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:
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