), was especially popular. The signature poets in the Heian period are Kukai, SHIMADA no Tadaomi and SUGAWARA no Michizane amongst others.
Afterwards, 'Gozan bungaku' (literature of the Five Mountain Monasteries) flourished in Zen temples in the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. Representative poets of these periods are Shushin GIDO, Chushin ZEKKAI or Sojun IKKYU ("Kyounshu" Mad Cloud Collection).
The peak of Japanese kanshi was in the periods of Edo and early Meiji and many poets called "bunjin" (literati) were produced in the background of Neo-Confucianism. In the early Edo period, Jozan ISHIKAWA and Nissei were popular, and then the pupils of Sorai OGYU were known for colorful Tang style poems in the middle of the Edo period. Subdued Sung style poetry such as by Chazan KAN was loved in the late Edo period. Also poems by Sanyo RAI are widely popular as "shigin" (poem chanting) numbers until today. Hisamitsu SHIMAZU and Muneyasu DATE are known as the masters at the end of the Edo period. Although Japanese kanshi rapidly declined during the twentieth century, intellectuals who received an education of sinology such as Soseki NATSUME, Ogai MORI and Atsushi NAKAJIMA had a taste for kanshi.
There are still some enthusiasts who produce kanshi. Even for those who do not produce Kanshi themselves, in the world of shigin or calligraphy, kanshi is a part of the basic culture as a thing to be read or viewed. Also school education often gives an opportunity to learn about kanshi.
However, kanshi produced in Japan of course does not consider the Chinese pronunciation and because of this many Japanese kanshi are regarded as poor in the light of the home Chinese standard (they don't sound beautiful when recited using Chinese pronunciation). This is said to be because of the adverse effect of Chinese literature learning in Japan, where an excessive importance was attached to "kundoku" (reading Chinese texts as Japanese texts), rather than to "ondoku" (the Chinese-style reading of a character). It is said that an original rhythm of a kanshi can be appreciated when using the classical Japanese pronunciation based on historical kana orthography although not using Chinese sound.
Format of kanshi
Kanshi is roughly divided into kotai-shi and kintai-shi. Kotai-shi refers to all kanshi produced before and in the period of the Tang dynasty and to kanshi which were produced after the period of the Tang dynasty but have an old form. Kotai-shi do not have a definite format, and there is no restriction about how to compose a poem, tone patterns and meter. On the other hand, kintai-shi (modern style poetry) is a kanshi produced based on the new style which was defined after the Tang dynasty. Kintai-shi has strict rules about how to compose a poem, tone patterns and meter. Kintai-shi are classified into zekku (quatrain) of 5 syllables, zekku of 6 syllables, zekku of 7 syllables, risshi (consisting of eight lines) of 5 syllables, risshi of 7 syllables, hairitsu (consisting of 12 or more lines) of 5 syllables and hairitsu of 7 syllables according to the number of lines and syllables in one line.
Kanshi in Korea, Vietnam and The Ryukyu Islands
As well as in Japan, Kanshi were produced in Korea, Vietnam and the Ryukyu Islands as Chinese civilization was introduced.
However, due to the abolition of the use of Chinese characters in Korea and Vietman, the tradition of kanshi literature faced a serious crisis. Consequently, Chinese characters became unfamiliar to common people and the culture through which they could know their history was lost.