Classic of Poetry

Classic of Poetry
The first song of The Odes, handwritten by Emperor Qianlong, along with a painting.
Classic of Poetry
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese

The Classic of Poetry (traditional Chinese: ; simplified Chinese: ; pinyin: Shī Jīng; Wade-Giles: Shih Ching), translated variously as the Book of Songs, the Book of Odes, and often known simply as its original name The Odes, is the earliest existing collection of Chinese poems and songs. It comprises 305 poems and songs, with many range from the 10th to the 7th centuries BC.[1][2] It forms part of the Five Classics.

Over half of the poems are said to have originally been popular songs. They concern basic human problems such as love, marriage, work, and war. Others include court poems, and legendary accounts praising the founders of the Zhou Dynasty. Included are also hymns used in sacrificial rites,[3] and songs used by the aristocracy in their sacrificial ceremonies or at banquets.[4] The Odes first became known as a Jīng, or a "Classic", in the canonical sense, as part of the Han Dynasty official adoption of Confucianism as the guiding principles of Chinese society around the 1st century AD. As with all great literary works of ancient China, the Shi have been annotated and commented on numerous times throughout history. The annotations by Han Dynasty scholar Mao Heng (Chinese: 毛亨; pinyin: Máo​ Hēng​) and his nephew Mao Chang (Chinese: 毛萇; pinyin: Máo​ Cháng​) are most well known and are considered authoritative.

The poems of Classic of Poetry have strict patterns in both rhyme and rhythm, make much use of imagery, and tend to be short: the style of these lyric poems help to set certain patterns for later Chinese poetry (especially for the shi as opposed to ci or fu formal categories); although the four-character line which is typical for them was largely replaced by either the five or the seven-character line. It is regarded as a revered Confucian classic, and has been studied and memorized by centuries of scholars in China.[3] The popular songs were seen as good keys to understanding the troubles of the common people, and were often read as allegories; complaints against lovers were seen as complaints against faithless rulers, for example.[3]

Confucius was supposed to have selected and edited the poems from a much larger body of material.[4]



The earliest items in the Odes are believed to date to the Western Zhou period. The Classic of History says that the poem "Owl" (Chinese: 鴟鴞) in the Odes of Bin (Chinese: 豳風) was written by the Duke of Zhou. The latest material in the Shi Jing (said by scholar Zheng Xuan to be the song "Tree-stump Grove" (Chinese: 株林) in the Odes of Chen)[5] dates to the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period.

There are two traditional stories regarding the gathering and compilation of the songs that make up the Odes: the "Royal Officials' Collecting Songs" (Chinese: 王官采詩) and "Master Confucius Deletes Songs" (Chinese: 孔子刪詩). The former is recorded in the Book of Han,[6] where the Zhou Dynasty court was said to have dispatched officials to each area of what was then Han Chinese territory (roughly the Yellow River Plain, Shandong, southwestern Hebei, eastern Gansu, and the Han River region) during the harvest to record local songs. After the project was completed, the Emperor was said to have read them in an effort to understand the hearts and minds of the common people.

The second story involves Confucius, and is mentioned in the Records of the Grand Historian. It says that there were originally 3,000 songs and poems in the Odes, and that Confucius selected the 300 that he felt best conformed to traditional ritual propriety, producing what would become the classic Shi Jing. However, the Zuo Zhuan records that the Shi Jing already existed in a definitive form when Confucius was just a young child.

The collection

The collection is divided into three parts according to their genre, namely feng, ya and song, with the ya genre further divided into "small" and "large":

Part Number and meaning Date (BC)[7]
風/风 fēng 160 folk songs (or airs) 8th to 7th cent.
小雅 xiǎoyǎ 74 minor festal songs (or odes traditionally sung at court festivities) 9th to 8th cent.
大雅 dàyǎ 31 major festal songs, sung at more solemn court ceremonies 10th to 9th cent.
頌/颂 sòng 40 hymns and eulogies, sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house 11th to 10th cent.

