Hyperrhiz 17: Essays

On the Digital Resources of Chinese Zati Poetry

Guangxu Zhao

School of Translation and Interpretation, University of Ottawa


Zati Poetry refers to the poems outside of the normal. Without the restraints of normal poetry, however, they have more freedom than the normal poems. Comparing them with present digital poems, we can find some similarities. This paper argues that the digital resources of Chinese Zati poetry result from the ideogrammic characteristics of Chinese characters. In this sense, Chinese literature has digital characteristics because their materials are ideogrammic characters.

Key words: Digital Resources, Zati Poem, Chinese character

Zati Poems (Zati shi 杂体诗) in Chinese literature refer to those outside of normal poems. In the early period of the history of Chinese poetry, the poetic forms, from the point of view of the number of characters in each verse line, were various, ranging from one-word to about ten-word forms. As time went on, however, those which were close to the colloquial and easily used to express ideas and feelings were established as normal poetic form, such as the five-character verse (Wuyan lüshi 五言律诗) and seven-character verse (Qiyan lüshi 七言律诗). And those outside of the scope of normal poems were known collectively as Zati poems.

Although they were driven out of the normal scope, Zati poems, without the restraints of normal poetry, had more freedom than normal poetry and some special forms became very popular, such as pagoda poetry (Bao ta shi 宝塔诗), dish poetry (Pan zhong shi 盘中诗), and palindrome poetry (Hui wen shi 回文诗). Simply speaking, pagoda poetry refers to those poems whose layouts have the visual shape of a pagoda, dish poetry refers to those poems with the layout of round dishes, and palindrome poetry refers to those poems which can be read backward.

Comparing Zati poetry with digital poetry, we can see some digital resources. This paper attempts to examine Chinese Zati poetry from the perspectives of digital code and hypertext.

Part One. A Survey of Chinese Zati Poetry

The types of Chinese Zati poems are various. The number of the types of Zati poems collected by Classification of Literary Genres (Yi Wen Lei Ju 艺文类聚) in the Early Tang dynasty is 36, by Investigation of the Themes of Folk Rhyme (Yue Fu Gu Ti Yao Jie 乐府古题要解) in the Middle Tang dynasty is 26, by Preface of Zati Poetry (Zati Shi Xu 杂体诗序) in the Late Tang dynasty is 25, by Cang Lang’s Notes on Poets and Poetry (Cang Lang Shi Hua 沧浪诗话) in the Song dynasty is 15, by Mirror of Song Literature (Song Wen Jian 宋文鉴) in the Song dynasty is 19, and by Distinction of Literary Genres (Wen Ti Ming Bian 文体明辨) in the Ming dynasty is 88 (Yan, 26-37). In this section, I will introduce the three most popular Zati poetic forms: pagoda poetry, dish poetry and palindrome poetry.

Pagoda poetry refers to poems whose layouts have the visual shape of a pagoda. This kind of poem also has another name: “one-word to seven-word poem” (Yi Zhi Qi Zi Shi 至七字诗) because the number of characters in verse lines increases from one to seven. Exactly speaking, the name of “one-word to seven-word poem” can also be taken as “one-word to fourteen-word poem” because it begins from one word, and then is divided into two parts on the two sides, each of which increases its number of words until it reaches seven. A typical example of this kind of poem is “Tea,” written by Yuan Zhen (779-831) (Yuan Zhen 元稹), a poet of Chinese Tang Dynasty:

香页 嫩芽
慕诗客 爱僧家
碾雕白玉 罗织红纱
铫煎黄蕊色 碗转曲尘花
夜后邀陪明月 晨前命对朝霞
洗尽古今人不倦 将至醉后岂堪夸

Fragrant leaves Tender buds
Admired by poets Loved by Monks
Grinding with white jade Sifting with red silk
Boiling until it gets yellowish Pour in bowl relieving foam
Drinking after nightfall in moon’s company Sipping in the morning rose clouds
It dispels people’s weariness at any time It helps to awaken the drunken man


