Ancient Chinese Poetry: The ‘Book of Songs’

The 'Book of Songs' is the first collection of ancient Chinese poetry, and it ranks as one of the Confucian classics. Pictured above: The first song in the "Book of Songs", handwritten by the Qianlong Emperor, with accompanying painting. (Image: via   wikipedia  /  CC0 1.0)
The 'Book of Songs' is the first collection of ancient Chinese poetry, and it ranks as one of the Confucian classics. Pictured above: The first song in the "Book of Songs", handwritten by the Qianlong Emperor, with accompanying painting. (Image: via wikipedia / CC0 1.0)

The Book of Songs is the first collection of ancient Chinese poetry, and it ranks as one of the Confucian classics. It includes 305 poems that date from the Western Zhou Dynasty to the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period. It is divided into three parts: the custom, the elegance, and the ode. At that time, its function was to educate or enlighten one about etiquette.

Since ancient times, the way of self-cultivation, managing the family, and governing the state (which were discussed in the Confucian classics) were all oriented toward respecting Heaven, speaking with respect about Heaven, serving Heaven, revering Heaven, and following heavenly laws.

The ancient Chinese poetry found in the Book of Songs clearly reflects the awe ancient Chinese held for the Heaven in which they believed. It was a great gift of hope and good fortune.

Most poems in the Book of Songs have a 4-character structure. The lines in the poems used a structure of word and sound repetition; they created a beautiful sound with vowel reduplication and depicted vivid images.

Artistically, they emphasised mood and subtleties; reflected a style of symmetry, balance, and harmony; and achieved an artistic roundabout effect with ups and downs. The Book of Songs repeatedly cited Heaven, the emperor, and destiny.

It acknowledges Heaven’s law as the ultimate law of the universe, as the standard to “guide with virtue,” reward the kind and punish the evil, master social justice (judging the kind and evil in the human world), and as the highest standard of values and moral beliefs in the Zhou Dynasty.

The poems often praise, offer gratitude to, pray to, and express awe of Heaven, demonstrating the faith of people in the Zhou Dynasty and their humanistic outlook of the “oneness of Heaven and humanity.”

Confucian education emphasized poetry, history, rites, and music. Such forms of abstract study served to deeply embed the moral subtleties in people’s minds through quietly transforming influences.

The Book of Songs combined ancient Chinese poetry with music, and made it easy to memories and pass along. The Book of Songs thus played an important role in establishing moral and behavioral standards.

As Confucius said: “Without learning poetry, one cannot convey his intention properly,” and “In the country, one [can identify how] people are educated. The people, if gentle and kind, are taught with Poetry.”

The importance of virtue

It was said in Zuo Zhuan: “Respect is the essential manifestation of virtue. A person who can sincerely respect must possess solid virtue.” People in the Zhou Dynasty took “respecting Heaven” as their fundamental moral goal:

ancient chinese poetry Kǒngzǐ Shīlùn

Part of the Kǒngzǐ Shīlùn (孔子詩論), an early discussion of the ‘Book of Songs.’ (Image: Shanghai Museum via wikipedia / CC0 1.0)

The poem Huangyi in the section “Daya” of the Book of Songs offered this description:

Heaven’s will is for the people to be protected. Respecting Heaven and protecting the people was thus a critical aspect of politics in ancient China. And “to find the hardships and disasters of the people,” one must have compassion for them.

The poem continued:

The moral practice of respecting Heaven is to “follow Heaven’s rule” and to conduct oneself according to Heaven’s will. The poem went on: “Heaven told Emperor Wen again: ‘Do not gaze round, do not hesitate and move, do not compare and envy, do not have inordinate ambitions, go and land on my shore.”

Emperor Wen cultivated himself and had compassion for his people. He was virtuous and he knew how to respect Heaven. All the surrounding countries joined the Zhou Dynasty. As the poem noted:

From this, we can see how sincerely Emperor Wen respected Heaven.

Governing with virtue

“Meet Heaven’s will with virtue” was the fundamental guide for governing with virtue in the Zhou Dynasty. It was said:

People of the Zhou Dynasty ruled the country according to the principle of rites, while the establishment of rites was for the purpose of following Heaven’s law.

This laid the foundation for regulating social order and ethics in the Zhou Dynasty. The section “Zhou Odes” in the Book of Songs was dedicated to worship, prayer, and praising the supreme spirit.

Zhou Odes mainly worshiped Emperor Wen and Emperor Wu, then Emperor Cheng and Emperor Kang, as well as their ancestors Hou Ji and Tai Wang. These ancestors all respected and served Heaven, protected the people, and governed the country with virtue.

People of the Zhou Dynasty thought that governing with virtue had two aspects. One was the virtue of governance. It included rules and regulations for rites and music, the ceremony of worship, the ceremony of showing respect to the Emperor, and moral principles.

 

ancient chinese poetry bronze Confucius statue

Confucian education emphasised poetry, history, rites, and music. Pictured above: A bronze statue of Confucius. (Image: via wikipedia / CC0 1.0)

It demonstrated the social and spiritual civilisation of that time:

The Book of Songs emphasized that it was Emperor Wu’s virtue that made him well-respected for a long period of time, and that he applied his virtue to governing and harmonized the neighboring countries. The Duke of Zhou, when leading the people in worship of Emperor Wen, described it this way:

Emperor Cheng followed and promoted kindness and virtue. He was beloved by the people, and he was protected and blessed by Heaven again and again, as the poem indicates:

The second aspect of governing with virtue was the virtue of education, in other words, to promote moral education. Moral education teaches:

This passage teaches that a courteous and knowledgeable gentleman has solid moral qualities. A wise ruler is capable of taking sincere advice and rules according to reason. An irresponsible monarchy would think that the person giving sincere advice is transgressing his duty with improper ambitions.

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