The Confucian tradition holds that the collection, one of the Wu Jing, or Five Classics, came to what we have today after the editing of Confucius. The collection was officially acknowledged as one of "Five Classics" during the Han Dynasty, and previously in Zhou Dynasty Shi (詩) was one of "Six Classics". Four schools of commentary existed then, namely the Qi (齊), the Lu (魯), the Han (韓), and the Mao (毛) schools. The first two schools did not survive. The Han school only survived partly. The Mao school became the canonical school of Book of Songs commentary after the Han Dynasty. As a result, the collection is also sometimes referred to as "Mao Shi" (毛詩).

Zheng Xuan's elucidation on the Mao commentary is also canonical. Many of the 305 poems had to be reconstructed from memory by scholars since the previous Qin Dynasty had burned the collection along with other classical texts.

The poems are written in four-character lines. The airs are in the style of folk songs, although the extent to which they are real folk songs or literary imitations is debated. The odes deal with matters of court and historical subjects, while the hymns blend history, myth and religious material.

The three major literary figures or styles employed in the poems are straightforward narrative (賦 ), explicit comparisons (比 ) and implied comparisons (興 xìng).


Summary of groupings of poems from the Classic of Poetry

Guo Feng

Guo Feng (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: Guófēng)
"Airs of the States" poems 001-160; 160 total folk songs (or airs)
group char group name poem #s
01 周南 Odes of Zhou & South 001-011
02 召南 Odes of Shao & South 012-025
03 邶風 Odes of Bei 026-044
04 鄘風 Odes of Yong 045-054
05 衛風 Odes of Wei 055-064
06 王風 Odes of Wang 065-074
07 鄭風 Odes of Zheng 075-095
08 齊風 Odes of Qi 096-106
09 魏風 Odes of Wei 107-113
10 唐風 Odes of Tang 114-125
11 秦風 Odes of Qin 126-135
12 陳風 Odes of Chen 136-145
13 檜風 Odes of Kuai 146-149
14 曹風 Odes of Cao 150-153
15 豳風 Odes of Bin 154-160

Xiao Ya

Xiao Ya (Chinese: ; pinyin: xiǎoyǎ)
"Minor Odes of the Kingdom" poems 161-234; 74 total minor festal songs (or odes) for court
group char group name poem #s
01 鹿鳴 之什 Decade of Lu Ming 161-170
02 白華 之什 Decade of Baihua 170-175
03 彤弓 之什 Decade of Tong Gong 175-185
04 祈父 之什 Decade of Qi Fu 185-195
05 小旻 之什 Decade of Xiao Min 195-205
06 北山 之什 Decade of Bei Shan 205-215
07 桑扈 之什 Decade of Sang Hu 215-225
08 都人士 之什 Decade of Du Ren Shi 225-234

Da Ya

Da Ya (Chinese: ; pinyin: dàyǎ)
"Major Odes of the Kingdom" poems 235-265;
31 total major festal songs (Chinese: ) for solemn court ceremonies
group char group name poem #s
01 文王之什 Decade of Wen Wang 235-244
02 生民之什 Decade of Sheng Min 245-254
03 蕩之什 Decade of Dang 255-265


Song (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: sòng)
"Odes of the Temple & Altar" poems 266-305;
40 total praises, hymns, or eulogies sung at spirit sacrifices
group char group name poem #s
01 周頌 Sacrificial Odes of Zhou1 266-296
01a 清廟之什 Decade of Qing Miao 266-275
01b 臣工之什 Decade of Chen Gong 276-285
01c 閔予小子之什 Decade of Min You Xiao Zi 286-296
02 魯頌 Praise Odes of Lu3 297-300
03 商頌 Sacrificial Odes of Shang1 301-305

note: alternative divisions may be topical or chronological (Legges): Song, Daya, Xiaoya, Guofeng

Influence and legacy

The Classic of Poetry is the oldest known purely literary work in Chinese history, providing the first extant examples of narrative and emotion-expressing verse and rhyme in Han Chinese history. The Odes provided founding principles in composition and rhyme that were patterned by Chinese writers for well over two thousand years. Additionally, the Odes preserve the earliest known descriptions of daily life among the ancient Han Chinese culture that occupied the Yellow River watershed, a culture that gradually spread out and assimilated or conquered non-Chinese tribes.

