BOOK OF SONGS (BOOK OF ODES)

BOOK OF SONGS


Book of Odes on bamboo slips

The Classic of Poetry, also Shijing or Shih-ching, translated variously as the Book of Songs, Book of Odes, or simply known as the Odes or Poetry is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, dating from the 11th to 7th centuries B.C.. It is made up of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs; 74 minor festal songs, traditionally sung at court festivities; 31 major festal songs, sung at more solemn court ceremonies; and 40 hymns and eulogies, sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house. [Source: Library of Congress, Wikipedia]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The “Classic of Odes” (also known as the “Book of Songs”) is a compilation of popular and aristocratic songs dating from the early Zhou period. The popular songs are said to have been collected on the orders of the early Zhou kings as a way of gauging the feelings of their subjects. Thus, even the songs that are thought to have their roots in folk songs and poetry are likely to have been modified by a scholarly official and may not be in their original form. Nonetheless, the songs give us a rich and varied view of the lives and concerns of commoners and of the elite of the Zhou dynasty. The compilation had taken on roughly the form that we see today by 544 B.C.. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: The “Book of Songs” appears to have been the first text to be identified as a source of wisdom so great that it needed to be learned by all the elite. It is the founding text of the standard “Canon” of the later Confucian eras. The Zuo Commentary to the “Spring and Autumn Annals” (the “Zuo zhuan”) portrays its pivotal role in the discourse of patricians, and the “Analects of Confucius” presents it as a core of the syllabus that Confucius taught his followers...The collection was, from an early date, believed to represent not only the finest poetry of China (set to the finest melodies, now long lost), but was also thought to hold withinit the subtle sentiments of its sagely authors. Young patricians were, from perhaps the sixth century on, expected both to memorize the entire “Poetry” and also to know how to cite it in order to convey, with an unmatched elegance and moral authority, their most subtle intentions.

“Originally, all the poems were set to music, and the music was considered as central to the aesthetic meaning of each poem as the words. By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.. A.D. 220), however, the music had been lost. In other texts” we “see references to the singing of these odes by courtiers employing them in diplomatic discourse and we will encounter instances of the poems “performed” by an orchestra of musicians. The importance of the music to the cultural role of the songs cannot be underestimated. Depending on your musical taste, imagine, if the music were lost, how incomprehensible might seem the cultural influence of “La Traviata,” “Jingle Bells,” “My Way,” or “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah).”

“Tradition has it that the “Classic of Odes” was edited by Confucius, who chose the poems carefully for the moral lessons contained therein. There is noevidence that Confucius actually did this, but it is significant to realize that the odes were read and interpreted withina Confucian moral framework.

Selections below are from "Anthology of Chinese Literature, Volume I: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century", edited by Cyril Birch (New York: Grove Press, 1965) and "The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces", One Volume, Expanded Edition, edited by Maynard Mack (W. W. Norton & Co., 1995)

Content of the Book of Songs


Zhou-era bird, dragon, snake

The “Book of Songs” (“Poetry”) is one of the half-dozen or so most sacrosanct works in the Confucian canon (books of sage wisdom). An anthology of about three hundred poems, it was probably edited into a collection sometime in the eighth or seventh centuries B.C., but including many poems much older than that.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: The “Book of Songs” appears to have been the first text to be identified as a source of wisdom so great that it needed to be learned by all the elite. It is the founding text of the standard “Canon” of the later Confucian eras. The “Zuo Commentary” to the “Spring and Autumn Annals” (the “Zuo zhuan”) portrays its pivotal role in the discourse of patricians, and the “Analects of Confucius” presents it as a core of the syllabus that Confucius taught his followers...The collection was, from an early date, believed to represent not only the finest poetry of China (set to the finest melodies, now long lost), but was also thought to hold withinit the subtle sentiments of its sagely authors. Young patricians were, from perhaps the sixth century on, expected both to memorize the entire “Poetry” and also to know how to cite it in order to convey, with an unmatched elegance and moral authority, their most subtle intentions.

