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One of the five Confucian classics, The Book of Songs (Shijing) is the oldest collection of poetry in world literature and the finest treasure of traditional songs left from antiquity. Where the other Confucian classics treat “outward things: deeds, moral precepts, the way the world works,” as Stephen Owen tells us in his foreword, The Book of Songs is “the classic of the One of the five Confucian classics, The Book of Songs (Shijing) is the oldest collection of poetry in world literature and the finest treasure of traditional songs left from antiquity. Where the other Confucian classics treat “outward things: deeds, moral precepts, the way the world works,” as Stephen Owen tells us in his foreword, The Book of Songs is “the classic of the human heart and the human mind.”


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One of the five Confucian classics, The Book of Songs (Shijing) is the oldest collection of poetry in world literature and the finest treasure of traditional songs left from antiquity. Where the other Confucian classics treat “outward things: deeds, moral precepts, the way the world works,” as Stephen Owen tells us in his foreword, The Book of Songs is “the classic of the One of the five Confucian classics, The Book of Songs (Shijing) is the oldest collection of poetry in world literature and the finest treasure of traditional songs left from antiquity. Where the other Confucian classics treat “outward things: deeds, moral precepts, the way the world works,” as Stephen Owen tells us in his foreword, The Book of Songs is “the classic of the human heart and the human mind.”

30 review for The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry

  1. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    I find myself randomly shouting 'Alas for the Zou-Yu!' when I drive home now (cf. 25). Thanks ancient Chinese poetry.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Basilius

    Undergrowth in forest, dead deer in the meadow, all wound with white rushes, a maiden white as marble. Interestingly, though not uncharacteristically, the oldest Chinese literature is not that cosmological in nature. The Classic of Poetry, also known as “The Book of Songs,” is a compilation of that ancient culture’s ancient writings. Falsely rumored to be assembled by Confucius, it became one of the five sacred books taught to all Chinese children for almost two-thousand years. Let me mention two Undergrowth in forest, dead deer in the meadow, all wound with white rushes, a maiden white as marble. Interestingly, though not uncharacteristically, the oldest Chinese literature is not that cosmological in nature. The Classic of Poetry, also known as “The Book of Songs,” is a compilation of that ancient culture’s ancient writings. Falsely rumored to be assembled by Confucius, it became one of the five sacred books taught to all Chinese children for almost two-thousand years. Let me mention two things, 1.) I’ve only read ten or so poems from ‘Airs of the Domain,’ a collection of folk ballads dating from 1,000-600 BCE (youngest of the bunch); 2.) I have not read ‘The Great Preface,’ which is, as the name implies, the Chinese empire’s official interpretation of these poems. While I would like to know how China historically viewed these works, I did gloss through them and noticed comical corrupted conclusions: for example a simple piece about erotic love (the theme of 80% of the poems I read) was translated to mean that a woman should not be jealous of her husband’s other lovers. Yea…let’s not. Back to the point. Most ancient cultures create cosmologies that explain how the universe came to be. The Chinese have always been unique in that, while not secular per se, they seem to take those things axiomatically and instead focus on pragmatic issues: ritual observances and proper behavior. It gives the people a noble, enigmatic charm that mystifies a child of the West. There’s so much going on beneath the surface that their writing is at worst obscure, and at best ripe with possibilities. ‘Contextual opportunities’ might be a better phrase to explain them, though I’m sure some scholar has put it better. I complained about this vagueness with Confucius, but in the poetry I sampled it was quite good. Comparing Chinese with Egyptian poetry (both erotically charged, though I have not measured it against Israelite or Greek stuff), the Chinese are less audacious, more disciplined, more rhythmically repetitive, and more suggestive. They rely heavily on minimal imagery to convey meaning, which makes the poems efficient, a very important benchmark to me of strong poetry. But sometimes indulgence is more fun. Two things stand out: first their use of juxtaposition is superb. The quote above is a good example, where feelings or situations that can’t be appropriately articulated are instead communicated with stark, but obscure images that give us room to think. While not always the case (in one poem the corrupt emperor is portrayed as a fat rat), often the relationship between an image and a setting aren’t immediately obvious, compared to something like Greek writing. Rather than being a mere simile the image casts a tone or imaginative aid to the emotions the poet is struggling with. This leads to my other observation: the conflicts of these stanzas are represented by distance. The creative Chinese mind constantly bounces back and forth between particulars in reality and the interior dilemmas of the individual. In this space the artistic creation hovers, not bridging both as in Western thought, but bestowing new meaning to each. If you doubt me I encourage you to read these poems and notice the importance of the spatial dimension. I suspect, at the heart of the culture’s conservativeness, is a critical question of when to respect and when to cross certain gaps. I’ll study Chinese literature more to see if this proves correct, but in the meantime enjoy these delightful poems as the sacred precursors to all profound Chinese thought. The consistency in quality makes me smile.

