Wen – Poetry in Chinese Culture

J.P. Seaton [tooltip content= “Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry (Shambhala, 2006)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]In traditional Chinese culture, poetry held a place that was unrivaled by any other talent, ability or practical accomplishment as a source of prestige, aflluence, and even political power. Literacy was a source of potency in all premodern societies, and literary prowess was and is ad mired and acknowledged as a gateway along the path of social mobility in many Western cultures (French, ltalian, German, even English). However, nowhere else has it even approached the position it held in traditional China. The reason for its preeminence there lay directly in the many pronouncements of the Master Sage, Confucius, that linked together, under the Chinese term wen, a number of things that go beyond even the most advanced conception of literacy in the West.

Wen was to be acquired by a twofold process. Fundamentally, the word refers on the one hand to decoration, that which ispplied to the outside of an object of sacred worship or of civil ritual, or to a cup, or a house, or a man or a woman. On the other hand, wen also refers to the patterns that occur and recur in nature: ripple patterns in the sand of a streambed, or the grain in the wood of a freshly cut board, always apparent in the raw wood but always more evident and more beautiful when rubbed and oiled and rubbed again, to glow with a warm sheen. So too, a man or a woman may decorate clothing, or even skin, to attract attention. So too, say the Confucians, one must rub and polish one’s natural grain: the Confucian believes that human nature is good at birth and that it may, with care, glow with a warm sheen. To accomplish wen is, finally, in the simplest terms, to accomplish the ability to communicate fully and powerfully.

To accomplish wen is, finally, in the simplest terms, to accomplish the ability to communicate fully and powerfully.

Wen includes the most advanced forms of passive literacy: reading with discemment, critically and analytically, and with a joyful appreciation of the aesthetics of the written word as well. Beyond these, wen is also active literacy at its most powerful. It is the ability to create through language, to communicate with passion and power. It includes not just the ability to argue brilliantly but also the ability to marshal beauty on the side of truth in the ultimate form of humane argument.

The five books that Confucius used in his teaching, what we call the Chinese Classics, included a poetry anthology, the Shih Ching. It is the largest of the five. These books, though they do not claim divine authority, were as influential in traditional Chinese culture as the Bible is in Christian societies or the Koran in lslamic. Using each of these boolcs, Confucius taught that literacy granted the ability to cross the barriers of both time and space through the study of history and literature. Further, he taught that self-cultivation in the arts of wen gave the honest student (or scholar, as we in the West have called the traditional Chinese gentleman who followed the Master’s injunctions) the tools to master the arts of communication.

And though a clean and clear prose style was an ideal of Confucius, poetry was the mode oi communication par excellence.  According to Confucius, the cultivated man, speaking through poetry, the most powerful literary medium, achieved Te, charisma, the almost magical power to lead the community in peace and even, when necessary, in war.

J.P. Seaton
Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry
(Shambhala, 2006)


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.