It was not uncommon for the “Poetry” to be employed by skilled envoys as a powerful diplomatic tool, whereby a sometimes unwelcome message from one patrician lord could be skillfully transmitted to another through the aesthetic veil of shared erudition. Here, the narrators wish to illustrate for readers the marvelous cultural powers of the Spring and Autumn period. All the poems cited here are selected from the twenty-one that comprise the section titled “Airs of Zheng.” These are supposed to have been folk songs collected in the area of Zheng by the anthologists who edited the “Poetry”.” /+/

“Wild Grasses on the Plain” below “was clearly composed as a simple love poem. But once it took its place within the culturally sanctified anthology of the “Poetry”, its meaning began to be understood on a metaphorical plane.” A canonical commentary from about the second century B.C. said: “‘Wild Grasses On the Plain’ is about encountering an auspicious era. The beneficence of the ruler is not being carried to those below; the people are impoverished by incessant warfare. Young men and women can no longer find their mates at the proper season of life, and so they dream of a meeting by chance.” /+/

Importance of the Book of Songs

Dr. Eno wrote: “If you do not study the “Poetry”,” said Confucius, “how will you have words to speak?” The importance of the text to later generations produced elaborate interpretations of the meanings of the poems. Many of the poems were read as the works of noble men of the early Zhou, and they were taken to be oblique commentary on the events of that period. In fact, the poems seem to represent a wide variety of authorial origins and motives. They range from royal temple incantations, perhaps dating from the late Shang and early Zhou, to rural chants that appear to have been early Zhou forms of very ancient peasant ritual songs. Some of the latest of the poems, dating from the early Spring and Autumn period, are frankly political in nature – complaints about the immorality of rulers and the indifference of Heaven – but a great many of the poems in the book are simply love poems or literary accounts of the trials of everyday life. These poems form important sources for our understanding of the nature of early Chinese society. /+/

“Originally, all the poems were set to music, and the music was considered as central to the aesthetic meaning of each poem as the words. By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.. A.D. 220), however, the music had been lost. In other texts” we “see references to the singing of these odes by courtiers employing them in diplomatic discourse and we will encounter instances of the poems “performed” by an orchestra of musicians. The importance of the music to the cultural role of the songs cannot be underestimated. Depending on your musical taste, imagine, if the music were lost, how incomprehensible might seem the cultural influence of “La Traviata,” “Jingle Bells,” “My Way,” or “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah).”

Two passages read: “The disciple Zigong Si said, “What would you say about the motto, ‘If poor, be not fawning; if rich, be not arrogant?’“ The Master said, “That will do. But it is not as fine as, ‘Poor but joyous; rich yet loving “li”.’“ Zigong said, “The “Poetry” says, ‘As cut, as chiseled, as carved, as polished.’ Is that what it means?” “Si!” said the Master, “at last I can begin to discuss the “Poetry” with you. I mention what goes before, and you reply with what comes after.” (1.15). The disciple Zixia Shang asked the Master, “What does the “Poetry” mean by, ‘The colored lips smile charming, the darkened eyes glance flashing: her whiteness reveals the highlights?’“ The Master said, “The make-up must be on a plain background.” “Does this mean that “li” comes after?” asked Zixia. Ah, Shang picks up what I say!” cried the Master. “At last we can begin to talk about the “Poetry”.” (3.8)

Poems from Book of Songs


Zhou-era jade

Wild Grasses on the Plain” reads as follows: Wild grasses on the plain,
The dewdrops lie round;
There is one beauty,
Bright eyes so lovely;
A meeting by chance
Would so fit my longings. /+/

Wild grasses on the plain,
The dewdrops lie thick;
There is one beauty,
Lovely, her bright eyes;
A meeting by chance,
Together content. /+/

“The Kidskin Jacket” [the official robe of certain high ministers] goes: Glossy the sheen of the kidskin jacket;
Beautiful! the fur so smooth.
And the one who wears it
Would give his life, unwavering.

The leopard skin cuffs of the kidskin jacket;
So martial, so strong!
And the one who wears it
Advises the state with utter frankness.

“Warm is the kidskin jacket;
Three furry bands gleam on each sleeve,
And the one who wears it
Is the pillar of the state.

