The earliest repository of Chinese verse, The Book of Songs, contains 305 poems of folk and court origins. The court poems are more or less ceremonial in character, designed to be sung at sacrifices, to accompany the dances and feasts in honor of dynastic ancestors, or to adorn such formal occasions as receptions, banquets, chases, and archery contests. The folk songs comprise love lyrics of various kinds, epithalamiums, complaints, satires, elegies, and georgics.
Almost all the poems in The Book of Songs were composed in the pre-Confucian period of the Chou Dynasty (c. 1122-222 b.c.e.). In the ceremonial odes the wisdom and prowess of its founders—the kings Wen and Wu and the duke of Chou—are frequently recalled, although a few pieces, hardly of greater antiquity, celebrate the splendid achievements of even earlier dynasties, the Hsia and the Shang. According to a now-discredited tradition, Confucius was the compiler of this anthology and rejected nine-tenths of the three thousand poems then extant; but the canon must have been well fixed by his time, and diplomats and scholars even then knew the poems by heart, quoting them on every conceivable occasion to display their literary attainment or political sagacity. It is easy to see why the court poetry—so vital to the discharge of religious and state functions—should have been saved, but the early preservation of so much folk poetry is a more curious matter. In the absence of better explanation, one must accept the tradition that the Chou kings made a point of collecting the popular ballads of their many vassal states and using them as a political barometer to gauge the happiness or discontent of the populace. All the poems in The Book of Songs were meant to be sung, but the tunes were already lost by the time of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.).
The anthology, as it exists today, is divided into four sections: kuo feng, the smaller ya, the greater ya, and sung. While kuo feng are the folk songs of the vassal states and both ya and sung may be indifferently translated as odes, the divisions are hardly clean-cut. Many of the poems in the category of the smaller ya are apparently folk songs, and some of the greater ya poems are little differentiated from the religious and dynastic odes of the sung section. As documents of ancient China, the folk songs and courtly odes are of great historical and anthropological interest. To these, scholars owe the first mention of the sage kings and mythical heroes, the coherent presentation of the animistic beliefs of the early Chinese regarding ancestor worship and the adaptation of human labor to the cyclic changes in nature, the precise details of many religious and state rituals, and the intimate evocation of the life of a simple people of great emotional integrity: their courtships and marriages, their work on the farm, and their much-detested military service. On the strength of the love poems alone, the French Sinologist Marcel Granet reconstructed a fascinating picture of mating customs and fertility rites in the dawn of Chinese history.
Historical considerations aside, The Book of Songs is primarily poetry and should be read as such. Confucius once told his disciples, My children, why do you not study the Poetry? Poetry will stimulate your emotions, help you to be more observant, enlarge your sympathies, and moderate your resentment of injustice. It is useful at home in the service of one’s father, abroad in the service of one’s prince. Furthermore, it will widen your acquaintance with the names of birds, beasts, plants, and...
(The entire section is 1545 words.)