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The Book of Songs

The Shijing (诗经), often translated as the Book of Songs, Classic of Poetry, Book of Odes, or Canon of Poetry, is a collection of 305 poems from ancient China. Shi (诗) means “songs” or “poems,” and jing (经) can be translated as “classic” or “scripture,” though in its earliest days the Shijing was often referred to simply as shi (poems or song-words). In popular tradition, the compilation of the Shijing was attributed to the collection of songs by traveling officials of the Zhou Music Bureau of the Western Zhou dynasty (1046 to 771 BCE). In some variations on this tradition, Confucius himself selected the best of the songs from the music bureau’s collection and commented on their moral and philosophical values, thus creating the Shijing.

Figure 1: Illustrated scene of "Eulogies of Zhou" from the Book of Songs, Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279)
History of the Shijing

As with many ancient and pre-classical texts, the actual origin of the Shijing has been the subject of a long tradition of commentary and scholarship. Confucius (c. 571–479 BCE) references the Shijing (most often referring to them as the shi, or shi san bai – the “three hundred songs”) in the records of his wisdom, the Analects, which indicates that the poems themselves come from the Zhou dynasty between the 11th and 7th centuries BCE (Fuller, 2018). While the earliest archaeological evidence of poems from the Shijing date from the Warring States (476-221 BCE) period, the Shijing itself is often considered a pre-classical text of Zhou dynasty oral songs. However, some scholars such as Stephen Owens maintain that the Shijing as a complete text is “undateable” due to the orality of its nature (Shaughnessy, 2015).

Figure 1: "Kongzi shilun" (Confucian commentary of the Shijing) bamboo strips, Warring States era.

Regardless of the exact process of oral-to-textual transmission that gave rise to the Shijing, the collection of poetry has had an immensely important place in Chinese literature and culture. As Burton Watson observed:

The Chinese have customarily looked upon poetry as the chief glory of their literary tradition, particularly poetry in the [shi] form, and have taken enormous pains to preserve it in countless editions and anthologies, many of them elaborately (Watson, 1984).

Additionally, because the Shijing was supposedly annotated by Confucius, the collection later became part of the Five Confucian Classics and thus a central part of classical Chinese education (Watson, 1984; Fuller, 2018). Even during the time of Confucius, knowledge of the Shijing poems was already regarded as an essential part of educated culture: one had to know the proper use of the shi in different daily rituals, from agricultural rites to ancestral worship. Confucius also regarded the shi as sources of wisdom and education, and he believed that one could use the lyrics to help cultivate proper morals in oneself or in others. An ability to advise others and communicate through quoting and alluding to the shi even became a part of subtle, cultured diplomacy (Fuller, 2018; Waley, 2011).

Figure 2: King Wu of Zhou, founder of the Zhou dynasty, whose deeds are recorded in Shijing poems.

Form and Content

Though not all lines in the Shijing are uniform, the earliest form of Chinese poetry, the four-character verse with shorter stanzas, takes its structure and name from the Book of Songs. Some common characteristics of the 305 poems in the Shijing include: the four-syllable or four-character lines; short stanzas of four, six, or eight lines; and end rhymes which most often occur at the end of even lines (e.g. second and fourth line end rhymes). However, variations on this form appear such as the occasional rhymed couplet or uneven lines with additional characters.

Many of the poems also demonstrate the use of natural imagery to create metaphors, with an opening two-line image drawn from nature (xing 醒) that can parallel or contrast the theme of the poem (Watson, 1984; Mair, 2010). They also demonstrate the Chinese view of poetry as the expression or revelation of innermost thoughts and emotions through allusive and epigrammatic language that relied on the educated reader’s powers of association and interpretation. In other words, the poems of the Shi, like the majority of poetry in the Chinese tradition, tended to be concise and vague, full of multiple meanings and interpretations.

In the preface to the Mao edition, the most well-known of the Shijing, the commentator underscores the emotional nature of Chinese poetry while also connecting it to the didactic interpretations favored by Confucian scholars (Fuller, 2018; Liu, 1962).

Poetry is where the resolve goes. In the heart, it is resolve; manifested in words, it is a poem. Emotion moves within and takes shape in words. Words are not enough, and so one sighs it. Sighing it is not enough, and so one draws it out in song. Drawing it out in song is not enough, and so unknowingly one’s hands dance it and one’s feet tread it. Emotion is manifested in the voice. When voice is patterned, we call it tone. The tone of a well-governed state is peaceful and happy; its government is harmonious. The tone of a chaotic age is resentful and angry; its government is perverse. The tone of a lost state is full of sorrow and longing; its people are in straits. Thus for correcting gain and loss, moving Heaven and Earth, and affecting the spirits, nothing comes close to poetry. (Fuller, 2018: 51-52).

In the Mao edition, a Confucian edition and commentary, the 305 songs of the Shijing are organized into four categories, frequently translated as the “Airs of the States,” the “Lesser Ya,” the “Greater Ya,” and the “Hymns.” Themes and imagery overlap in these categories and in many cases, the songs of the Shijing depict the emotions of and reflections on daily life and related beliefs.

In particular, the “Airs of the States” are largely folk songs that discuss friendship, love, partings and meetings. Previously thought to be the newest parts of the Shijing, scholars now believe they represent some of the oldest oral works (Mair, 2010; Fuller 2018).

汎彼柏舟 亦汎其流 耿耿不寐 如有隱憂 微我無酒 以敖以遊
It floats about, the boat of cypress wood Yea, it floats about on the current Disturbed I am and sleepless As if suffering from a painful wound It is not because I have no wine And that I might not wander and saunder about

Excerpt from "Airs of the States" poem #26 of the Mao edition, a poem about a woman marrying against her will. English translation by James Legge (1898). Retrieved from University of Virginia Library Chinese Text Initiative (1998).

