Cheng discusses some of the unique features of Chinese poetry derived from the writing system (to which he gives a brief introduction) and its close connections with calligraphy, painting, the language of myth, and music. "The Passive Procedures" then explores "the procedures by which the poets delete certain existing elements from the ordinary language". This involves ellipsis of personal pronouns, of prepositions in phrases of place and time, of tense marking, and of verbs and words of comparison, with "empty" words (mostly adverbs) often replacing verbs.
"The Chinese poet seeks, through the process of reduction, not just to simplify the language to the extreme, but rather to multiply the nominal-verbal play, and to introduce to the language an implied dimension, that of the void."
"The Active Procedures" surveys the most common forms of Tang poetry, their use of rhyme, tonal counterpoint and musical effects, and their syntactic balancing of parallel and non-parallel lines.
"An elementary example of the use of syllable finals is provided in the so-called die-yun, a binom whose two elements rhyme, as in pai-huai ("go back and forth in a certain place, hesitate"). In a more eloquent example, the poet Li Yu uses a series of -an finals to reinforce the idea of tormented obsession and of melancholy sighs."
A range of couplets are analysed, as well as two full poems.
"The Images" considers ideas at a "higher, more profound level" than these linguistic features, though they are still "at the foundation of that language and actively participating in constructing it". Notable concepts here include the Man-Earth-Heaven triad, "feeling", "landscape", "present self", and "absent self".
"The bi (comparison) is used when the poet appeals to an image (from nature in general) to embody an idea or feeling that he would like to express. Conversely, one makes use of the xing (incitation) when an element of the perceptible world, a landscape, a scene, arouses in him a memory, a latent feeling or an as yet unexpressed idea."
Some examples of metaphoric language and symbolic figures are followed by a detailed analysis of four full poems: Li He's "Ballad of Kong-hou", two lü-shu of Li Shang-yin, and Li Bai's "Jade Staircase":
Jade staircase | white dew born
Late night | penetrate silk stocking
Nonetheless lower | crystal screen
Through transparency | see autumn moon.
That takes up 140 pages and is followed by a 170 page anthology of Tang poetry, in a dual language presentation with English translations by Jerome Seaton facing the Chinese text, covering Jue-ju (quatrains), Lü-shi (regulated verse) and Gu-ti-shi (ancient-style poetry). Footnotes here provide background information necessary to understand the poems; they sometimes refer back to the preceding material but don't attempt further analysis in the same vein.