Now let’s see dish poetry. Just as the name indicates, dish poetry is laid out into the shape of a round dish. It reads from the center and spirals away until it exhausts all the words in the “dish.” A representative of this kind of poem is "Dish Poem" (Figure 1) by Sushi (n/d) (Sushi 苏氏 ), a poetess in Chinese Han Dynasty. This poem was written by Sushi for her husband Su Boyu, a government official who was once sent away from Chang’an, the capital city, to the Region of Shu (Sichuan Province now). In order to show her missing her husband, she wrote this poem in the shape of a dish. This is a three-character poem because the poem lines consist of three-character units. The first character of the first line is “山” (mountain) in the center of the dish, the second is “树” (tree), the character directly below the character of “山” in the first circle, and the third is “高” (high). So the first unit of the first line of the poem is “山树高,” which means “The mountains and trees are high,” and the second unit of the first line is “鸟鸣悲,” which means “The birds are singing badly.” Following these two ominous sentences unveils the whole poem.

Figure 1: “Dish Poem” by the wife of Su Boyu. Source:© baidu (http://image.baidu.com).

Finally, let’s see Chinese Palindrome Poetry. In Chinese, the character of “回” means “backward,” and “回文诗” therefore refers to poems that can be read backward. A typical example of this kind of poem is “Missing Each Other” written by Li Yu (n/d) (Li Yu 李禺) a poet in Chinese Song dynasty (960-1279). When it is read forward, the poem expresses the husband’s missing of his wife:

枯眼望遥山隔水, Gazing anxiously into the long distance with my strained eyes,
往来曾见几心知? Is it common to meet such a good lover as you in the history?
壶空怕酌一杯酒, Drinking without your company tastes bitter,
笔下难成和韵诗。 A Poem without your comment reads dull.
途路阳人离别久, As a man on the way, I am away too long,
讯音无雁寄回迟。 Without the news from home, I am lonely.
孤灯夜守长寥寂, What a long night for me to face the lamp,
夫忆妻兮父忆儿。 How heart-broken to miss my wife and children.

When it is read backward, it is the wife's missing of her husband:

儿忆父兮妻忆夫, Child missing his father, wife missing her husband,
寂寥长守夜灯孤。 stay up late with a lamp accompany lonely.
迟回寄雁无音讯, Without news from him for a long time,
久别离人阻路途。 He might be prevented on the way home.
诗韵和成难下笔, Even with poetic spirit it is hard to write,
酒杯一酌怕空壶。 Even with good wines, it is hard to drink.
知心几见曾来往? Is it easy to meet such a good lover as you in the history?
水隔山遥望眼枯。 Anxiously gazing into the long distance with strained eyes.

Part Two. Ideogrammic Chinese characters as the “codes” of a poem

Most present programming languages consist of alphanumerical codes, but there is a different view insisting that ideogrammic characters, such as Chinese characters, be the bases of programming languages. For the advantages of Chinese-character-based programming languages, John Cayley, in his paper “Digital Wen,” makes a comparison: while the number of codes in the letter-based system is only 256, the number of the Chinese character-based system is 65,536 or 16,777,216 (Cayley, 282). The difference of the numbers indicates “the relationship of characters to their literal synaesthetic significations – be they graphic (typographic, calligraphic, abstract), phonetic (linguistic), aural (pure sound, music), figurative, symbolic, analogic, metaphoric, psychological, or cultural – will, of necessity, be differently structured as compared to the relationships established by an alphabetic script” (Ibid. 282-283).

According to Tong King Lee’s introduction to experimental Chinese literature, there have been some efforts to use ideogrammic characters as the codes to translate poems. The Wordmagick based upon Xu Bing’s The Book from the Ground is such an example. This project develops a bank of visual signs and their corresponding lexical equivalents in various languages, enabling it to translate words into icons. Lee thinks that “this piece of technology gives the work a very different interactive dimension from its codex form, as it allows users from different language backgrounds to create their own narratives based on a pool of visual signifiers” (Lee, 119).