“Lift Your Skirts” reads: If you long for me,
Lift your skirts and cross the River Zhen!
If you don’t long for me,
Will I lack for other men?
Oh, the foolishness of a foolish boy!
If you long for me,
Lift your skirts and cross the River Wei!
If you don’t long for me,
Will I lack for other ?
Oh, the foolishness of a foolish boy!

I Beg of You, Chung Tzu (Ode 8)


Pair of Tigers

“I Beg of You, Chung Tzu (Ode 8)”from the “Book of Songs” goes:
I beg of you, Chung Tzu,
Do not climb into our homestead,
Do not break the willows we have planted.
Not that I mind about the willows,
But I am afraid of my father and mother. Chung Tzu I dearly love;
But of what my father and mother say
Indeed I am afraid.
I beg of you, Chung Tzu,
Do not climb over our wall,
Do not break the mulberry.trees we have planted.
Not that I mind about the mulberry.trees,
But I am afraid of my brothers.

Chung Tzu I dearly love;
But of what my brothers say
Indeed I am afraid.
I beg of you, Chung Tzu,
Do not climb into our garden,
Do not break the hard.wood we have planted.
Not that I mind about the hard.wood,
But I am afraid of what people will say.

Chung Tzu I dearly love;
But of all that people will say
Indeed I am afraid. [Translated by Arthur Waley]

“Quince”

“Quince” from the “Book of Songs” goes:
She tossed a quince to me—
I repaid with a precious girdle.gem.
But this was no repayment,
It just shows that Iʹll love her forever.

She tossed a peach to me—
I repaid with a precious greenstone;
But this was no repayment,
It just shows that Iʹll love her forever.

She tossed a plum to me—
I repaid with a precious stone of ebon;
But this was no repayment,
It just shows that Iʹll love her forever. [Translated by Paul Rouzer]

“Big Rat”

“Big Rat” from the “Book of Songs” goes:
Big rat, big rat,
Do not gobble our millet!
Three years we have slaved for you,
Yet you take no notice of us.


Zhou-era antlered crane

At last we are going to leave you
And go to that happy land;
Happy land, happy land,
Where we shall have our place.

Big rat, big rat,
Do not gobble our corn!
Three years we have slaved for you,
Yet you give us no credit.

At last we are going to leave you
And go to that happy kingdom;
Happy kingdom, happy kingdom,
Where we shall get our due.

Big rat, big rat,
Do not eat our rice.shoots!
Three years we have slaved for you.
Yet you did nothing to reward us.

At last we are going to leave you
And go to those happy borders;
Happy borders, happy borders
Where no sad songs are sung. [Translated by Arthur Waley]

Li Sao ("Encountering Sorrow")

"Encountering Sorrow" (Li Sao) was written by Qu Yuan in the State of Chu during the reign of King Huai, 328 to 299 B.C.. It is the most famous poem from the "Book of Songs." According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Chu was one of the many feudal states of the Zhou dynasty. Chu’s location in the Yangzi valley, however, put it on the southern frontiers of the Zhou world. Thus Chu poetry and culture share both in the mainstream culture of the North China plain — the Zhou heartland — and the culture of the ethnic groups of the south. As a result, the moral concerns and language of Confucianism are combined with a strong shamanist tradition, and the poetry of Chu is replete with images drawn from the plants and landscape of the south. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Qu Yuan, the author of “Encountering Sorrow,” is a shadowy figure. He is thought to have been a minister in the court of King Huai (r. 328-299 B.C.) of Chu. His poem, “Encountering Sorrow,” tells the story of an honest official who has been driven out of court by the machinations of his dishonest colleagues. “The traditional account of Qu Yuan’s life is that he then went into exile in the wilderness and eventually committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River. The longer selection below includes the beginning stanzas of the poem followed by the poem’s four-line conclusion.” The selections below is from “Anthology of Chinese Literature, Volume I: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century”, edited by Cyril Birch (New York: Grove Press, 1965).

An excerpt from “Encountering Sorrow” (Li Sao) by Qu Yuan goes:
Scion of the High Lord Kao Yang,
Po Yung was my father’s name.
When She T’i pointed to the first month of the year,
On the day “keng yin,”I passed from the womb.


