Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lu Shih—The Couplets of T’ang

Created January 14, 2011


The Lesson


Lu Shih—The Couplets of T’ang

Bronze statuettes of T’ang Dynasty courtiers.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Libray of Congress.

Imagine yourself in the imperial court in ancient China. The year is 750 CE. In the court of the T'ang dynasty, the Emperor Hsuan Tsung glances at one of his ministers and says, "Heron." His minister promptly answers, "Oriole." "Blue heron," says the Emperor. "Yellow oriole," his minister counters, matching color for color, animal for animal. "Blue heron spears a fish," the Emperor declares. "Yellow oriole swallows the worm." The Emperor then finishes, "In triumph, blue heron spears a fish." The minister acknowledges the turn of emotion with, "In humility, yellow oriole swallows the worm." Together the two have created a balanced pair of lines with parallel construction, matching noun for noun, adjective for adjective, and concept for concept. This is the foundation of the sometimes whimsical, often poignant poetic form called the lu shih, or "regulated verse."

The T'ang Dynasty(c. 600-900 CE), the period when the lu shih came to the fore as a poetic form is considered by some to be the peak of classical of Chinese culture. The T'ang court encouraged a cultural boom, building on the elements introduced by the Sui Dynasty before them, and the arts from sculpture to painting flourished. Poetry was among the arts which thrived during the T'ang, several classical forms got their start and were perfected during this period. One of these was the lu shih, which balances parallel couplets, at least two and preferably no more than four, to create a message of irony and insight.

Parallel construction in grammar lessons presents the mechanical concept of pairing like constructions. This lesson in the T'ang poetic form will help reinforce the concept of parallel construction while introducing high school language arts and literature students to Chinese culture through this poetic form and challenging them to find and express subtle messages in the juxtaposition of balanced images.

Guiding Questions

  • What is a lu shih?
  • How does the lu shih use parallel couplets to express its message?
  • What does the lu shih poetic form tell us about ancient Chinese culture?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • Identify a lu shih
  • Analyze a lu shih for its parallel construction
  • Discuss the message expressed by the juxtaposed parallels
  • Discuss the role of Chinese philosophy's influence in the development of lu shih poetry
  • Identify lu shih couplets within a longer work from the T'ang dynasty
  • Successfully complete a collaborative lu shih of at least two couplets by playing the "partnered pairs" game
  • Compose a simple lu shih of their own of at least two couplets

Preparation Instructions

Asia for Educators features a site on T'ang poetry that presents a clear and concise explanation of the concepts of lu shih, and features some student materials and teacher resources. From the main page the section on lu shih can be found by first searching under China, and then selecting “Teaching Units” for “Classical Literature”. A pop-up menu appears with a selection of informative lessons on T'ang Poetry and the foremost poets of the dynasty, Li Bai, Du Fu, and Wang Wei. Further information on Chinese poetry, and on its golden age during the T'ang dynasty can be found by accessing the EDSITEment reviewed we resource AskAsia.

Lu shih poetry comprises two or more sets of balanced parallel couplets of five or seven syllables to a line. This poetic form was developed and established during the T'ang dynasty and has elements in common with its Japanese cousin, the haiku. Initially, the lu shih began as part of a longer work, but eventually became its own poetic form in isolation. The lu shih examines juxtaposed images to create its effect, especially contrasting images. The lu shih differs from the haiku in that it is not static; that is, rather than examine the still image of a single moment, the lu shih is freighted with action.

The following are some examples of lu shih, and the qualities that students should look for in their readings and discussions of this poetic form. The following poems are all available through the EDSITEment reviewed web resource Asia for Educators.

Ballad of the Army Carts
Wagons rattling and banging,
horses neighing and snorting,
conscripts marching, each with bow and arrows at his hip,
fathers and mothers, wives and children, running to see them off—
(Du Fu)

Moon over Mountain Pass
All the birds have flown up and gone;
A lonely cloud floats leisurely by.
We never tire of looking at each other -
Only the mountain and I.

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
(Li Bai [Li Po])

In some cases, such as the opening of the Ballad of the Army Carts, the parallel construction is clearly evident, matching part of speech with part of speech. In others, such as Moon Over Mountain Pass, the parallelism is found in the balance of contrasts: "All the birds" contrasts with "a lonely cloud"; "Only the mountain and I" contrasts with "Until only the mountain remains." In many cases, the lu shih pattern comprises only part of the poem, such as in Ballad of the Army Carts.