Confucius held the Classic of Poetry in highest esteem. The Analects records: "The Master said: The three hundred Odes, summarizing them in one phrase, say: 'Speak only of going straight.'"[8] Another story in the Analects recounts that Confucius' son Kong Li told the story: "The Master once stood by himself, and I hurried to seek teaching from him. He asked me, 'You've studied the Odes?' I answered, 'Not yet.' He replied, 'If you study the Odes not, then I have nothing to speak.'"[9]

The Odes even influenced political dealings in ancient China. When kingdoms or feudal leaders wished to express delicate or difficult positions, they would sometimes couch the message within a poem. This practice became common among educated Chinese in their personal correspondences and spread to Japan and Korea as well.

Modern scholarship on the Classic of Poetry often focuses on doing linguistic reconstruction and research in Old Chinese by analyzing the rhyme schemes in the Odes, which show vast differences when read in modern Mandarin Chinese.[10] Even Cantonese and Min Nan, which preserve more Old Chinese syllable endings than Mandarin, are believed to be very different from the original language of the Odes.[11]


  • Classic of Poetry, in The Sacred Books of China, translated by James Legge, 1879.
  • The Book of Songs, translated by Arthur Waley, edited with additional translations by Joseph R. Allen, New York: Grove Press, 1996.
  • Book of Poetry, translated by Xu Yuanchong (許淵沖), edited by Jiang Shengzhang (姜勝章), Hunan, China: Hunan chubanshe, 1993.
  • The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius, translated by Ezra Pound, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954.
  • The Book of Odes, translated by Bernhard Karlgren, Stockholm: The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1950.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Voorst, Robert E. Van (2007). Anthology of World Scriptures. Cengage Learning. p. 140. ISBN 0495503878. 
  2. ^ Idema, Wilt L. and Lloyd Haft (1997). A guide to Chinese literature: Issue 74. Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan. p. 94. ISBN 089264099. 
  3. ^ a b c Ebrey, Patricia (1993). Chinese Civilisation: A Sourcebook (2nd ed.). The Free Press. pp. 11–13. ISBN 978-0-02-908752-7. 
  4. ^ a b de Bary, William Theodore; Chan, Wing-Tsit (1960). Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume I. Columbia University Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-231-10939-0. 
  5. ^ Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (AD 127–200), Shi Pu Xu 詩譜序.
  6. ^ In the Shi Huo Zhi 食貨志.
  7. ^ Dobson, W. A. C. H. (1964). "Linguistic Evidence and the Dating of the Book of Songs". T'oung Pao 51 (4–5): 322–334. JSTOR 4527607. 
  8. ^ Analects 2.2, Chinese: "子曰:詩三百,一言以蔽之,曰:'思不邪'.", 《論語·為政篇二》. The phrase "Speak only of going straight" (Chinese: 思不邪) itself comes from a poem in the Odes, specifically the Sacrificial Odes of Lu (Chinese: 魯頌; pinyin: Lu song), in a song about driving a horse, thinking and speaking only of going straight: Chinese: 以車祛祛,思不邪,思馬斯徂.
  9. ^ In Analects 16.13. 《論語·李氏》.
  10. ^ Pulleyblank, Edwin (1973). "Some further evidence regarding Old Chinese '-s' and its time of disappearance". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 36: 368–373. 
  11. ^ Baxter, William H. (1992). A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 1–12. ISBN 978-3-11-012324-1. 

External links

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