  3. 5 out of 5

    D

    Excellent collection and interpretation of classic poetry written 2500 years ago. The Chou were less confident: archaic Chinese writings, including many of the Songs, are filled with notes of anxiety lest the ruler stray and Heaven, in its wrath, withdraw its charge from Chou: To begin well is common; To end well is rare indeed. 'The anxiety is reminiscent of the caution that the house of Israel needed to show, always under the watchful eye of God; but the situation of the Chou was even more precar Excellent collection and interpretation of classic poetry written 2500 years ago. The Chou were less confident: archaic Chinese writings, including many of the Songs, are filled with notes of anxiety lest the ruler stray and Heaven, in its wrath, withdraw its charge from Chou: To begin well is common; To end well is rare indeed. 'The anxiety is reminiscent of the caution that the house of Israel needed to show, always under the watchful eye of God; but the situation of the Chou was even more precarious: they were not, like the people of Israel, chosen forever, but merely given an office which they could keep only so long as they carried out its duties and remained successful. And the clearest evidence of Heaven's support was to be found in the voices of the common people. The Chou were constantly reminded of the fate of the dynasty they had conquered, the Yin or Shang Dynasty, which had in its day enjoyed Heaven's favor and then lost it.' The Chou was an agrarian dynasty, and their sense of beauty and order is closely related to the cycles and abundance of the agricultural year. In a society of warriors, life is directed to a single intense and uncertain moment of decision, crisis; this plays a powerful role in understanding the structure of time and events, hence of narrative. Agrarian time is cyclical, a complete and repeating series of acts and event, all of which are equally necessary and all of which contribute to the whole. The need for wholeness in poetry of the Chou goes far deeper than the dynasty's need for assurance of universal support: it embodies a larger sense of how the world and events in it are structured. The anthology presents the full human share of unhappiness and pain, but usually the reasons behind suffering are quite clear: desertion by a lover, misgovernment, the hardships of forced military service. In the increasingly turbulent and violent centuries that followed the 7th century BC, much in The Book of Songs seemed indeed to come from a lost era in which the world was comprehensible; and the anthology contributed much to the Chinese myth of the Chou as the ideal polity. The flight of birds, their cries, the movement of animals, the condition of flowers, dewy or rain-dabbled, the restlessness of insects, the sound of their wings, the fading of the stars -- all these play their part in early Chinese imagery; as symbols, illustrations, or omens according to the context. That the cries of birds should be interpreted as words with real meaning strikes us at first as odd. But remember that such cries as the caw-case, coo-coo, cluck-cluck, quack-quack, are typical of the sounds that actually existed in early Chinese vocabulary. It was difficult to believe that birds and beasts did not use them with the same intention as human beings.

  4. 5 out of 5

    James Violand

    This book reminds me of the Ancient Greek Hesiod's Works and Days - a nearly contemporary work with The Book of Songs. A composite work of ancient Chinese peasants and poets, it harkens to a time of planting and the mankind's suffering due to nature's and the ruler's capricious ways. Though the weakest first part of the work consists of songs (by nature redundant and their melodies long forgotten) if the reader plows through it, he will perceive a humanity that has changed very little in 3000 ye This book reminds me of the Ancient Greek Hesiod's Works and Days - a nearly contemporary work with The Book of Songs. A composite work of ancient Chinese peasants and poets, it harkens to a time of planting and the mankind's suffering due to nature's and the ruler's capricious ways. Though the weakest first part of the work consists of songs (by nature redundant and their melodies long forgotten) if the reader plows through it, he will perceive a humanity that has changed very little in 3000 years.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Leajk