In Li Bai's Ziyi Song, the parallel grammatical structure of a lu shih is most clearly observed in lines 9-12:

Ziyi Song
Amidst the flowers a jug of wine, (1)
I pour alone lacking companionship.
So raising the cup I invite the Moon,
Then turn to my shadow which makes three of us.
Because the Moon does not know how to drink, (5)
My shadow merely follows the movement of my body.
The moon has brought the shadow to keep me company a while,
The practice of mirth should keep pace with spring.
I start a song and the moon begins to reel,
I rise and dance and the shadow moves grotesquely. (10)
While I'm still conscious let's rejoice with one another,
After I'm drunk let each one go his way.
Let us bind ourselves for ever for passionless journeyings.
Let us swear to meet again far in the Milky Way.
(Li Bai [Li Po])

Nevertheless, images in a parallel contrast are found with "amidst the flowers" and "I pour alone," "a jug of wine" with "lacking companionship": The flowers (plural) have company in the jug of wine; the poet has no one. Later, the Moon and the shadow are paired, neither able to drink. The subtlety of such pairings may be missed by any but the most advanced students.

As the lecture series in Asia for Educators observes, lu shih poetry infused everyday life in China during this period. People who desired a position in government or at court were expected to compose poetry as part of their rigorous civil service testing in7th and 8th century China, placing poetry composition among the highly demanding skills of government and the imperial court. At this time, the only means for young men outside the aristocracy to gain access to positions of wealth or power was to spend years studying for the demanding civil service test. So important was this opportunity that villages would invest their collective resources on one or two promising young men in order to gain the benefits of having one of their own in the imperial system. It is highly significant that the skill of composing poetry was considered a necessity for this esteemed position. The concept of the art of poetry as a mark of cultural completion infused Chinese society.

Poetry composition became the mark of everyday life, and one was expected to compose couplets for all occasions, even visiting a friend or celebrating a birthday. People composed poems in China's T'ang Dynasty the same way modern cultures send greeting cards or leave calling cards. One became known for his ability to compose quickly and wittily for all public occasions, especially those of state, and poetry composition became a broader base of social mobility than the civil service examination might allow. In court, and eventually in the home, the parlor game of "partnered pairs" described in the opening of this lesson became a favorite pastime as poets challenged one another to find parallels that would bring a poignant observation into focus.

Finally, three of the foremost poets of the T'ang dynasty represent the three primary philosophical forces of the age: Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The basic tenets of these three key philosophies play an integral part in the development of the lu shih in the courts of the T'ang Dynasty. Concise lectures on each can be found through the Asia for Educators website on the link for Religion and Philosophy Teaching Units.

The practice of Taoism was meant to enable people to realize that, since human life is really only a small part of a larger process of nature, the only human actions which ultimately make sense are those which are in accord with the flow of Nature. Violence and aggression are rejected in favor of tranquility and contemplation.

Buddhism, a philosophy founded by Siddharta Gautama in India, arose from his observation of the contrast between his wealthy life of comfort and the vast suffering of the poor he viewed around him. After a life of, alternately, indulgence and renunciation, the Buddha concluded that all earthly pleasures were transitory, and do not represent a lasting spiritual peace. Buddhism seeks to find a release from desire and the suffering caused by desires.

Confucius taught of the five bonds or relationships of reciprocal responsibility: parent and child, minister and ruler, husband and wife, older and younger brother, friend and friend. Rituals of everyday society gained meaning through the humility required to fulfill responsibilities, especially to the state.

These Three Teachings formed the educational background of not only the emperors of the T'ang Dynasty, but all Chinese scholars throughout the mperial court. They are reflected in the works of the major poets of the T'ang Dynasty: Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Li Bo. More information about Taosim, Confucianism, Buddhism, and the influential philosophies of ancient China can be found through the EDSITEment reviewed web resource AskAsia. In addition you may wish to read about Buddhism in Japan in this essay on Japanese religion. The Buddhism of Japan has been heavily influenced by the Zen school (Chan in Chinese), which was also very influential in China.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Balance of Parallels

You may want to begin this activity by using a brief introductory activity to emphasize the concept of parallel grammatical constructions. One way to introduce this concept to students is to write a few paired sentences on the board and ask students to pick out the parallel components of the sentences. If you have access to a data projector, you may wish to project the texts of the following poems. Alternatively, you can distribute these texts to students as printouts, or direct them to the web pages where they are available.

Next, distribute Wang Wei's Magnolia Hermitage available through the EDSITEment reviewed website Asia for Educators; have a student read the poem aloud.

Day after day we can't help growing older.
Year after year spring can't help seeming younger.
Come let's enjoy our winecup today,
Not pity the flowers fallen!