If John Cayley’s idea of “digital wen” and the software of WordMagick are contemporary applications of ideogrammic characters as the codes to translating poems, a poem named Boudoir Plaint “闺怨” (Figure 2) written by You Mengniang might be the earliest text created with the method of a Chinese-character-based programming language. The poem takes full advantage of the pictographic features of Chinese characters, such as their shapes, size and fonts, etc., creating a poem about a maiden in deep sorrow. Now let’s see the process of “encoding and decoding” this poem:

Figure 2. “Boudoir Plaint” (Jiang, doc88).

The first 6 characters and signs form the first couplet of the poem. In the first line, the first Chinese character “夜” means “night.” But the author takes its radical “亻” away, which indicates that “some part of the night has been taken away” or “midnight.” Next to the character of modified “夜” on the right is another modified Chinese character based on the characters of “更.” In the past before the invention of clock, the character “更” is a measure unit of the night time. Each night has five “更.” Here the poet piles three “更” together, which means three “更” have passed or it is very late. In Chinese language, there is an idiomatic expression “三更半夜,” which means ”midnight.” So putting three “更” together has the same meaning as the expression of “三更半夜.” The third following of “更” is not a complete Chinese character. But it becomes a traditional Chinese character “門.” Here the author uses only half of its components. Obviously, the author wants to set in his reader’s mind a relation between this incomplete character and the expression “half-opened.”

In the second half of the first couplet, the first character is “姐,” which means “sister.” What is noticeable is that the size of this character is much smaller than others characters or modified characters. In Chinese, “小” means “small.” The author wants to give the impression that the character “姐” is small “小.” We place these two characters in two ways: “姐小” and “小姐.” But the combination of “小姐” does not mean “The sister is small,” it actually refers to "a girl who is unmarried". So here the small size of the character "姐" is used to stand for a girl who is unmarried. The second sign is an inverted character of “等” (waiting for). Why does the author put the character inverted? Because the Chinese character “倒” (inversion) is the homonym of “到,” which means “till.” The author uses an inverted “等” to express economically the meaning of “waiting for…till some specific time.” The last one is a picture of a moon, from which develops the character of “月” (moon). What we should notice here is that the picture of the moon is slanting, which indicate the late night, at which the moon is going to sink behind. So these three “codes” of characters together with the previous three can be “decoded” as “The door is half-open, the maiden inside is still waiting for the return of her lover very late at night” (半夜三更门半开,小姐等到月心歪).

The first half of the second couplet writes about the traffic inconvenience in the past. Over the first character “山” (mountain), there is a piece of cloud, which implies that the mountain is high. Next is the complete character “路” (path). In Chinese, when “路” is put together with “山,” it often indicates a state of being difficult to walk along the path, which can proved by the idiomatic expression of “山高路险” (high mountains and precipitous paths). Because of the difficulty of transportation, it is hard to have news from her lover. So the author in the next character cleverly expresses this idea by taking away the radical of “口” from the character of “信” (letter) because in Chinese “口” can stand for “口信” (oral message).

The last part of the second couplet describes the girl’s deep sorrow. The first character “哭” means “crying.” The second character “肝” means “liver,” which is often associated with “肠” (bowel), expressing liver sausage. In Chinese, there is an idiomatic expression “哭断肝肠,” which means “crying one’s eyes out” or “crying one's heart out.” In this expression, the character “断” means “broken.” That’s why the author leaves a space between the upper part and lower part of the character of “哭,” which implies that the maiden is so heartbroken that her liver sausage would break. In the management of the last character “不,” the author uses the method of glyphomancy (拆字, literally “taking apart characters”). That means when we take the horizontal stroke of “一” and the vertical stroke of “I,” what is left is another character of “人,” which means “man.” If we use both the character of “不” and the character of “人,” we can have a combination of “no man” which can be extended as “Nobody is coming.” Up to now, we can naturally draw the meaning that “Even though the maiden is crying her eyes out, nobody is coming to see her because of the inconvenient long distance” (山高路远无口信,哭断肝肠无人来).

