The earliest Chinese poetry begins with the Shih
Ching, a collection of 305 poems of varying length, drawn
from all ranks of Chinese society. The title Shih Ching
is usually translated in English as The Book of Songs
or sometimes as The Odes. Shih means "song-words."
Ching can mean "classic" or "traditional"
or in the context of literature, it means "writings"
or "scripture." Commentator Mao ordered the poems
and assigned each one a number, and his number is still used
as the primary means of refering to each poem in Chinese texts,
though I have chosen to list my samples
below by first lines and
Some of these poems may date back to 1000 BCE.
The oldest poem in this collection that can be pinpointed precisely
dates back to 621 BCE, the date of the death of Duke Mu of the
state of Ch'in. The various poems probably were compiled over
several centuries, most of them during the Zhou (also spelled
Chou) period around 600 BCE. This treasury of traditional songs
is the oldest collection of poems in world literature, and it
became one of the Five Confucian Classics.
In spite of the many centuries that the Shih
Ching embraces, there are several traits prevalent in the
poems that later became traits of Chinese poetry generally.
Traits of Classical Chinese poetry:
(1) Usually, the Chinese poem is fairly simple
on the surface. Western culture, which was influenced by
Shakespeare, Milton, and the Romantic poets, had a pronounced
tendency to think of poems as ornate, elaborate creations made
by a few men of genius. Chinese culture, influenced by the anonymity
of the Shih Ching, had a tendency to think of poems as
something written by common humanity for the eyes of other humans.
(2) Usually the poem deals with either
agrarian imagery, courtship and marriage, or dynastic concerns.
The Zhou (or Chou) dynasty was agrarian in its roots, and for
its people, "their sense of beauty and order is closely
related to the cycles and abundance of the agricultural year,"
as Stephen Owen suggests (xx). Likewise, the poems often revolve
around the sorrows and joys of romance, or dealt with the heroic
and legendary exploits of rulers and kings. Other poems, which
probably originated in folk-songs, deal with the everyday trials
and tribulations of love, life, and the family.
(3) Each poem is usually composed of lines
of four syllables, usually with rhymed endings in the original
Chinese. Often these four syllables appear as four pictograms.
The normal form of the courtship and marriage songs is three
verses of four lines each. Only a single non-fragmentary poem
consists of a single quatrain, the form that later became popular
in modern Chinese poetry.
(4) The poetic principle organizing
the poem is often one of contrast. Often Chinese poetry
will juxtapose a natural scene with a social or personal situation.
The reader of the poem sees the similarity in the natural description
and the human condition, and comes to a new awareness of each
by this contrast. In Chinese, this idea is embodied in the terms
fu, bi, and xing (pronounced "shing").
Fu refers to a straightforward narrative with a beginning,
middle, and conclusion, that stands by itself. Bi, literally
"against," implies a comparison or contrast, placing
two things side by side. When one takes two different fu,
and places them together, the two create a bi. This results
in xing, a mental stimulation or "lightning"
that pervades the mind of the reader, bringing new insight or
awareness into the nature of the individual fu that compose
the poem. Confucius stated that this xing is the purpose
of poetry, that the point of a poem was to make the mind contemplate
its subject deeply.
Like European poetry, Chinese poetry often relies
on alliteration, repetition, and onomatopoeia to create its
effects. Song #1 of
the Shih Ching (#87 in the Waley anthology) illustrates
this point when we contrast the original Chinese with the English
translation of the poem.
Additionally, the Shih Ching contains four
general subtypes of poems:
Some samples of the poems appear below. They are all in English
translation. Most are based on the 1937 translation by Arthur
Waley, with a few select notes culled from the 1987 reprint
and a few minor revisions of my own based on my limited knowledge
of Mandarin. The excerpts from the Tao Te Ching are from
D. C. Lau's translation, with minor emendations of my own. I
am not a fluent speaker of Chinese, however, so students might
wish to trust Lau and Waley's judgment more than my own. Poems
not from the Tao Te Ching or the Shih Ching include
explanatory notes stating from which poet or poetic work they
- Feng, (folk-songs or aires, which I find the most beautiful
of all the poems)
- Minor Odes
- Major Odes
- Dynastic Songs
Fair,' Cry the Ospreys" (a Chinese poem in celebration
of a royal marriage)
(a short poem--the party is over)
(the poet Meng Chiao's advice to young men concerning
Ashes: The East Wind Sighs" (heartbreak and illicit
liasons by night)
"In the Wilds
There is a Dead Doe" (a Mandarin poem about a
lady seduced by a knight in the woods)
is on High" (a dynastic poem celebrating the
nobility of Zhou and the Mandate of Heaven)
is God on High." (a dynastic poem celebrating
the rise of the Zhou and the fall of the Yin,)
the Eastern Gate" (a love-sick young man's lamentation
as he seeks "Mrs. Right")
"Song of the
Bronze Statue" (a haunting and beautiful poem
about past civilizations and the passage of time)
and Non-Being" (a philosophical conundrum by
Where the Wood Haft Rotted" (the passage of time
told in the imagery of Chinese folklore)
Ta Ssu Ming
("The Greater Master of Fate")
Tao Te Ching
(some excerpts from Lao-Tzu's philosophical and poetic
work on the Tao--the Way)
To Li Chien (an
old soldier thinking back on his friends in youth)
(a short poem about an unhappy marriage)
is that Cypress Boat" (a poem about romantic
"A Very Handsome
Gentleman" (a poem about a girl's regrets and
the strictness of her family)
"When I Was
Alive" (alias "Bearer's Song"--a
poem about death from the viewpoint of the dead).
Lau, D. C., trans. Tao Te Ching.
NY: Penguin, 1963, reprint 1992.
Owen, Stephen. "Forward to the 1987 Edition."
The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry.
Trans. Arthur Waley. NY: Grove Press, 1987.
Waley, Arthur, trans. The Book of Songs.
NY: Evergreen, 1937.
---., trans. The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese
Classic of Poetry. NY: Grove Press, 1987.