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 titles.
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:
- Feng, (folk-songs or aires, which I find the most beautiful of all the poems)
- Minor Odes
- Major Odes
- Dynastic Songs
|The following poem was written by Li He in the ninth century CE.|
"Song of the Bronze Statue "
Gone that emperor of Maoling,
Rider through the autumn wind,
Whose horse neighs at night
And has passed without trace by dawn.
The fragrance of autumn lingers still
On those cassia trees by painted galleries,
But on every palace hall the green moss grows.
As Wei's envoy sets out to drive a thousand li 1
The keen wind at the East Gate stings the statue's eyes. . . .
From the ruined palace he brings nothing forth
But the moonshaped disk of Han, 2
True to his lord, he sheds leaden tears, 3
And withered orchids by the Xianyang Road
See the traveler on his way.
Ah, if Heaven had a feeling heart, it, too, must grow old! 4
He bears the disk off alone
By the light of the desolate moon,
The town far behind him, muted its lapping waves.