Since antiquity, no other text has enjoyed a presence quite like The Book of Songs – in one critic’s words, it is “the classic of the human heart and the human mind.” It is the first poetic anthology of China; Confucius himself is said to have compiled the “three hundred songs”— another early name for the text – out of a body of 3,000, “removing duplicates and choosing only what could be matched to the principles of ritual”. By the end of the Western Han dynasty (202 BCE-9 CE), there were no fewer than four schools of the Songs at the imperial academy, offering a range of different interpretations for each song.
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In the same way that Homer’s epics took hold within the West, The Book of Songs played a role in spheres far beyond literature, with a lasting influence on Chinese civilisation. The collection had an impact on education, politics and communal life: in antiquity, the Songs were quoted and recited as coded communication in diplomatic exchange; invoked as proof to cap a philosophical argument; read as commentary – satirical more often than not – on historical circumstances; and taught for the purposes of moral edification. It has continued to affect Chinese society since then, both through what the Songs say and the form they take.
Many of the Court Hymns are grand, expansive narratives to celebrate the Zhou; they served as the dynasty’s core text of political and cultural memory
The received anthology emerged from the “Mao tradition”, one of the four early schools, and is divided into four parts: 160 Airs (guofeng), 74 Minor Court Hymns (xiaoya), 31 Major Court Hymns (daya), and 40 Eulogies (song). Within the Eulogies, the 31 Eulogies of Zhou are considered the oldest segment of the anthology, purportedly dating back to the very early years of the Western Zhou (1046-771 BCE) dynasty.
Emperor Zhou the Dragon Slayer, as shown in a wall painting at Yixing Temple in Jiangsu Province (Credit: Alamy)
These hymns, all of them rather short, were performed in sacrifices to the Zhou royal ancestors: multimedia performances containing the aromatic offerings of meat, grain and alcohol; ritual music on drums and bells, wind and string instruments; dance to re-enact the military conquest of the previous Shang dynasty; and the solemn hymns by which the Zhou king praised his ancestors and requested their blessings in return. In short, Chinese poetry begins in religious ritual.
By accompanying rites, in turn, the Eulogies helped regulate social order. Respecting ‘heaven’s will’ was an important element of ancient Chinese politics; by enforcing this message, the Book of Songs could underpin the rule of the Zhou Dynasty. Unlike the Eulogies, many of the Court Hymns are grand, expansive narratives to celebrate the Zhou; they served as the dynasty’s core text of political and cultural memory. Like the archaic Eulogies, the Hymns are straightforward; there is no debate about the story they are meant to tell.
Far more challenging are the Airs of the States, assigned to 15 different regions roughly along the Yellow River across northern China. Not one of these songs carries a historical narrative. Some are deceptively easy on their surface: a song of desire, the parting song of lovers at dawn, a farmer’s protest against corrupt officials, the lament of a soldier on campaign longing for home, or of his wife waiting for him in vain. It is here where the human condition of thought and emotion finds its full expression – and where all questions of interpretation begin.
The May Fourth Movement of 1919 marked a move from intellectual elites to populism (Credit: Alamy)
The May Fourth Movement of 1919 (anti-imperialist cultural and political protests sparked by students) tried to build a new national literary heritage on the ruins of an empire that after two millennia had finally collapsed. Now, the Airs became something new altogether: folk songs whose charming simplicity and repetitive diction seemed to have sprung directly from the hearts of the common people.
Like no other text from Chinese antiquity, the Songs were cherished, and hence survived, in two parallel traditions
The very first and most famous Air of all, Fishhawks (Guanju), is known as a happy marriage song. Yet was it ever that? Already Zhu Xi (1130-1200) had advocated a return to the words of the songs themselves, in a veritable act of literary excavation after Han and later commentators had buried them under layers upon layers of learned commentary; and there is evidence that the poets – as opposed to the scholars – of imperial China always knew how to appreciate the Airs at face value, invoking their lively imagery taken from nature together with their expressions of desire, love, and pain.
Zhu Xi – Chinese philosopher, politician, and writer of the Song dynasty – proposed looking at the words of the songs themselves (Credit: Alamy)
Like no other text from Chinese antiquity, the Songs were cherished, and hence survived, in two parallel traditions: one of learned commentary and the imperial examination system, the other of poetic memory and allusion. Remarkably, no ancient source ever shows us the Airs as innocent folk poetry. Early imperial legend knows of royal officials “collecting” the songs from the “lanes and alleys” to reveal to the ruler the social conditions and sentiments of the common people; purportedly, only then were they adapted to court music. Yet there is nothing to support such pious belief in the folk origins of poetry; instead, every reference to, or quotation from, the Songs before and after the foundation of the empire in 221 BCE shows them as part of the élite curriculum that gradually solidified in the form of the Five Classics of imperial Confucianism.
In that tradition, each line could have multiple meanings. One Han commentary takes Fishhawks as praising the virtue of King Wen (1099-1050 BCE) and his wife; yet another takes it as criticism of King Kang (1005-978 BCE). And finally, several recently discovered tomb manuscripts on bamboo and silk, dating from the 4th through the 2nd Centuries BCE, note that “Fishhawks uses the expression of sexual allure and desire to illustrate propriety” in order to advance moral thought.
Zhou Wenju’s A Literary Garden (10th Century) showed a group of the literati class in China (Credit: Alamy)
Through poetry, rites and music, Confucian education sought to teach moral subtleties – easily memorised in the form of singing, The Book of Songs helped to lay down rules for behaviour. Its poetry, as opposed to the Western tradition, was largely anonymous and apparently simple. Yet beneath the surface, the poems are multi-layered. To this day, the Songs – and especially the Airs – are speaking in multiple voices. In delightful ambiguity, they have survived every attempt to be reduced, and hence diminished, to a single message or meaning.
Listen to what the Confucius of the Analects had to say about them: the Songs “can be covered in one phrase: no wayward thoughts!”; with them, “one can inspire, observe, unite, and express resentment” as well as learn “in great numbers the names of fish, birds, beasts, plants, and trees”; those who fail to master them “have nothing to express themselves with” and are like a man who “stands with his face straight to the wall”.
And even those who can recite all of “the three hundred”: if you are unable to apply the poems flexibly creatively according to context, “what use is there for them?” In short, it was never about what the songs – all of them anonymous – originally meant, or where they came from. It was always about something else: how can you make them mean something new?
BBC Culture’s Stories that Shaped the World series looks at epic poems, plays and novels from around the globe that have influenced history and changed mindsets. A poll of writers and critics, 100 Stories that Shaped the World, was announced in May.
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