Part Three. Isolating Feature of Chinese language Makes Chinese Poem “Hypertext”

Different from inflecting languages, Chinese belongs to isolating language. Its vocabulary does not have any inflections, which means the position of a word in a sentence is much more flexible than that in an inflecting language. Now let’s see a simple example: “He loves her. She loves him.” The inflected forms of “her” and “him” in English decide that they cannot be put in front of “He” or “She” with the exception of special rhetoric purpose. But it is different in Chinese. Because there is no inflection changes, we can say “他爱她” (He loves her), and we can also say “她爱他” (She loves him). Because of this reason, the association of characters in most Chinese poems is easier than in those in alphabetic languages, which makes some Chinese poems the characteristics of hypertext. Now let’s see an example.

Among Chinese Zati poems, there is a very complicated one named “Xuan Ji Tu” (Xuan Ji Tu 璇玑图) (Figures 3 and 4). For the origin of this poem, there are different versions. One of the popular is that it was created by a woman named Su Hui (n/d) who lived in the pre-Qing period (351-383) (Su, Baike). She wrote this poem because she regretted her previous hatred towards her husband who had married a concubine and left herself alone at home. Since the departure of her husband and his concubine, Su began to take writing as a way to express her missing and love of her husband. Finally she selected what she had written and distilled them into the poem “Xuan Ji Tu” and embroidered it on a square brocade. The whole poem consists of 841 characters with 29 characters on each line and row. From these 841 characters, a lot of separate poems have been interpreted.

“Xuan Ji Tu” is usually taken as the representative of palindrome poems because almost all poems read out of it can be read backward. But it seems to me that in addition to its palindromic feature, “Xuan Ji Tu” is more like a hypertext text because many of the characters in “Xuan Ji Tu” can become the access from one poem to another, and because in “Xuan Ji Tu” there are different media such as different sized squares of characters, different colors and diagonals, etc., all of which lead readers to continue their reading almost endlessly. “Xuan Ji Tu” is so complicated that we can take only a few of its readings to understand its hypertext feature.

Figure 3. “Xuan Ji Tu” 玄机图 (Source:© baidu http://baike.baidu.com/pic).
Figure 4. “Xuan Ji Tu” 玄机图 (Wang, et al, 6).
  1. Horizontal and vertical readings. This kind of readings usually begins from a certain character in the central square, and then turns at a certain point to the right or to the left. Here is an example of a seven-character verse beginning with the character of 玑 in the central square and turning to the left in the row where the character of 深 exists:
    玑明别改知识深,峨嵯骏岩幽岑钦;所感想忘淫荒心,堂空惟思咏和音。(This is a poem praising her husband’s knowledge and character: Your learning is shining like a bright pearl, your character is admirable as a high mountain; You let me forget all distracting notions, and sing about our love affairs all by myself.) (my translation)
  2. Four-sided readings. This kind of readings can begin from any word at the four corners of the big square and move along the outmost layer of words till the last of the big square. Now let’s see a verse from the character of "仁", which is located at the top right corner:
    (This poem praises her husband as a loyal courtier in a flourishing age: Justice and morality are worshipped in glorious Tang dynasty, ability and contribution are respected in enlightened age; A good horse needs good saddle, a good bird selects nesting place.) (translation mine)
  3. Second-layer-square readings. In addition to the four-sided readings, poems can be obtained along the second layer square. For example:
    (This poem speculates the emotional crisis of the poetess and her husband: Why our love is involved in such a big trouble, it is because of the hardship of life; worry and haggardness make people listless, far away distance make lovers separated.)(translation mine)
  4. Diagonal readings. Reading along the two diagonals of the big square of “Xuan Ji Tu,” we can have two seven-character verses:
    1) 仁 嗟中君容矅多,钦恩伤君梦诗玄;心氏辞怀感戚知,麟神轻粲散哀春。
    (This poem describes the creation of “Xuan Ji Tu”: Your lovely figures often occur in my mind, your lovely images make me dream this fantastic poem; With this poem I express my inner bitterness, with its magic I release my boudoir plaint.)(translation mine)

