Cosmology in Chinese Poetry

Francois Cheng [tooltip content= “Chinese Poetic Writing: With an Anthology of T’ang Poetry (Indiana University Press, 1982″] [source][/tooltip] [green_message] The eminent role which poetry played in China is well known. This eminence is due not only to the important functions, both aesthetic and social, which poetry has always had, but also to a more essential phenomenon: the quasi-sacred veneration devoted to the ideographic writing itself in China. This writing was perceived not as an arbitrary invention of man, but as the result of supernatural revelation. Ancient myths report that on the day when Ts’ang Chieh, inspired by divinatory figures, traced the first signs, Heaven and Earth trembled, and gods and demons wept. For, through the magical trickery of the written signs, man would henceforth share in the secrets of Creation. (Chinese thought , is, then, as much marked by the myth of Ts’ang Chieh, who steals the I signs of written language, as is Western thought by the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire.) From this perspective, poetry, which transforms written signs into song (“a sung writing”), has as its highest function the rejoining of the human spirit to the original and vital forces of the Universe. Let us listen to Chung Hung, of the sixth century, from the introduction to his Shih P’in: “The Breaths animate beings and things; these in their turn inspire man. Pushed by the impulsions and feelings which dwell within him, man expresses himself through dance and song. His song is a light which illuminates the Three Spirits (Man-Earth-Heaven) as well as the ten thousand creatures. Thus it constitutes an offering to the spirits, and makes manifest the hidden mystery. For upsetting Heaven and Earth, for moving the Gods, nothing equals poetry.” [/green_message]

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.