Ask students to comment on the structure of the first two lines in the poem. Students should observe balanced pairs: "Day after day" with "Year after year"; "we can't help" with "spring can't help"; "growing older" with "seeming younger."

Ask students why spring would seem younger as people grow older. The idea should emerge in discussion that the word "seem" shows that age is relative; that people age, but because spring is timeless, it appears to grow young as we grow older. You may wish to emphasize or elicit the observation that the meaning of the couplet is heightened because of their parallel alignment; what appears to be the same grammatically gives a message of the contrasts of the two images.

Ask students to read through the second couplet. Were these lines also written with parallel structure? Some will say no because the words don't align in the same rigid form as the first couplet. Others will observe the verb-direct object parallel. Ask if "today" is parallel with "fallen." Grammatically, it is not. "What word would be parallel with 'today'?" Students may observe that the flowers of yesterday are probably fallen, so while the grammar isn't parallel, the images are.

Explain that the four-line poem of two couplets is a Chinese poetic form called the lu shih, a poetic form developed in medieval China emphasizing balanced parallels. Sometimes the parallels heighten or emphasize a concept; sometimes they serve to show an ironic contrast. Ask students to return to Wang Wei's poem.

  • What concept is emphasized by the couplets in Wang Wei's Magnolia Hermitage ?
  • Which images serve to give that message?

Students should observe the speaker's lament on the passage of time, time's fleetingness, and the message of living for the moment, not regretting the past.

Next, distribute Bai JuYi's An Early Cricket:

An early cricket chirps, then pauses;
the dying lamp gutters, then flares again.
Outside my window I know it is raining—
the leaves of the banana first know its drumming.

Along with Du Fu's View from a Height:

Sharp wind, towering sky, apes howling mournfully;
untouched island, white sand, birds flying in circles.
Infinite forest, bleakly shedding leaf after leaf;
inexhaustible river, rolling on wave after wave.
Through a thousand miles of melancholy autumn, I travel;
carrying a hundred years of sickness, I climb to this terrace.
Hardship and bitter regret have frosted my temples—
and what torments me most? Giving up wine!

Both poems are available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Asia for Educators.

Ask students to identify the parallels in the couplets. Have them discuss the images and comment on the messages.

Conclude by asking students to define lu shih poetry. Students should identify lu shih poetry as a series of couplets in parallel grammatical construction or with parallel imagery and give at least two examples from the selected texts.

Activity 2. Lu shih in the T'ang Dynasty and The Balance of the Three Teachings

The T'ang Dynasty (618-907 CE) is often thought of as being a period when the arts- and poetry in particular- flowered. Poetry infused the daily lives of the aristocracy, the imperial court, civil servants and scholars throughout China during this period. Poetry styles which came to the fore during this period, such as the lu shih can give students insight into Chinese culture and history.

The essay "Writing as a Means to Express and Cultivate the Self" by Kelly Ann Long, which is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource AskAsia, provides an excellent overview for introducing students to this period, and to the importance of poetry during the T'ang. You may wish to have students read this essay, or to discuss the cultural and historical context of China's golden age of poetry with the class.

In addition to the historical context of the role of poetry during this time, the above essay also gives an introduction to the influence of The "Three Teachings". The "Three Teachings" of medieval China were Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Each of these teachings had a profound and lasting effect on Chinese particularly during the T'ang dynasty and beyond. Buddhism focuses on man's fleeting presence in the eternal universe and the transitory nature of physical pleasures; Daoism observes the eternal patterns of Nature and seeks to dwell in harmony with "the Way" taught by these patterns; Confucianism emphasizes humility while stressing moral obligations to the world around us.

You may want to begin the discussion of the influence of the "Three Teachings" on T'ang poetry, and on the lu shih in particular, by giving a brief overview of each of the three teachings. Next, divide the class into three groups, and ask each group to read the information on Taoism, Buddhism, Zen Buddhism (or Chan Buddhism, the school which was very influential in China) and Confucianism available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource AskAsia. Ask each group to create a list of characteristics and important elements of each of the teachings according to the reading. Each group should present their list to the class, while those listening should take note of what the other groups have found.

Utilizing the information they have gained from their own reading, as well as the lists of other groups, ask students to discuss possible answers to these questions:

  • What do the Three Teachings have in common?
  • What elements are specific to each of The Three Teachings?
  • How could the main ideas of each of the Three Teachings influence the development of lu shih?
  • Where are elements of any of these teachings found in the sample poems?