    2) 琴廊桃燕水好伤,身怀何是冤端平;心图怨念为怀如,林滋谦远贞自基。
    (This is a poem of self-discipline: Flowers and birds easily make music weeping, trifles and baubles unreasonably make one grumbling; To overcome the bad habit of complaining, one must cultivate oneself and be a good woman. ) (translation mine)
  5. Innermost-square readings. In the center of “Xuan Ji Tu” is a small square with fourteen characters, which can exactly form a four-character poem:
    (This poem tells the function of “Xuan Ji Tu”: Expressing love, showing plaint; love and plaint, lasting endlessly here.) (my translation)


This paper examines the digital resources of Chinese Zati poetry from the perspectives of digital code and hypertext. Both of the poems discussed here have the digital resources because of the ideogrammic characteristics of Chinese characters. In this sense, the Chinese literature has the digital characteristics because their materials are the ideogrammic characters. Let's see this point by comparing digital poetics with some Chinese literary concepts. When talking about the digital poetics of dynamic texts, Loss Pequeño Glazier says,

Dynamic texts offer new possibilities for reading and new challenges in how we approach the reading object, forcing the final object away from the idea of a fixed form on a fixed surface. In order to “read” such an object, one must look deeper, into the code itself, and must consider the various ramifications inherent in a code-based work. Ultimately, one must explore the edge where language apparatuses engage (Glazier, dichtung-digital).

Comparing Glazier’s definition of digital poetics with a Chinese poetic concept “Yi Jing” (意境), we can find some similarities. “Yi Jing” is related to image but different from image. While image in literature is a visual representation of something, “Yi Jing” is used to indicate an artistic environment triggered by the image with a certain meaning. If image is compared to stars, then “Yi Jing” can be compared to night. If image is compared to flowers, “Yi Jing” can be compared to spring. Different from image, “Yi Jing” refers to the subject’s reflection of the image. This requires that the subject begins from the image but goes into the endless time and space behind the image in order to have the artistic understanding of the object.

Finally, comparing Glazier’s idea about the ramifications of digital work, we can also find common ground. Based upon code there are various digital ramifications; based upon Chinese characters there are the ramifications of Chinese literature and art. Among these ramifications are Chinese calligraphy, painting, and poetry. Chinese calligraphy is a study of Chinese character writing. Because of the pictographic characteristics of Chinese characters, Chinese calligraphy is of the characteristics of Chinese painting. Because the basic artistic feature of Chinese poetry is not imitation but representation, which make them approaching to Chinese freehand paintings.


Cayley, John. 2003. “Digital Wen: On the Digitization of Letter- and Character-Based System of Inscription.” In Reading East Asian Writing: The Limits of Literary Theory. Ed. Michel Hockx and Ivo Smits. London and New York: Routledge Curzon.

Glazier, Loss Pequeño. 2003. http://www.dichtung-digital.org/2003/issue/3/Glazier.htm. Accessed on Jan. 14. 2016).

Jiang, Yuanxiang. 2008. Chinese Picture Poems through the Ages. http://www.doc88.com/p-841519038169.html

Lee, Tong King. 2015. Experimental Chinese Literature: Translation, Technology, Poetics. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Su, Hui. “Xuan Ji Tu.” http://baike.baidu.com/link?url=wtVUduvSYFyWnmP3gaIj8OCqPiWDAbXJN8RAaX-Ak6mlMXABweIonyAnyIRK5FByHRSmTgnKnvbM5pfo_kDEM1_A43vLluuuNwwUKPQzzi (Accessed on Jan. 14, 2016).

Tan, Hanwei. 2009. “Chinese Visual Poetry.” PhD dissertation. Indiana University.

Wang, Qifeng, Sun, Anbang and Sun, Bei. 2006. An Overview of Chinese Huiwen Poems. Taiyuan: Shanxi People’s Publishing House.

Yan Zhihua. 2001. An Introduction to Chinese Zati Poetry. Beijing: Beijing University Press.

Zhao, Kuiying. 2005. “Similarities and Difference the Spatial Forms of Chinese and Western Poetry from the Perspective of Spatiality of Chinese Poetry.” Journal of Shandong Normal University, vol. 50 (no. 5), pp. 26-31.


