Language and Literature
Rhyme is the earliest, most enduring feature of classical Chinese prosody in a 3000-year living tradition. Since Tang times, classical Chinese poetry has been based on a ‘Middle Chinese’ (MC) rhyme system founded in the 7th century and followed today out of traditional authority. Yet the MC system works ill in Putonghua (P), due to the loss of endings /-m/ and /-p, -t, -k/ (the latter forming one of the four tonal categories) and pitch contour changes in two tonal categories undercutting prosodic sense. MC rhymes still work variously in some southern dialects, among which Cantonese (C) is widely seen as richest phonetically and prosodically and closest to MC rhyme structure, thus the most legitimate heir to it.
Phonetically, the MC system is flawed today: some old ‘rhyme-mates’ no longer rhyme, while some words in separate rhyme groups rhyme perfectly. Rhyme adds musical resonance to poetry; in monosyllabic Chinese, with rich rhyming resources, near-rhymes are neither necessary nor satisfactory.
Since poetry is written for coeval readers, rhyme reform for prosodic poetry writing today is needed. Modern P rhymes have been recast into 18 groups, but besides being of little meaning to non-P native speakers, it remains slanted by traditional groupings, as 8 of the 18 groups assemble near-rhymes. Some scientific reform is needed: it makes phonetic and prosodic sense to restructure rhymes by P and C pronunciation, both in terms of academic inquiry and of providing accurate prosodic standards to Chinese prosodic poetry.