    I loved the love poems, then skipped the war poems. Impossible to rate it due to the gap of translation and time gap. Read as a part of understanding the Japanese Heian period better as they were obsessed with Chinese poetry.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Adam Hoss

    I've made it a mission to read more of the important works non-Western literature. The Shijing, or "Classic of Poetry" is perhaps the world's oldest literary anthology. Compiled during the Hundred Schools of Thought period in Classical China, the Shijing contains 305 poems, some dating as far back as the 11th century BC, during the Zhou Dynasty. I read the Legge translation. I'm sure the Waley translation is superior. Whether or not Confucius himself served as editor to this anthology, we know th I've made it a mission to read more of the important works non-Western literature. The Shijing, or "Classic of Poetry" is perhaps the world's oldest literary anthology. Compiled during the Hundred Schools of Thought period in Classical China, the Shijing contains 305 poems, some dating as far back as the 11th century BC, during the Zhou Dynasty. I read the Legge translation. I'm sure the Waley translation is superior. Whether or not Confucius himself served as editor to this anthology, we know that he was familiar with its contents, saying of the poems that their subject matter was "expressive of pleasure without being licentious, and of grief without being hurtfully excessive." The book contains sacred hymns and prayers used in rituals, but also a collection of folk songs recording the voices of the common people. I was gathering and gathering the mouse-ear, But could not fill my shallow basket. With a sigh for the man of my heart, I placed it there on the highway. I was ascending that rock-covered height, But my horses were too tired to breast it. I will now pour a cup from that gilded vase, Hoping I may not have to think of him long. I was ascending that lofty ridge, But my horses turned of a dark yellow. I will now take a cup from that rhinoceros' horn, Hoping I may not have long to sorrow. I was ascending that flat-topped height, But my horses became quite disabled, And my servants were [also] disabled. Oh! how great is my sorrow! This nearly 3000-year-old poem provides a narrative through which the ancient poet expresses feelings of longing and sorrow. It provides useful evidence that human nature changes little over the centuries. We can easily imagine a similar poem being written today. However, some of the other poems in the anthology certainly will strike our modern ears as odd. Many of them are very repetitive, sometimes changing a only single word in each stanza. The peach tree is young and elegant; Brilliant are its flowers. This young lady is going to her future home, And will order well her chamber and house. The peach tree is young and elegant; Abundant will be its fruits. This young lady is going to her future home, And will order well her chamber and house. The peach tree is young and elegant; Luxuriant are its leaves. This young lady is going to her future home, And will order well her family. The scholar Lie Shipei saw a precursor to Chinese literature in the ritual spells found on oracle bones during the earlier Shang Dynasty, the first documented period of Chinese history. There does seem to be something of an incantation and ritual nature to the more repetitive poems. Some of the poems are more repetitive still. Consider the Chinese text of poem #8: 采采芣苡、薄言采之。 采采芣苡、薄言有之。 采采芣苡、薄言掇之。 采采芣苡、薄言捋之。 采采芣苡、薄言袺之。 采采芣苡、薄言襭之。 The poem essentially repeats, over and over again, a couplet about gathering plantains. We can perhaps deduce the influence of the earlier era, in which prayers and divinations frequently used a fortuitous harvest as a theme. Most interesting to me is poem #113 in the collection, which is often held up as an example of the bi style parable. The standard interpretation is that the "large rats" is a reference to corrupt government officials. Large rats! Large rats! Do not eat our millet. Three years have we had to do with you, And you have not been willing to show any regard for us. We will leave you, And go to that happy land. Happy land! Happy land! There shall we find our place. We can see devices such as metaphor and symbolism even in this early example of poetry. Perhaps this was an attempt to elude government censors, or to criticize the officials without fear of reprimand. If so, it provides an interesting link with the "misty poets" of 1980s China, who also used symbolism and indirect metaphors to encode anti-government messages (a tradition which continues to the present). In an 1891 English edition, translator William Jennings writes that the Shijing "represents, as in a mirror, the circumstances, the thoughts, the habits, the joys and sorrows of persons of all classes of society in China 3,000 years ago, pourtrayed by themselves." He continues by noting the "strange customs" and "peculiar ideas" of these ancient people, but at the same time conceding that "And yet, as proving that human nature is the same in its feelings and humours, and in its virtues and vices, despite the limits of millenniums and the boundaries of continents, there are pages in which we feel ourselves standing in the midst of the modern life of Europe. We are introduced to a people and a country till of late little known, but which we find here to have been possessed of a moderately high civilization and a literature at a time when our own forefathers were actual barbarians roaming their virgin forests." The most influential poem of the collection deals with the Chinese interpretation of the "divine right of kings." Scholars in Ancient China frequently debated the fall of the Shang Dynasty. If Heaven gave a decree that the Shangs should rule, then why (and how) were they overthrown? For defenders of the old guard, the answer was self-evident: the Zhou family were illegitimate leaders who had usurped power against the will of Heaven. But, the following poem in the Shijing provides documentary clues as to how the debate was settled. The poem would later influence the political philosophy of Confucius. Great is the appointment of Heaven! There were the descendants of [the sovereigns] of Shang;— The descendants of the sovereigns of Shang, Were in number more than hundreds of thousands; But when God gave the command, They became subject to Zhou. They became subject to Zhou. The appointment of Heaven is not constant. The officers of Yin, admirable and alert, Assist at the libations in [our] capital; They assist at those libations, Always wearing the hatchets on their lower garment and their peculiar cap. O ye loyal ministers of the king , Ever think of your ancestor! Ever think of your ancestor, Cultivating your virtue, Always striving to accord with the will [of Heaven]. So shall you be seeking for much happiness. Before Yin lost the multitudes, [Its kings] were the assessors of God. Look to Yin as a beacon; The great appointment is not easily [preserved]. The appointment is not easily [preserved], Do not cause your own extinction. Display and make bright your righteousness and name, And look at [the fate of] Yin in the light of Heaven. The doings of High Heaven, Have neither sound nor smell. Take your pattern from King Wen , And the myriad regions will repose confidence in you. So the decree of Heaven can be lost, if the ruler is not careful. The last line is key: behave as a just and fair leader, and the people will respect you. Confucius later developed this theme by arguing that the will of Heaven manifests itself in the will of the people. If the common people rebel and overthrow the king - provided the rebellion is successful - this is proof, retroactively, that the king had lost Heaven's decree to rule. This idea motivated future kings (and, later, emperors) to strive to remain in the good graces of the citizenry. This idea permeates the entirety of Chinese history, including language in the 1992 compromise between the mainland People's Republic of China and Taiwan, nearly 3000 years later. This is perhaps the earliest known example of literature shaping historical events.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Edward Rathke

