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About English Jueju

About English Jueju

Chinese Classical Tradition

Chinese literary tradition stretches back thousands of years and remains vibrant to this day. With thousands of classical Chinese poems by masters of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) like Li Bai and Du Fu, to Su Dongpo in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), to modern writers like Lu Xun (1881–1936) and Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan (1955-), the range and depth of Chinese literature is second to none. For over 1,500 years, Chinese poetry has been read and composed in Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese. This was possible because classical Chinese poetry follows very strict rules that can transcend language barriers and be mastered by anyone with the determination to learn. 

Over the last 1,500 years, the ability to compose poetry following complex rules became important to prospects hoping to serve in the Chinese Empire. Poetry composition was a way to demonstrate learning, and it was thought that the ability to harmonize the world and language through poetry revealed one’s ability to do the same in human affairs. For much of Chinese history, composing regulated poetry was a way to test intelligence, creativity and compatibility with the Chinese governing worldview, making it a key skill for anyone who aspired to move (or stay) up on the social ladder. Given this importance, many aspiring statesmen treated jueju as a competitive form of social gameplay that helped them hone their skills.

Jueju in English

While most American students have composed a Japanese Haiku, few have read, let alone composed, a Chinese jueju (a stanza of four lines), which inspired the Japanese form. Oklahoma students are leading the way in introducing this poetic form to the English speaking world through our statewide poetry competition, the Newman Prize for English Jueju.

Unlike the centuries worth of jueju written in other languages, the English form is just now turning 20 years old, as it was first taught by Institute for US-China Issues co-director Jonathan Stalling at UC Berkeley in 1997. By using their own language as if it were Chinese, English speakers learn deep cultural concepts that have guided Chinese civilization for thousands of years. 

Teaching & Learning Resources

A successful poem balances the sounds, meaning and overall arrangement of words in complex ways. This is best accomplished by someone who has studied the classical Chinese worldview and is able to reflect this in their poetry. Jueju is read and enjoyed as high art that imparts wisdom about loss, grief, love and beauty as well as a competitive social form of gameplay. 

Explore the resources below to learn more about the jueju form. 

Before we can learn how to play the game, it is important to learn a bit about the relationship of the Chinese language and the jueju form. The primary difference between Chinese and English jueju lies in its use of Chinese characters. A single character like the one for /moon/ 月 is a single syllable sound (yue). So when you see a jueju, the first thing you see is a set number of characters per line and a set number of lines making up something like a grid. When you hear a jueju, the first thing you hear is a set number of syllables (in this case seven syllables to a line and four lines long). 

枫桥夜泊 – 张继 fēng qiáo yè bó – Zhang Ji

Yuè luòwū tishuāng mǎn tiān
Jiāng fēngyú huǒduì chóu mián
gū sūchéng wàihán shān sì
Yè bànzhōng shēngdào kè chuán

So when we compose a jueju in English we must follow the same pattern by composing poetry in monosyllabic English:

Moon setscrow callsfrost fills sky
Sweet gumsboat lightswake I lie
Out sideSu ZhouHan Shan Shrine
From boatbronze bellsounds close by

If we choose our words from the 3000+ vocabulary of monosyllabic words, we can build classical Chinese poems following most of the rules of classical Chinese jueju. This form of poetry is based on the monosyllable, and the English language has one of the largest monosyllabic vocabularies making such poems richly varied and more beautiful than one might expect.

Downloadable Manipulatives: Puzzle/Scramble Boards (printable pdfs)