The Book of Songs and the Origins of Chinese Poetry

Chou Ping [tooltip content= “Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping (eds) (Anchor, 2005)”] [source][/tooltip]

The general Chinese term for poetry is  also refers more specifically to a sort of tonally regulated verse that became popular in the Tang dynasty, as well as to older forms of poetry that were not tonally regulated. such as rhymed prose (fu 散), an elegant and elaborate blending of poetry with prose passages. While verses are normally independent from music. songs can be further classified into folk song poetry (ge). lyric songs (ci), and opera arias (qu). We will visit each of these forms in turn. but it is best to begin with the primary source of Chinese poetry. the Book of Songs.Dating back a thousand years before the Tang. the Book of Songs is the earliest surviving anthology of Chinese poems. lt was collected in Northern China from the eleventh century to the sixth century BCE. For a modern Chinese, the Boole of Songs is not at all easy to read. Its diction is often archaic. and many of its references need footnotes. Since the pronunciation of some characters has changed over time. the modern ear cannot always detect the original rhyme scheme. Despite these difficulties, the poems have elegant structural characteristics that aid in their reading and enjoyment. Accompanied by music, the short stanzas often contain fully or partially repeated lines to create an effect of refrain. In this early phase of Chinese poetry, verse and music were not clearly separated.Although line length varies. especially in folk songs, over ninety percent of the lines in the Boole of Songs consist of four characters. The four-character line is the dominant form in early Chinese poetry. Its use reflects a desire for balance: the standard pattern of rhythm in these songs is two beats per line, with each beat consisting of two characters. There are exceptions, however, with some poems having stanzas consisting of lines with seven or more characters.Different traditions of poetry coexist in the Book of Songs: hymns of religious solcmnity, folk songs of emotional spontaneity, and structurally symmetrical literati poetry. Structural symmetry is a crucial element in the evolution of the Chinese poem. It may be seen in the first stanza of the very first poem from the Book of Songs:Since Chinese characters are monosyllabic, they are ideal for creating visual and aural symmetries. We can imagine the paired lines as mirror images of each other in terms of syllables and rhythm. ln this poem every two characters form a beat, every two beats a line, every two lines a pair, and every two pairs a stanza. Each pair forms a complete sentence. and each stanza presents a complete idea. All five stanzas in this poem are structurally identical. As the poems in the Book of Songs have a strong tendency to have lines constructed in pairs, their architectural balance offers a perfect example of how the gestalt of yin-yang symmetry in Chinese poetry came into being. lt also allows us to trace the ancient psychological and aesthetic need for lines to be paired and balanced into the development of “regulated verse,” with its preoccupation with metrical and phonic balance.Though many songs evince this perfect symmetry, the poems from the Book of Songs that we have translated in this volume are primarily folk songs whose forms are often less rigid. These folk songs have been popular, and often imitated. in the Chinese tradition; they also read well in translation because their themes speak to universal human emotions and raise fewer cultural obstacles for their English-language readers. Consider:

On the surface, the first two stanzas are structured exactly the same as those of the earlier example: two characters form one beat and two beats a line. But they present variations in the relationship between lines. In the first stanza the lines are paired, but each can stand on its own as an independent sentence. The stanza’s rhyme scheme is also different, with the rhyme falling on the first and third lines, while the same character repeats in the second and fourth lines. In the second stanza the line relationship is even more complicated, with the first three lines forming a sense group and the last line all on its own. The same rhyme falls on each of the four lines. In the last stanza the diction shifts to direct speech written in five-character lines.As illustrated by the above poems, we can detect two major Chinese poetic traditions: literati and folk. The literati is characterized by yin-yang symmetry and uniformity while folk songs, are generally more spontaneous and less refined. In the evolution of Chinese poetry, new poetic forms not deriving directly from music would preserve the yin-yang gestalt as a structural backbone in literati poetry, but if music played a major role in the form (as in songs from the Han Dynasty Music Bureau, Song Dynasty Lyrics, and Yuan Dynasty Tunes), the symmetry in paired lines would often dissolve. While in the above folk songs we can find markings of the compilers who tampered with their spontaneity to give a uniform look to the poems in the Book of Songs, that spontaneity remains in the structural irregularities noted in the above discussion of “In the Wilds Is a Dead River-Deer.”

Chou Ping, Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry
Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping (eds) (Anchor, 2005)

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.