    It's weird to rate something like this, because it's not really a book in a traditional sense, or even a poetry collection. It's more like a record of ancient China. With regard to that, it's not especially fun to read. Some of the poems are great. They're simple and about simple things. Simple lives. These were my favorite poems in the book. The simple ones about life as a farmer, as a citizen, as a woman, as a lover. I was less invested in the poems that were not about these kinds of simple thi It's weird to rate something like this, because it's not really a book in a traditional sense, or even a poetry collection. It's more like a record of ancient China. With regard to that, it's not especially fun to read. Some of the poems are great. They're simple and about simple things. Simple lives. These were my favorite poems in the book. The simple ones about life as a farmer, as a citizen, as a woman, as a lover. I was less invested in the poems that were not about these kinds of simple things. Part of that is surely because my knowledge of ancient China is, at best, poor. I mean, I know big chunks of Chinese history fairly well, but what happened in China 2,500 years ago is just not something I know much about. Which is partly what made these poems so interesting. Life has not changed immensely since those times, excepting the obvious differences. But people were still just people. Working, loving, singing, dancing. My complete ignorance on the Chinese language or the Chinese originals of these poems means I'm also unqualified to even guess at whether these are good translations or not. But I'd recommend it for people interested in foundational texts of China. Not so much if you're just looking for good poetry. It's a text that's more important in its context. The poems themselves aren't always very good or appealing. But, I mean, how many poems can remain amazing after 2,500 years?

