Ci poetry, like most Chinese literature, came about during the Tang Dynasty. However, ci lyric came into its fullest array later during the Song Dynasty, when the style was formatted and regularized. Ci lyrics are distinguished from other types of Chinese poetry by the fact that they are arranged to the tunes of traditional songs, known as cipai. To compose a new ci lyric, a ci poet would typically choose from a set of about 800 traditional tunes and insert his own unique words to fit the rhythm and meter of the song’s melody.
Early on in the history of ci poetry, the lyrics were sung more like a song, to the tune of the original melody. Later, as the art was adapted in the Qing Dynasty, ci poetry became more like spoken word, where the lyrics were read out in their own rhythm and meter, rather than sung.
The themes of ci poems also differed from those of other Chinese poetry. Most ci poems centered around the tangible world and emotional state of the author, rather than military pursuits or epic adventures. A ci poem often seems to meander as though the poet were simply writing his thoughts down as they occured to him. One of the most famous ci poets, Su Shi, once wrote a well-known ci lyric after the loss of his wife in which he recounted feelings of loneliness and coldness, sitting by the window and looking upon the moon.
The ci lyrics of the Song Dynasty comprises some of the most accessible and beautiful poetry within the Chinese literary tradition. These poems usually refer to emotions common to the human experience, making them exquisite compositions that have the possibility of touching each reader who comes across them.