Saturday, February 20, 2021

Lyric Poetry Around the World (1): The Classic of Poetry (China, 840-620 BCE)

Guanju from The Classic of Poetry

translated by Ad Blankestijn

the sea swallows call each other
on sandbars in the stream
pure and fair is the
gentle maiden
a worthy mate for our prince

long and short the water lilies
we pick them left and right
pure and fair is the gentle maiden
he sought her awake and in dreams
seeking but not finding her
he sighed, awake and in dreams
tormented was he with desire
he tossed and turned from side to side

long and short the water lilies
we pluck them left and right
pure and fair is the gentle maiden
we welcome her with zither music
long and short the water lilies
we gather them left and right
pure and fair is the gentle maiden
we gladden her with bell and drum






[Illustrated Edition of the Shijing
Handwritten by the Qianlong Emperor, Qing Dynasty]

The Classic of Poetry, Shijing, translated variously as the "Book of Songs" or "Book of Odes," is the oldest collection of Chinese poetry, consisting of 305 poems dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BCE. It is one of the "Five Classics" traditionally (but incorrectly) said to have been compiled by Confucius, and has been studied and memorized by scholars in China and neighboring countries over two millennia.

The Classic of Poetry can be divided into two main sections: the "Airs of the States", and the "eulogies and hymns." The "Airs of the States" are short lyrics in simple language. They generally consist of ancient folk songs speaking of love and courtship, longing for an absent lover, soldiers on campaign, farming and housework, and political satire and protest. The poems were originally songs accompanied by tunes now lost. On the other hand, songs in the two "Eulogy" sections ("Lesser Ya" and "Greater Ya") and the "Temple Hymns" section (the Song) tend to be longer ritual songs, usually in the form of courtly panegyrics or dynastic hymns. These sections - which are concerned with life at the royal court and its ceremonies, including worship of the royal ancestors - are the oldest parts, while the youngest are the Airs of the States. 

Whether the various Shijing poems were folk songs or not, they all seem to have passed through the hands of men of letters at the royal Zhou court. In other words, they show an overall literary polish together with some general stylistic consistency. About 95% of lines are written in a four-syllable meter. Almost all of the "Airs" consist of three stanzas, with four-line stanzas being most common. The standard pattern in such four-line stanzas required a rhyme between the second and fourth lines. One of the characteristics of the poems in the Classic of Poetry is that they tend to possess elements of repetition and variation, probably due to their oral folk song origin.

The Shijing has been a revered "Confucian Classic" since the Han Dynasty, and has been studied and memorized by centuries of scholars in China. The individual songs of the Odes, though frequently on simple, rustic subjects, have traditionally been saddled with extensive, elaborate allegorical meanings that assigned moral or political meaning to the smallest details of each line. The songs were seen as good keys to understanding the troubles of the common people - complaints against lovers were seen as complaints against faithless rulers. The Shijing was considered as a canonical collection of important moral truths and lessons.

According to the Shiji (Records of the Historian, early 1st c. BCE), Confucius would have selected 305 out of a corpus of more than 3,000 songs. Whether Confucius actually compiled the Shijing is more than questionable. Confucius and his direct followers have, however, regularly quoted from the Shijing, so it must have existed by the 6th c. BCE. It is said about him in the Lunyu (Analects): "The Master once stood by himself, and I hurried to seek teaching from him. He asked me, 'You've studied the Odes?' I answered, 'Not yet.' He replied, 'If you have not studied the Odes, then I have nothing to say.'" Confucius saw a guide for moderation in speech and action in the content and language of the Shijing.

Our poem, "Guanju" is the first poem from the Shijing, and is one of the best known poems in Chinese literature. It is thought to date from the seventh century BCE, making it one of China's oldest poems, though not the oldest in the Shijing. The title of the poem comes from its first line ("Guan guan ju jiu"), which evokes a scene of ospreys calling on a river islet. The poem is about finding a good and fair maiden as a match for a young noble.

The poem boasts a long tradition of commentaries. The earliest known one is contained in the Lunyu (Analects). Confucius praised "Guanju" for its moderated emotions: "The Master said, "In the "Guanju" there is joy without wantonness and sorrow without self-injury."

The Confucians were responsible for the tendency in orthodox criticism to regard not only the Shijing but all literature as morally edifying or didactic. In that way, "Guanju" was thought to contain a moral concerning the relationship between the genders. In the Mao school reading (which became the dominant one from the beginning of our era) "Guanju" was specifically read as a poem of praise of the queen of the founder of the Zhou dynasty, King Wen. It reads the images of picking water grasses as literal descriptions of the queen's activities in preparation for ritual sacrifices. "Thus "Guanju" takes joy in obtaining a pure young lady as a mate for the lord and is anxious to present her worth."

Although the allegorical interpretation is undoubtedly wrong (as the Airs of the States are indeed innocent folk songs), it is important to note that allegory is the way in which this poem was read for almost 2,000 years (as in the case of the Song of Songs in the Bible) - it is therefore a fundamental part of reception history.

The Shijing established the basis for the long and glorious tradition of Chinese classical poetry (shi), which was practiced continuously as the preferred form of literati verse until the previous century.

The above is my own translation.

An Anthology of Chinese Literature, by Stepen Owen (p. 30-31);
The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature by Victor Mair (p. 149-150)
The Book of Songs by Arthur Waley (p. 5-6)

Also see the Classic of Poetry at Chinese Text Project (although the Legge translation cited there is antiquated).

Lyric Poetry Around the World Index