  1. In ancient China, most women did not have their own names. After marriage, they followed their husbands’ family names. For example, if her husband’s family is Su, the woman’s name is therefore Sushi (苏氏). In Chinese, 氏 means family name. The name of the husband of the poetess mentioned here is Su Boyu.
  2. For the authorship and time of the poem, there are different sayings. While it is mostly accepted that it was created by Sushi in Chinese Han Dynasty (202 B.C. - 220), some believe that it was the product of Fu Xuan (217-278), a poet in Chinese West Jin Dynasty (265-316).
  3. There are some exceptions. By the end of the poem, for example, there are some sentences which cannot be divided into three-character unit, and the final line of this poem has seven characters "当从中央周四角".
  4. Here is the print form and translation of this poem:
    山树高,鸟啼悲。泉水深,鲤鱼肥。空仓雀,常苦饥。吏人妇,会夫稀。出门望,见白衣。谓当是,而更非。还入门,中心悲。北上堂,西入阶。急机绞,抒声催。长叹息,当语谁。君有行,妾念之。出有日,还无期。结巾带,长相思。君忘妾,未知之。妾忘君,罪当治。安有行,宜知之。黄者金,白者玉。高者山,下者谷。姓者苏,字伯玉。人才多,知谋足。家居长安身在蜀。何惜马蹄归不数。羊肉千斤酒面斛。令君马肥麦与粟。今时人,智不足。与其书, 不能读。当从中央周四角。(Wang, et al, 2)
    A bird is singing badly on a high mount tree, /A carp is swimming lonely in a deep pond, / A sparrow is suffering from starvation in an empty barn,/ As the wife of an official, I have few chances to meet my husband./Going out of my house, I catch sight of a man in white,/I think it is him, but unfortunately it is not./Returning home, I feel mournful in my heart,/Restless in one room, and anxious in another. /The spinning wheel sounds disordered, the handloom is perturbed. /Sighing to myself, whom can I speak to?/Ever since you left, I am always thinking about your life./Seeing you off at an exact date, but waiting for you endlessly./ I count the days you have left, suffering from lovesickness./I am not sure whether you have forgotten me. /If I forgot you, I would be condemned by God, /For my behavior, I think you know well./The gold is yellow, the silver is white;/The mountain is high and the valley is deep. / Oh, my master Su! / you have knowledge, you have wits, / Although working in Shu, your home is Chang’an, / why do you spare the travelling expenses without return? / I have prepared sumptuous food and vintage wine, / I have got ready the first rate forage for your horse. / Nowadays, people do not have enough knowledge,/ Facing this poem, they do not know how to read it./ It should be read from the center to the outside. (translation mine)
  5. Original: Cai Mingquan, "Donghu Poem Style" Song Dynasty - Li Yu's Return Poems "Bianxiangxue" (bbs post), cnhubei.com. http://bbs.cnhubei.com/thread-3025294-1-1.html, accessed May 16 2017; translation mine.
  6. Original: Cai Mingquan, "Donghu Poem Style" Song Dynasty - Li Yu's Return Poems "Bianxiangxue" (bbs post), cnhubei.com. http://bbs.cnhubei.com/thread-3025294-1-1.html, accessed May 16 2017; translation mine.
  7. Here is the original in print form and its translation:
    半夜三更门半开,小姐等到月心歪。/ 山高路远无口信,哭断肝肠无人来。
    The door half-open, the maiden inside is / still waiting for the return of her lover very late at night. / The maiden is crying her eyes out / because not even an oral message has been received from the inconvenient long distance. (translation mine)
  8. The exact time of this poem is uncertain. According some information, it was written during the period of Chinese Qin dynasty (221 B.C. -206 B.C.) and Chinese Han dynasty (202 B.C. - 220) (Jiang, doc88).
  9. The feudalist China is a society of plural marriage and that a man married a concubine was taken as normal.
  10. For the numbers of poems that can be read out of “Xuan Ji Tu,” there are various ideas. According to baidu, 7958 poems have been interpreted. But actually, some of the readings might not be the original intention of the poetess. The commonly agreed number is about three thousands (Zhao, 28).