For the last question students should find specific examples in the poems they have read which exemplify elements found in the Three Teachings. Students can complete this activity by completing the charts available in PDF format:

Activity 3. Finding Lu Shih

Once students are comfortable identifying the qualities of a lu shih, explain that the lu shih style was difficult and tedious to maintain throughout the very long narrative poems that the medieval poets composed. In such works, the u shih was placed only occasionally. You may wish to compare to Shakespeare's use of blank verse, which was prominent in the longer soliloquies and major dialogue, but not strictly followed for minor dialogue exchanges.

Distribute three of the longer works of T'ang Dynasty poetry and ask students to identify the lu shih couplets. Suggested poems are Du Fu's Moonlit Night, A Woman of Quality and Ballad of the Army Carts; Wang Wei's Secretary Wei Living in the Mountains; and Li Bai's Ziyi Song and A Farewell to Secretary Shu-yun at the Hsieh Tiao Villa in Hsuan-Chou.

Instruct students to search for grammatically parallel couplets or ideologically paralleled couplets. Encourage them to compare images and ideas as well as parts of speech to locate the lu shih pairs.

Ask students to comment on the use of the lu shih couplets within the context of the larger works. Students may observe that the rigid structure within the flowing narrative serves to heighten a theme, present a feeling of order, or anchor the reader in specific imagery.

Have students report their findings in a short essay defining the lu shih and analyzing the longer works for the lu shih couplets and their role in the overall work.

Activity 4. My Lu Shih

Explain the significance of lu shih poetry in everyday life during the height of the T'ang Dynasty. Ask them to imagine being required to write a poem for the SAT or the postal worker's exam, and ask them to speculate why poetry writing might be considered a significant skill for a career in politics, government, law, or medicine. You may wish to point students to the concept of a liberal arts education, and to our own cultural associations of "cultivation" with classical music, an appreciation for Greek sculpture or the ability to recite passages of Keats.

One way in which people during the T'ang both practiced and sharpened their poetry skills, and had a chance to show off their abilities was by playing parallel pairs as a parlor game, in addition to composing lu shih for special occasions or as a calling card if they went visiting and found no one at home. In this activity students will have a chance to hone their own wordsmithing skills the same way that men and women of the T'ang did in the 7th and 8th century.

You may begin by explaining the parallel pairs game that is described in the introduction to this lesson. One player will begin, and his or her partner will answer with an appropriate parallel word or phrase. You may want to remind students that the number of words must be the same in both the first line and its response, and that all parts of speech must be matched.

Next, pair students with a partner and have them play the game with the goal of building a balanced couplet. Emphasize that the final couplet should contain a message or observation. Allow one minute for the pairs to come up with a couplet, then ask students to share the results. Allow another five minutes for this activity and challenge students to come up with a number of couplets. Encourage them to form a longer lu shih poem or perhaps two.

Finally, challenge students to compose their own lu shih poem. Remind them of the various uses of the lu shih in medieval China: birthdays, family gatherings, weddings, thank-you notes, farewell notes, etc. Ask students to explain their choices of paired parallels in a short paragraph accompanying the poem.

You may wish to challenge advanced students by reminding them that the art of poetry writing was a significant requirement for someone wishing to serve in politics or government, and that politics was shaped by the poets and artists in the political hierarchy of the royal court, similar to the way actors and rock musicians are active in politics today. What kind of poems could students compose about the current state of society? What issues could they discuss in terms of balanced contrasts? Ask students to compose longer poems in couplets to include lu shih parallels in the manner of Ballad of the Army Carts or A Woman of Quality. Have a lu shih reading and discuss the issues presented by the poems.


Activity 1: Students submit an acceptable definition of lu shih and at least two examples of grammatically parallel lines.

Activity 2: Students should submit an essay explaining the appearance of the influence of the Three Teachings on the lu shih they have read in class. They should cite examples in the text to support their explanation.

Activity 3: Students correctly identify parallel couplets by stating which words align in parallel; students explain their responses to the question of the role of the couplet with textual support.

Activity 4: Students compose a two-couplet lu shih demonstrating parallel grammar or parallel imagery/concepts and explain their choice of images and overall message. Students compose a longer work comprising couplets, at least two of which demonstrate the standards of a lu shih, on a theme of political or social significance.

Extending The Lesson

You may wish to extend this lesson by investigating the appearance of Taoist influence in Chinese painting. Materials for this investigation are available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource AskAsia.


Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Ancient World
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Poetry analysis
  • Poetry writing
  • Etheljean Deal (Washington, DC)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources