Shih Ching – The Poetry Classic

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.

The Shih Ching - J.P Seaton

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.

Lamenting the Absence of a Cherished Friend
1
Though small my basket, all my toil
Filled it with mouse-ears but in part.
I set it on the path, and sighed
For the dear master of my heart.

2
My steeds, o’ertasked, their progress stayed,
When midway up that rocky height.
Give me a cup from that gilt vase,
When shall this longing end in sight?

3
To mount that lofty ridge I drove,
Until my steeds all changed their hue.
A cup from that rhinoceros’ horn
May help my longing to subdue.

4
Striving to reach that flat-topped hill,
My steeds, worn out, relaxed their strain;
My driver also sank oppressed:
I’ll never see my lord again!

James Legge

Shih Ching #16

This sweet pear, this great shady tree
Don’t you dare prune it, much less cut at it!
The good Lord Shao found
friendly shade beneath once.

This sweet pear, this great shady tree
Don’t you dare clip it, much less do damage to it!
The good Lord Shao spoke true beneath it often.

This sweet pear, this great shady tree
Don’t you dare clip, don’t bend a twig of it…
Here the good Lord Shao gave honest judgement, always.

J.P. Seaton

Collecting Kudzu Vine

He went away to collect kudzu vine.
One day’s absence
is as long as three months.

He went away to collect wormwood.
One day’s absence
is as long as three seasons.

He went away to collect moxa.
One day’s absence
is as long as three years.

Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping