Shijing 诗经 The Book of Songs


The Shijing 诗经 or “Book of Songs” is one of the traditional Confucian classics. It is a collection of three different types of songs originating in the Shang 商 (17th to 11th cent. BC) and the early and middle Zhou period 周 (11th. cent.-221 BC), in 305 chapters. Of 6 chapters only the names are preserved (Nangai 南陔, Baihua 白华, Huashu 华黍, Yougeng 由庚, Chongqiu 崇丘, and Youyi 由仪).

The three types of songs are feng 风 “airs”, ya 雅 “odes”, and song 颂 “hymns”. The 160 Airs are arranged according to the state where they originate from (hence called guofeng 国风 “airs from the states”). The Odes are divided into Major (daya 大雅) and Minor Odes (xiaoya 小雅) and arranged in decades (shi 什). The Hymns are religious chants sung in the ancestral temples of the states of Zhou 周, which was the royal house, as well as Lu 鲁, the home state of Confucius, and the house of Shang 商 whose descendants lived in the state of Song 宋. The Airs of the states are folksongs, often concered with a love theme. The Odes are said to come from the aristocratic class, the Major Odes being sung at the royal court, the Minor Odes at the court of the feudal lords. The songs collected in the Shijing are not only of a high literary value as the oldest songs in China but they also reveal a lot of the actvities of different social strata in early China.

The oldest sources say that once the court of the Zhou dynasty ordered the collection of folksongs from among the empire, quite similar to what the Han dynasty 汉 (206 BC-220 AD) did later with the establishment of the Music Bureau (yuefu 乐府). This is how the Airs came into being. The Odes were instead are said to have been submitted by their composers to the throne directly. It is said that an original collection of songs included 300 chapters, a corpus which was compiled by Confucius 孔子 who chose the best from more than 3,000 songs. In reality the compilation of the Shi corpus, as it was called in earliest times, began in the 6th century BCE. It might be that the compilation took place in Lu, the home state of Confucius, which was famous for its musical tradition. That the “songs” were music and not recited poems is revealed by numerous sources. The oldest parts are said to be the hymns from Zhou and the Major Odes, written in the early decades of the Zhou period. The Minor Odes and a part of the Major Odes were probably written in the late Western Zhou period. The largest part of the Airs and the Hymns of Lu and Shang were only written during the Spring and Autumn period.

There must have been other types of songs (altogher six, the liushi 六诗) of which no examples are preserved, namely the types of fu 赋 “straightforward” (which during the Han period reappears as the genre of prose rhapsody), bi 比 “simile, parable”, and xing 兴 “with introduction”. The great Tang period 唐 (618-907) commentator Kong Yingda 孔颖达 interpretes those terms in the following way: feng, ya and song are designations for certain external compositional forms, while fu, bi and xing were designations for certain methods how the content of the poem was approached (together the liuyi 六义 “six meanings”). During the Han period, when only the four designations of feng, daya, xiaoya and song were used, they were interpreted as the four beginnings (sishi 四始) describing the flourishing and decline of the royal house of Zhou. A very good example for the xing type is the air Guanju 关雎, an example for the bi type is the air Shuoshu 硕鼠, an example for the fu type is the air Qiyue 七月.

Especially the Hymns, but also the Odes, can also be used as historiographic sources for the late Shang and early Zhou periods. Informations about institutional history, leisuretime activities of the upper class, as well as the hardships of the life of ordinary people can be found. Many of the Airs are simple love songs, the most famous of which is the first song of the Shijing.

Very typically for the airs, but also some of the minor odes, is the repetition of verses in each of the stanzas, a phenomenon which is known in the west in poems of the rondo type, but also in many folksongs. Another phenomenon very common in the airs are double rhymes (dieyun 迭韵, like in the verse yao tiao shu nü 窈窕淑女), multiple or special readings (shuangsheng 双声, like in the verse cen ci [instead of cancha] xing cai 参差荇菜) and repeated words (diezi 迭字, like in the verses feng yu qi qi, ji ming jie jie 风雨凄凄,鸡鸣喈喈). A large part of the verses has four syllables, especially among the airs. The songs in the Shijing are the oldest example for regular poems which later became so popular.

From a linguistic viewpoint the rhymes of the songs are an important help for the reconstruction of the archaic Chinese language.

The Shijing had always attracted the interest of all groups of persons. Confucius once said that without the Shijing there was nothing to talk about. With many examples from the Shijing he even educated his disciples.

During the so-called literary inquisition under the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇 (r. 246/221-210 BCE) the Shijing survived virtually without damage, certainly because most of its songs were also transmitted orally, which is easier for songs than for prose texts. During the early Han period there were four different versions available: the Qi 齐, Lu 鲁, Han 韩, and Mao 毛 versions. The three former were written in the modern chancery script style (lishu 隶书) and were thus considered so-called new texts, while the Shijing of Mao – the Maoshi 毛诗 – was written in ancient characters and thus from the old text tradition. For the Qi, Lu and Han versions there were professors (boshi 博士 “erudites”) established at the National University (taixue 太学), which means that those versions were the imperially acknowledged ones. The Lu version was already lost in the 4rd century CE, the Han version survived until the end of the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126). A kind of commentary to the Han version has survived, the Hanshi waizhuan 韩氏外传, which has been treated as a sub-classic writing since. The Qi version was lost during the 3rd century. The Mao version had been transmitted by descendants of Zixia 子夏, a disciple of Confucius. Mao Heng 毛亨 and Mao Chang 毛苌 introduced this version of the Shijing to Han period scholars but it only obtained official status during the Later Han period (25-220 AD) and was revised and commented by Zheng Zhong 郑众, Jia Kui 贾逵, Ma Rong 马融 and Zheng Xuan 郑玄. The latter wrote a commentary called Maoshi zhuanjian 毛诗传笺. After the Han period the Mao version was the only surviving version.
During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) Kong Yingda 孔颖达 wrote his famous commentary Maoshi zhengyi 毛诗正义 “The true meaning of the Shijing”. The great Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi 朱熹 assembled all Song period 宋 (960-1279) commentaries on the Maoshi and published them as Shijizhuan 诗集传.

All poems have a small preface (xiaoxu 小序), the first poem has a Great Preface (Daxu 大序).

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