Ya in modern Chinese can be translated to elegant, which leads to the English translations of the Lesser and Greater Ya to be “Lesser Elegantiae” and “Greater Elegantiae.” However, ya can also be translated as “correct” and can be taken to refer to the “correct” speech of the time or the dialect used by Zhou dynasty court (Mair, 2010; Fuller, 2018). Indeed, many of the “Lesser Ya” involve themes from court life, such as laments over the affairs of state, or customs among members of the court. In contrast, the poems of the “Greater Ya” more often seek to recount the deeds or rituals of great kings and statesmen, and offer moral or ritualistic guidance to current rulers.

Figure 3: Duke of Zhou, a venerated statesman who appears in Shijing poems

Finally, the “Hymns” of the Shijing include songs about Zhou royal ancestral rites, but also include odes to the ancestors of the Shang dynasty and the state of Lu (Fuller, 2018). Some scholars argue that the inclusion of the “Hymns of Lu” alongside hymns from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, point towards the involvement of Confucius who was born in the state of Lu (Mair, 2010).

In his well-known translation of the Shijing, the scholar Arthur Waley dispenses with the traditional Confucian organization of the poems and instead groups them by the major themes, seeking to underline what can be learned about daily Chinese life from each of the poems. Some of his categories include courtship, marriage, warriors and battles, agricultural practices and rituals, welcomes, feasts, sacrifices, friendship, lamentations, and moral pieces (Waley, 2011).

Language and Translations

In accordance with the aesthetics of ancient Chinese writing, the poems of the Shijing are written with very concise language filled with elisions, allusions, and repetitions. The extremely concise form of the Shijing poems is made possible by characteristics of the Chinese language that are difficult to reproduce in English translations of the text, and the ancient Chinese love of allusive language makes it even more difficult to distinguish narrative lines of poetry from metaphorical language or allusions (Watson, 1984; Mair, 2010; Allen, 2019; Fuller, 2018, Liu, 1962).

Furthermore, some of the major differences between the Chinese and English languages create other difficulties when translating the poems from the Shijing. For example, a prominent theme of Chinese poetry is the idea of timelessness and reflection without a particular subject. The Chinese language, and particularly Classical Chinese with its lack of morphological tense, fluid character of nouns and verbs, and its ability to function grammatically without a subject, lends itself well to this theme. When translating into English however, a translator is required to make choices about verb tenses, subjects, and prepositions, among other linguistic features which can detract from the ambiguity and layered readings possible in Chinese (Fuller, 2018; Mair, 2010; Liu, 1962).

The major English translations of the Shijing include translations by James Legge, Arthur Waley, Ezra Pound (who knew no Chinese but worked off the notes of scholars of Chinese) and Bernhard Karlgren (Allen, 2019). Reading different English translations, commentary, and translations of ancient commentary can offer a Western reader a fuller picture of the Shijing.

Tossed is that cypress boat, Wave-tossed it floats. My heart is in turmoil, I cannot sleep. But secret is my grief. Wine I have, all things needful, For play, for sport.

Excerpt from poem 26 in the Mao edition, translation by Arthur Waley (2011: 71).

Pine boat a-shift on a drift of tide, for flame in the ear, sleep riven, driven; rift of heart in the dark no wine will clear, nor have I will to playe.

Excerpt from poem 26 in the Mao edition, translated by Ezra Pound (1954:12).

As the oldest known collection of Chinese poetry and one of the Five Classics of Confucianism, the Shijing has long enjoyed a prestigious role in the Chinese literary tradition. Since before the Common Era, scholars throughout the centuries have appreciated this collection not only for its literary value, but also for the knowledge and insight it offers on Chinese history, sentiments, values, philosophy, and the classical language.

Bibliographical References

Allen, J. R. (2019). Translating Great Distances: The Case of the Shijing. In M. van Crevel & L. Klein (Eds.), Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs (pp. 69–88). Amsterdam University Press.

Confucius, & Pound, E. (1959). The Confucian Odes : The Classic Anthology. New Directions.

Fuller, M. A. (2018). An Introduction to Chinese Poetry : from the Canon of Poetry to the Lyrics of the Song Dynasty. Published By Harvard University Asia Center.

Goldin, P. R. (2005). The Reception of the Odes in the Warring States Era. In After Confucius: Studies in Early Chinese Philosophy (pp. 19–35). University of Hawai’i Press.

Liu, J. J. Y. (1962). The Art of Chinese Poetry. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Mair, V. H. (2010). The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press.

Shaughnessy, E. L., & 夏含夷. (2015). Unearthed Documents and the Question of the Oral Versus Written Nature of the “Classic of Poetry.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 75(2), 331–375.

Sun, X., & Zheng, X. (1998). Shijing. Shi Jing [Book of Odes]; University of Virginia Chinese Text Initiative.

Waley, A. (2011). The Book of Songs. Routledge.

Watson, B. (1984). The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: from Early Times to the Thirteenth Century. Columbia University Press.

Image References

Figure 1: Ma Hezhi (c. 1127-1279). Ten Illustrated "Eulogies of Zhou" from the Book of Songs [Handscroll]. Shanghai Museum. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from

Figure 2: Bamboo strips from the Kongzi Shilun [Bamboo]. Shanghai Museum. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from

Figure 3: Ma Lin (c. 1180-1256). King Wu of Zhou. National Palace Museum. Retrieved May 20, 2022 from

Figure 3: Duke of Zhou. The Open Court. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from

1 Comment

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