  8. 5 out of 5

    Harperac

    I was hesitant to read this book, because I felt sure that it would be a bunch of dry, almost anthropological translations of poems that were already a bit dull. As a matter of fact, Waley really brings these poems to life. Even the ones that are repetitive and slightly pointless to begin with. In fact, these poems truly sparkle with freshness. He makes you feel that you are hearing what these poets (many of them presumably humble folk singers) would have said if they had spoken in English. The f I was hesitant to read this book, because I felt sure that it would be a bunch of dry, almost anthropological translations of poems that were already a bit dull. As a matter of fact, Waley really brings these poems to life. Even the ones that are repetitive and slightly pointless to begin with. In fact, these poems truly sparkle with freshness. He makes you feel that you are hearing what these poets (many of them presumably humble folk singers) would have said if they had spoken in English. The feeling comes through very strongly, especially the phases of love -- attraction, courtship, longing, heartbreak. And the imagery, drawn from country life, has a noble plainness to it. A bird here, a plant there. However, this is a hard book to recommend to anyone. Taken as poetry alone, this very long book (over 300 pages) is somewhat repetitive in theme and technique. Because I know something of the period and the different lands, associating each cycle with a certain state (like Qin, or licentious Zheng) provided me with a great thrill. This will hardly carry the general reader through, however. By the same token, anyone interested in the period would be advised to start with the Analects or other philosophical works. With some of the ideas and history under your belt (or girdle, as every handsome stranger in this book wears) this book will be a much more rewarding read. There are numerous poems I want to point out. I will excerpt only one though, this stanza of one of the most famous poems in the collection: Look at that little bay of the Qi, Its kitesfoot so delicately waving. Delicately fashioned is my lord, As thing cut, as thing filed, As thing chiseled, as thing polished. Oh, the grace, the elegance! Oh, the luster, oh, the light! Delicately fashioned is my lord; Never for a moment can I forget him.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bradley

    I don't know how this book wound up on my to read list. I love poetry but I feel that something was lost in translation with this version of The Book Of Songs. I couldn't get into it and I don't know why

  10. 5 out of 5

    Belle Meade School

    895

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lexi

    Read for LIT 460

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kadiatu

    Veeerry interesting, to learn about Chinese, namely Confucian philosophy. Every other line I read, you wouldn't believe, is very closely related to our Islamic teachings. Just read, and you'll be able to compare. *A couple examples: -If you do not implement all that you have learned from reading [these Songs], it does not matter if you memorized a thousand of them. -We need to have a balance between human beings and nature.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sheri Fresonke Harper

    This is one of the Chinese Classics so I wanted to read it. The poems paint scenes of culture, love, love lost, war, told to hit the road. The translation is the easy way to read them. The text offers explanations about the times, who was in charge, and the importance of people. It also offers coherent details about how poems interconnect metaphorically or via images or words.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Robins

    Not bad for ancient Chinese poetry. Rather fasinating to read and speculate what life was like for these people. The poetry is different that Wester culture but often the themes are issues we have today. Interesting read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    I'm a lover of the Arthur Waley translation. I return to it time and time again despite quite a few translation errors. His ability to render and preserve the spirit is once again, why he is considered one of the foremost scholars on Chinese literature.

  16. 5 out of 5

    W.M. Driscoll

    Arthur Waley does his usual stand-up job translating an ancient Chinese classic and making it accessible and enjoyable to the modern reader. For anyone interested in Chinese history, culture, poetry in general or Confucianism in the specific, this is The Book of Songs translation for you.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    If along the highroad I caught hold of your sleeve, Do not hate me; Old ways take time to overcome.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Rosie

    some of these are beautiful

  19. 5 out of 5

    Maggie

    Not my favorite era. Or poetic style. This is early...allegedly organized by Confucius.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Dawn Pink

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sophia

  22. 4 out of 5

    Qinglan

  23. 5 out of 5

    Oliver White

  24. 5 out of 5

    Pepijn van Duijn

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ani

  26. 5 out of 5

    Paula

  27. 5 out of 5

    Liam Guilar

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jahnathon Larson

  29. 5 out of 5

    Tim

  30. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Armstrong

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