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"Mighty is God on High"

The following poem is from the Shih Ching. It is the the 255th poem appearing in commentator Mao's ordering of the Shih Ching, but is often numbered 242nd in English versions of that anthology. Like "King Wên is on High," this poem recounts the passing of old dynasties and their replacement with new ones, and offers didactic advice to Zhou rulers regarding appropriate behavior.


Mighty is God on high,

Ruler of His people below;

Swift and terrible is God on high,

His mandate has many statutes. 1

Heaven gives birth to the multitudes of the people, 2

But its mandate cannot be counted upon.

To begin well is common;

To end well is rare indeed.


King Wên said, "Come! 3

Come, you Yin and Shang! 4

Why these violent men?

Why these slaughterers?

Why are they in office? Why are they in power?

Heaven has sent down to you an arrogant spirit;

What you exalt is violence!"


King Wên said, "Come!

Come, you Yin and Shang,

And hold fast to what is seemly and fitting;

Your violence leads to much resentment.

You support slanders and also,

To thieves and bandits you give entry,

Who curse, who use evil imprecations,

Without limit or end."


King Wên said, "Come!

Come you Yin and Shang!

You rage and seethe in Chung Kuo 5

You count the heaping up of resentment as inward power;

You do not make bright your power,

So that none backs you, none is at your side.

No, your merit does not shine bright,

So that none cleaves to you nor comes to you."


King Wên said, "Come!

Come you Yin and Shang!

Heaven did not flush you with wine. 6

Not good are the ways you follow;

Most disorderly are your manners.

Not heeding whether it is dawn or dusk

You shout and scream,

Turning Day into night."


King Wên said, "Come!

Come you Yin and Shang!

You are like grasshoppers, like cicadas,

Like frizzling water, like boiling soup;

Little and great you draw near to ruin.

Men long to walk in right ways,

But you rage in the Middle Kingdom,

And as far as the land of Kuei. 7


King Wên said, "Come!

Come you Yin and Shang!

It is not that God on high did not bless you;

It is that Yin does not follow the old ways.

Even if you have no old men ripe in judgment,

At least you have your statutes and laws.

Why is it that you do not hear,

But upset the Mandate of Heaven? 8


King Wên said, "Come!

Come, you Yin and Shang!

There is a saying among men:

'When a towering tree crashes,

The branches and leaves are still unharmed;

It is the trunk that first decays.'

A mirror for Yin is not far off;

It is the times of the Lord of the Xia." 9

1. The word I translate here as "mandate" and which Waley translates as "charge," is Ming. See note number eight to Tian Ming, below.

2. The word translated here as "Heaven" is tian in Mandarin Chinese. The written symbol for tian literally means "The highest," and can refer to both "the sky" and "the gods." The written ideograph shows an inverted V shape with two horizontal lines crossing the top, the highest of which hold blank space, indicating that there is nothing above this highest point.

3. The word Wên is not a common name in Mandarin. We do not know precisely what it means, but it may be related to a similar pictographic symbol which can represent "culture" and "pen," and it is used as an antonym for wu (war). It may be, as Waley suggests in Appendix IV of The Book of Songs, that it represents refinement and book-learning, as opposed to battle-prowess. Thus, the poem may speak of "King Culture." The name Wên, though not in common use, does appear hundreds of times in inscriptions and monuments as a stock epithet for ancestors. It may not be significant, but when the symbol for wên is placed on top of the symbol for "heart," it creates the word "strong." Likewise, when the symbol for wên is placed on bottom of the word "day," creates the a symbol used as a synonym for "heaven." See Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, Appendix IV, note number 1.

4. Yin and Shang refer to two dynasties that existed before the Zhou dynasty, the current ruling dynasty in China at the time of this poem's creation. Yin is pronounced "yeen," and rhymes with the end of the English word "machine." Shang is pronounced "Shong," and rhymes with English "long."

5. Chung Kuo refers to China, and literally means the "Middle Kingdom." The term implies that China was the center of earth.

6. During the Zhou dynasty, wine would probably be a part of religious libations, or offerings poured out to the spirits of the ancestors. The line implies that the Shang however, used alcohol as an everyday beverage. The charge of drunkenness is continually brought against the Shang, as Arthur Waley notes. See The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, page 253, note number one. One suspects that Zhou officials were rather puritanical about such matters.

7. It is uncertain what region this refers to. Arthur Waley suggests it may refer to eastern Kansu. See The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, page 253, note number two. I wonder, however, if it may be linked to the supernatural, but have yet to find any compelling evidence to support that suspicion. The previous imagery of grasshoppers, cicadas, and boiling soup are all images linked to violent, steaming passion, purposeless noise, and mindless, bustling activity. This imagery is a contrast to the calmness, serenity, and focus expected of a ruler.

8. Tian Ming ("the mandate of heaven") represents the divine right to rule the Chinese people, a right that could be revoked at any time. A ruler earns the mandate of heaven by being an ethical, fair, and just ruler. As long as he behaves in that manner, it is a sinful, evil act for the people to disobey him. However, as soon as the rulers stop being ethical, fair, and just, they lose the mandate of heaven.

9. The Yin destroyed the ancient house of Xia (also transliterated as Hsia) because of the Xia's wicked ways. Now the Zhou dynasty is destroying the Yin for the same reason. See The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, page 254, note number one.




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