A Cultural Journal

    THE BOOK OF SONGS: THE EARLIEST ANTHOLOGY OF POETRY

    Written by: Yao Dan - Posted on: January 16, 2013 | Post your comment here Comments | 中文 (Chinese)

    Google Translation: اُردو | 中文

    THE BOOK OF SONGS: THE EARLIEST ANTHOLOGY OF POETRY

    The tradition of Chinese literature is a time-honored one. The Book of Songs, the earliest anthology of poetry in China, is one of the most significant headstreams of Chinese literature. It contains 305 poems written in a period of almost 500 years, starting from the early years of the Western Zhou dynasty through the mid-Spring and Autumn Period (c. 11th-6th century BC). Nowadays, Confucius is generally believed to have been the compiler of the book. In terms of origin, the poems included in The Book of Songs come from the following three sources. The first one is called ‘Advice Poems.’ When the king of the Western Zhou Dynasty held court, the ministers and royal princes offered their poems to the king to make implicit remonstrance or to sing the praises of the greatness of the king. The second one is called ‘Folk Songs and Ballads.’ Official collectors of folk songs and ballads from the Western Zhou or other co-existing states, waving big bells with their hands, went into villages and narrow lanes to collect folk songs and ballads which were popular among the ordinary people. The rest of the poems included in The Book of Songs are songs that were especially used for sacrificial rites and on banquet occasions. These songs were written by professional writers such as official court musicians, sorcerers or official historians.

    Accordingly, all the poems included in The Book of Songs fall into different sections—the poems that come from the villages belong to the section of ‘Feng’ (ballads or folk songs), the poems dedicated to the king of Western Zhou for the purpose of implicit remonstrance or singing praises belong to the section of ‘Ya’ (court hymns or odes), and those used on sacrificial rites and banquet occasions belong to ‘Song’ (sacrificial songs). Originally, Feng, Ya and Song were different genres of music. ‘Feng’ referred to the local music of different states. ‘Ya’, meaning orthodox, referred to court music. ‘Song,’ along with singing and dancing, was slow tempo dance music mainly used for sacrificial ceremonies. Due to the differences of the music and its purposes, the three sections of The Book of Songs, Feng, Ya and Song, bear some inconsistencies both in content and aesthetic style. Ya and Song are solemn and over-elaborate, while Feng, also known as ‘Guofeng’ (folk songs of 15 regions), is soul-stirring and passionate. It looks as if the former is part of the shrine and the court and the latter a part of the common people. However, taking into consideration the time of the Western Zhou Dynasty when The Book of Songs was written, the politics and culture of the time were centered on the aristocrats. The non-aristocratic common people had very little personal freedom, let alone the time to write. For this reason, the poems in the section of Guofeng were still works written by the aristocrats, though sometimes these aristocrats served as spokesmen for the rustic and common people.

    When talking about The Book of Songs, Chinese readers are actually referring to the Guofeng section. The love poems included in Guofeng are rather diversified and colorful: some are impassioned, some unbridled, and some simple and unadorned but refreshing. But, all these love poems are the "true voice of the mind" without the least sign of affectations and decadence.

    The opening poem of The Book of Songs, ‘Crying Ospreys • Zhou and the South’ in Guofeng, is about love. It reads:

    Merrily the ospreys cry,
    On the islet in the stream.
    Gentle and graceful is the girl,
    A fit wife for the gentleman.

    These lines are perhaps among the most famous ones in Chinese poetry. All Chinese people will naturally refer to these lines first when talking about The Book of Songs. Though it is still very hard for us even today to ascertain what ospreys really look like, we can imagine that the male and female of this kind of birds are always in each other's company, whether they are in flight or on the ground, and they are always deeply in love. The sight of these love birds naturally touched off the poet's longing for his sweetheart. Subsequently, he began to chant: "Merrily the ospreys cry, / On the islet in the stream. / Gentle and graceful is the girl, / A fit wife for the gentleman." Through these lines, the poet expresses his longing for a girl. Unable to sleep and eat well, the poet only hopes that one day he can win over the girl's heart.

    The love poems included in The Book of Songs are varied in content and form, but it is the love to which one may aspire but can never attain that the poet repeatedly chants in many of his love poems. The love poems with this theme are also the most heart-touching and imagination-provoking ones. ‘Crying Ospreys’ is an example of such poems, so is ‘The Reeds • The Social Mode of Qin,’ which reads:

    The reeds are luxuriant and green,
    The white dew has turned to frost.
    My beloved so dear to me
    Is somewhere beyond the waters.
    Upriver I search for him,
    The way is arduous and long.
    Downriver I search for him,
    He seems to be in the middle of the waters.

    The poet's thoughts start with the reeds. "Man is but a reed," said the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, "the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed." In the poem aforementioned, the reeds serve as a symbol of the fragility of human beings. The soft and gentle reeds by the waters sway in the autumn wind. It looks as if the poet's sweetheart is right there across the water. But when she tries to get there and reach him, she finds that the way is arduous and long and, moreover, her sweetheart always seems to be in the middle of the waters, completely unattainable. This poem vividly conveys the sadness caused by a person's vain longing for his or her sweetheart. They might have been in love with each other, but they are at present separated by the waters. The desolate and misty autumn scene is identical with the poet's feelings.

    Of course, Guofeng covers a lot of ground in terms of content. There are also many poems concerning farming, war and corvee. ‘In the Seventh Month • The Social Mode of Bin’ is a famous poem about the life of the farmers. It describes the farmers' assiduous work throughout the year.

    In comparison with Ya and Song, the language used in Guofeng is closer to the spoken language, and the four-character lines, which are more often grave and rigid in Ya and Song, again become lively and dynamic in Guofeng. In Guofeng, there are many beautiful lines, which are either soul-stirring and broad-minded or profound and far-reaching in meaning.
     



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