Zhou mirror

My father, seeing the aspect of my nativity,
Took omens to give me an auspicious name.
The name he gave me was True Exemplar;
The title he gave me was Divine Balance.

Having from birth this inward beauty,
I added to it fair outward adornment:
I dressed in selinea and shady angelica,
And twined autumn orchids to make a garland.

Swiftly I sped, as in fearful pursuit,
Afraid Time would race on and leave me behind.
In the morning I gathered the angelica on the mountains;
In the evening I plucked the sedges of the islets.

The days and months hurried on, never delaying;
Springs and autumns sped by in endless alternation:
And I thought how the trees and flowers were fading and falling,
And feared that my Fairest’s beauty would fade too.

“Gather the flower of youth and cast out the impure!
Why will you not change the error of your ways?
I have harnessed brave coursers for you to gallop forth with:
Come, let me go before and show you the way!
“The three kings of old were most pure and perfect:
Then indeed fragrant flowers had their proper place.

They brought together pepper and cinnamon;
All the most prized blossoms were woven in their garlands.
Glorious and great were those two, Yao and Shun,
Because they had kept their feet on the right path.

And how great was the folly of Chieh and Chou,
Who hastened by crooked paths, and so came to grief.
The fools enjoy their careless pleasure,
But their way is dark and leads to danger.

I have no fear for the peril of my own person,
But only lest the chariot of my lord should be dashed.
I hurried about your chariot in attendance,
Leading you in the tracks of the kings of old.”
But the Fragrant One refused to examine my true feelings:
He lent ear, instead, to slander, and raged against me.

How well I know that loyalty brings disaster;
Yet I will endure: I cannot give it up.
I called on the ninefold heaven to be my witness,
And all for the sake of the Fair One, and no other.

There once was a time when he spoke with me in frankness;
But then he repented and was of another mind.
I do not care, on my own count, about this divorcement,
But it grieves me to find the Fair One so inconstant.


Rhinoceros bronze belt hook


I had tended many an acre of orchids,
And planted a hundred rods of melilotus;
I had raised sweet lichens and the cart.halting flower,
And asarums mingled with fragrant angelica,
And hoped that when leaf and stem were in fullest bloom,
When the time had come, I could reap a fine harvest.

Though famine should pinch me, it is small matter:
But I grieve that all my blossoms should waste in rank weeds.
All others press forward in greed and gluttony,
No surfeit satiating their demands:
Forgiving themselves, but harshly judging others;
Each fretting his heart away in envy and malice.

Madly they rush in the covetous chase,
But not after that which my heart sets store by.
For old age comes creeping and soon will be upon me,
And I fear I shall not leave behind an enduring name.

In the mornings I drank the dew that fell from the magnolia:
At evening ate the petals that dropped from chrysanthemums.
If only my mind can be truly beautiful,
It matters nothing that I often faint for famine.

I pulled up roots to bind the valerian
And thread the fallen clusters of the castor plant;
I trimmed sprays of cassia for plaiting melilotus,
And knotted the lithe, light trails of ivy.

I take my fashion from the good men of old:
A garb unlike that which the rude world cares for:
Though it may not accord with present-day manners,
I will follow the pattern that P’eng Hsien has left.

Heaving a long sigh, I brush away my tears,
Grieving for man’s life, so beset with hardships.


jade human figure pendant

I have always loved pretty things to bind myself about with,
And so mornings I plaited and evenings I twined.
When I had finished twining my girdle of orchids,
I plucked some angelica to add to its beauty.

It is this that my heart takes most delight in,
And though I died nine times, I should not regret it.
What I do resent is the Fair One’s waywardness:
Because he will never look to see what is in men’s hearts.

All your ladies were jealous of my delicate beauty;
They chattered spitefully, saying I loved wantonness.
Truly, this generation are cunning artificers!
From square and compass they turn their eyes and change the true measurement,
They disregard the ruled line to follow their crooked fancies:
To emulate in flattery is their only rule.

