Chinese Poetry: Book of Odes

Shih Ching book of poetry

Believed to be compiled by Confucius, Shih ching or “Book of Odes” is a collection of 305 poems, dating from 1000 to 600 BC. These are believed to be the oldest existing examples of Chinese poetry.

The collection includes refined folk songs, ritualistic poems, dynastic legends and hymns for ancestral temples. All were intended to be sung, although the musical accompaniments are long lost. The subject matter centers on daily activities such as farming, gathering plants, farming, courting, feasting and going to war. The imagery is concrete and the poems themselves focus on youth, beauty and vigor. The tone is wide, from festive and lighthearted to bitter and satirical. Children and old age are largely ignored.

The construction of the poems is very consistent. Each line contained four characters (note: a Chinese character is not equivalent to an English word; Chinese characters often encompass an entire phrase or idea). The lines are arranged in stanzas of four, six or eight lines. Rhyming occurs infrequently.

Economy of expression is predominant. Most begin with an image of nature, which oftentimes leads to a parallel in human life, or, just as often, a contrast.

“Book of Odes” is considered one of the Five Confucian Classics and became a basic text in Chinese education. For many centuries, the Chinese have studied the text for its wisdom relative to history, philosophy, ethics and politics.

No. 1
(a wedding song for the royal family)

Gwan! gwan! cry the fish hawks
on sandbars in the river:
a mild-mannered good girl,
fine match for the gentleman.

A ragged fringe is the floating-heart,
left and right we trail it:
that mild-mannered good girl,
awake, asleep, I search for her.

I search but cannot find her,
awake, asleep, thinking of her,
endlessly, endlessly,
turning, tossing from side to side.

A ragged fringe is the floating-heart,
left and right we pick it:
the mild-mannered good girl,
harp and lute make friends with her.

A ragged fringe is the floating-heart,
left and right we sort it:
the mild-mannered good girl,
bell and drum delight her.

No. 192

How is the night?
The night’s not yet ended.
Courtyard torches are lit;
our lord is coming,
his bridle-bells make tinkling sounds.

How is the night?
The night’s not yet over.
Courtyard torches shimmer and shine:
our lord is coming,
his bridle-bells make jangling sounds.

How is the night?
The night gives way to dawn.
Courtyard torches are glimmering:
our lord is coming,
I can see his banners!


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