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The origins of ci: A contemporary reflection on a thousand-year-old academic controversy

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image of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China

The academic controversy over the “origin of ci” has lasted over a thousand years throughout the study of this Chinese poetic genre. According to their own account by literati of the Tang dynasty, ci was collected from folks of the fields for both its phrase and tune. But since the Song dynasty, different arguments have arisen. Some held that ci had its origin in the so-called “long-and-short lines”, while others postulated “phrase-filling in uniform tunes”; still others believed in its derivation from “foreign-tune with Chinese phrase”. Starting from the 20th century, the focus of debate shifted to whether ci had evolved from native vernacular songs or been invented for new tunes, and, if the latter was true, whether the tune came from abroad (Hu 胡) or within China (Hua 华). However, all these arguments have some theoretical flaws resulting from: (i) an isolated and undefined academic context and research orientation; (ii) a method of substituting the part for the whole, which may have distorted the true picture of Chinese-foreign music exchange; (iii) the false premise that new tunes gave rise to new genres of poetry; and (iv) the disregard of the reality in learning and spread of ci performance and composition, and neglect of the role played by social changes and human subjectivity in the budding of new literary genres.


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