But I am sick and sad at heart and stand irresolute:
I alone am at a loss in this generation...
Enough! There are no true men in the state: no one to understand me.
Why should I cleave to the city of my birth?
Since none is worthy to work with in making good government,
I will go and join P’eng Hsien in the place where he abides. [Translated by David Hawkes] Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington

Songs of Love and Marriage in the “Book of Song”

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “A very substantial number of the verses in the Book of Songs concern the relationship between men and women. These are often very poignant. While it would not be prudent to assume that these poems provide direct insight into the minds of peasant poets – they are probably the products of court editors who revised songs collected from the villages of China or created their own “folk songs” – they surely reflect a type of public understanding of the psychology of young people, and are in this way important cultural artifacts. Many of the folk songs of the Poetry employ repetitive schemes, in the manner of “Oh Zhongzi, Please!” below [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

1) “Oh Zhongzi, Please!” goes:
Oh Zhongzi, please!, Don’t climb our village wall, Don’t injure the willows we’ve planted.
Not that I mind about willow trees, But I am afraid of my parents.
You’re dear to me Zhongzi, But what parents will say –, Of that I’m afraid indeed!, Oh Zhongzi, please!, Don’t climb our household wall, Don’t injure the mulberries we’ve planted.
Not that I mind about mulberry trees, But I am afraid of my brothers.
You’re dear to me Zhongzi, But what brothers will say –, Of that I’m afraid indeed!, Oh Zhongzi, please!, Don’t climb into our garden, Don’t injure the sandalwood we’ve planted.
Not that I mind about sandalwood trees, I’m afraid of what people will say.
You’re dear to me Zhongzi, But what people will say, Of that I’m afraid indeed!,

2) “Cock Crow” goes:
The cock has crowed, it’s daylight!

That’s not the cock’s crow, it’s the green flies’ buzz

The east sky glows, dawn’s broken!
That’s not dawn’s glow, it’s the rising moon’s light
In this buzz of the flies, let’s share a sweet dream!
Quick, quick! Go home!, Lest I’ve good cause to hate you!

3) “The Carambola Tree” goes:
In the valley is a carambola tree.
Charming, the grace of its branches;, How vigorous in tender beauty.
What joy! You have no acquaintance.
In the valley is a carambola tree.
Charming, the grace of its flowers;, How vigorous in tender beauty.
What joy! You have no husband.
In the valley is a carambola tree.
Charming, the grace of its fruit;, How vigorous in tender beauty.
What joy! You have no wife. /+/

Ezra Pound Translations of the Book of Songs


pair of dragons

1) “The Jewel Stairs' Grievance”:
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
[Source: By Rihaku. “Cathay”, 1915 gutenberg.org

2) “The Beautiful Toilet”:
Blue, blue is the grass about the river
And the willows have overfilled the close garden.
And within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth,
White, white of face, hesitates, passing the door.
Slender, she puts forth a slender hand,

And she was a courtezan in the old days,
And she has married a sot,
Who now goes drunkenly out
And leaves her too much alone.
[Source: By Mei Sheng. B.C. 140.

3) “Taking Leave of a Friend”:
Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.

Mind like a floating wide cloud.
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance.
Our horses neigh to each other
as we are departing.

Lament of the Frontier Guard

By the North Gate, the wind blows full of sand,
Lonely from the beginning of time until now!
Trees fall, the grass goes yellow with autumn.
I climb the towers and towers
to watch out the barbarous land:
Desolate castle, the sky, the wide desert.
There is no wall left to this village.
Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?
Who has brought the flaming imperial anger?
Who has brought the army with drums and with kettle-drums?
Barbarous kings.
A gracious spring, turned to blood-ravenous autumn,
A turmoil of wars-men, spread over the middle kingdom,
Three hundred and sixty thousand,
And sorrow, sorrow like rain.
Sorrow to go, and sorrow, sorrow returning,
Desolate, desolate fields,
And no children of warfare upon them,
No longer the men for offence and defence.
Ah, how shall you know the dreary sorrow at the North Gate,
With Rihoku's name forgotten,
And we guardsmen fed to the tigers.
[Source: By Rihaku. “Cathay”, 1915 gutenberg.org

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2021


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