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"Unsteady is that Cypress Boat."

The following poem is from the Shih Ching. It is the the 45th poem appearing in Mao's ordering of the Shih Ching, but is often numbered 53rd in English versions of that anthology.

Unsteady is that cypress boat 1

In the middle of the river.

His two locks looped over his brow 2

He swore that truly he was my comrade,

And till death would love no other.

Oh, mother! Ah, Heaven!

That a man could be so false!


Unsteady is that boat of cypress-wood

By that river's side.

His two locks looped over his brow

He swore truly he was my mate,

And till death would not fail me.

Oh, mother! Ah Heaven!

That a man could be so false! 3


1. "The cypress boat is frequently a symbol of fluctuating intention." --Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, page 53, note 1)

2. As Waley again notes, having locks of hair dangle over either side of the brow implies the man is adolescent, and has not yet shorn his hair in an adult fashion.

3. The repetition of these lines suggests the poem's origins as a song or an oral-formulaic composition. In poetry that was memorized and performed rather than written down (oral-formulaic poetry), the material often features a pattern of repeated elements (which appeared in each performance of the song) broken by sections of improvisational work (which varied from performance to performance).




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