(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Confucius. The Book of Songs: The Ancient Classic of Poetry. Translated by Arthur Waley, edited with additional translations by Joseph R. Allen. New York: Grove Press, 1996. Waley, a preeminent translator of East Asian literature, first translated The Book of Songs in 1937. This updated edition includes fifteen poems that were not included in the initial translation and restores the poems to their original order. It also contains a foreword in which Stephen Owens discusses the significance of the poems and a postface providing a literary history of the work.

Dobson, W. A. C. H. The Language of “The Book of Songs.” Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1968. A grammar of the language of The Book of Songs, with useful discussions of the linguistic characteristics of each of its four divisions. Dobson argues that the poems derive from different periods.

Legge, James. The She King. Volume 4 of The Chinese Classics. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. Provides a rich source of materials for the critical reader who can excuse Christian interpretations for Chinese ideas and who can enjoy stories without needing strictly factual scholarship. Includes translation, notes, and history of the text.

Van Zoeren, Steven. Poetry and Personality: Reading, Exegesis, and Hermeneutics in Traditional China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. Chronicles the principles for interpreting the text as they have changed over two thousand years, with a focus on the Mao school and the codes by which the text may have been written and read.

Yeh, Shan. The Bell and the Drum: Shih Ching as Formulaic Poetry in an Oral Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Includes an index to references to the 305 poems. Argues that the work is poetry not because of originality but because of the totality of its cultural associations, which are contained in Chinese oral tradition and formulaic stock phrases.

Yu, Pauline. “The Book of Songs.” In Masterworks of Asian Literature in Comparative Perspective, edited by Barbara Miller. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1994. One of the best and simplest short discussions of the work. Includes topics for discussion and a view of translations of the text.