Monday, November 12, 2012

World's Oldest Anthology


The Book of Songs: Shijing: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry


One of the five great Chinese Classics and a foundational text of Confucian learning, 
The Book of Songs expresses the essence of ancient Chinese society in simple and sophisticated verse forms characterized by modulated lyricism and compelling if elusive narratives. The Book of Songs is the oldest collection of poetry in the world, a treasure trove of culture and history that has been enjoyed by millions of readers, and studied and interpreted by legions of commentators. Compiled around 600 BCE, the anthology contains poems that have been cherished by ordinary people and scholars alike from one century to the next.


The Book of Songs contains 305 poems: songs performed and passed from generation to generation during the time of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). The songs in the anthology represent the various levels of society under the Zhou Feudal Kingdom. The Book of Songs is comprised of 160 “Airs” or folk songs – by far the most numerous category; 74 Minor Odes, or poems drawn from courtly society; 31 Major Odes: poems of the aristocracy featuring legends of major importance to the Zhou; and 40 Hymns, many of which invoke the Heavenly charge received by the Zhou royals to govern wisely. The oldest poems, the temple hymns of the Zhou royal house, date from as early as 1000 BCE. Most of the songs date from around 600 BCE, when the anthology was compiled. According to historian Sima Qian (145-86 BCE), The Book of Songs was the first anthology of Chinese poetry compiled by Confucius himself. A historian of the Western Han Dynasty (206-8 BCE) says many poems that became part of the permanent canon in The Book of Songs had been garnered earlier by the Zhou royals. The royals gained possession of these “Airs” by sending bell-ringing messengers out to the villages every spring to collect the best songs.


Just as epics such as The Mahabharata and The Ramayana of Ancient India and The Iliad and The Odyssey of Ancient Greece reflect core aspects of their societies, so The Book of Songs reflects the existential core of Ancient China. Studied for its moral lessons, for its value to politicians and historians, The Book of Songs is perhaps best understood as providing an intimate glimpse of the human heart, now joyful, now tested by circumstances. As editor and translator Joseph K. Allen informs us, Chinese poetry is not so much a mirror of human behavior as a window onto the heart. This understanding is reflected in a concise definition of poetry. Book of Songs scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200) cites the following maxim: “Poetry puts intentions into words.” Poetry expresses the poet’s true feelings, revealing the poet’s authentic self.


In his Postface to Arthur Waley's translation of this classic, editor Joseph Allen relates the maxim: “Poetry gives words to intentions” to the legacy of The Book of Songs. The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry has had great influence in China and beyond in determining how poetry is read. Chinese readers of The Book of Songs, while valuing poetry for its excellence of form, moral teaching, and historical significance, understood its primary value as the disclosure of the inner life of the poet. Today, readers around the world turn to poetry – to its precise language, figures of speech, rhythms, rhymes and musicality – to experience through this powerful medium the life story of the human heart.

See below three poems from the Shijing, translated by Arthur Waley.

From The Airs of the States

26  Cypress Boat

Tossed is that cypress boat,
Wave-tossed it floats.
My heart is in turmoil, I cannot sleep.
But secret is my grief.
Wine I have, all things needful
For play, for sport.

My heart is not a mirror,
To reflect what others will.
Brothers too I have;
I cannot be snatched away.
But lo, when I told them of my plight
I found that they were angry with me.

My heart is not a stone;
It cannot be rolled.
My heart is not a mat;
It cannot be folded away.
I have borne myself correctly
In rites more than can be numbered.

My sad heart is consumed, I am harassed
By a host of small men.
I have borne vexations very many,
Received insults not few.
In the still of night I brood upon it;
In the waking hours I rend my breast.

O sun, ah moon,
Why are you changed and dim?
Sorrow clings to me
Like an unwashed dress.
In the still of night I brood upon it,
Long to take wing and fly away.

From the Minor Odes:

219  The Bluebottles

Buzz, buzz the bluebottles
That have settled on the hedge.
Oh, my blessed lord,
Do not believe the slanders that are said.

Buzz, buzz the bluebottles
That have settled on the thorns.
Slanderers are very wicked:
They disturb the whole land.

Buzz, buzz the bluebottles
That have settled on the hazel-bush.
Slanderers are very wicked:
They have joined the two of us.

From the Hymns:

283  So They Appeared

So they appeared before their lord the king
To get from him their emblems,
Dragon-banners blazing bright,
Tuneful bells tinkling,
Bronze-knobbed reins jangling––
The gifts shone with glorious light.
Then they showed them to their shining ancestors
Piously, making offering
That they might be vouchsafed long life,
Everlastingly be guarded.
Oh, a mighty store of blessings!
Glorious and mighty, those former princes and lords
Who secure us with many blessings,
Through whose bright splendors
We greatly prosper.

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