Introduction to Chinese Poetry

Burton Watson [tooltip content= “The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1984)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

Poetry has been many things to the Chinese over the long centuries of their history – a hymn to ancestral spirits, a celebration of the beauties of nature, an expression of friendship or a pleasant accompaniment to a social gathering, a medium for airing political criticisms, for venting grief, for advancing a courtship. It has been composed by emperors and their ladies-in-waiting, by monks and generals, city dwellers and farm folk, but above all by the scholar-officials, men who had received a thorough education in the classics of the language and who, often after passing the civil service examinations, were assigned posts in the complex bureaucracy that governed the vast nation. Whatever level of society it may have sprung from, poetry is woven into the life and history of the Chinese people, and perhaps no other facet of their traditional culture possesses such universal appeal.

Two things about the Chinese poetic tradition are immediately striking – its great antiquity and its remarkable continuity. The earliest works . . . are taken from an anthology compiled around 600 B.C., and may well date back several centuries earlier. Moreover, they draw upon an oral tradition whose origins are probably as old as the Chinese people themselves. Though there are few works from the centuries immediately following this early anthology, for the period from around 300 B.C. down to the present century, the stream of poetic output is virtually unbroken. The discovery in the first century A.D. of a method of making paper, and the invention of printing about seven centuries later, greatly aided the dissemination and preservation of literary works, with the result that, the Chinese being among the world’s most indefatigable compilers and transmitters of texts, the volume of poetry handed down from the past is truly staggering.

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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.