Classic of Poetry is the oldest poetry collection of East Asia. The poems reflect the breadth of early Chinese society. There are images of nature and distinctive, fresh simplicity. There is now centuries of commentary and interpretation and is an important element of the traditional curriculum.
The Anthology and its Significance
The anthology contains compact, evocative, lyric poetry. Because Chinese literature originated with the Classic of Poetry, short verse gained a degree of pedagogical, political, social importance in East Asia not enjoyed anywhere else in the world. The Classic of Poetry contains 305 poems and consists of three parts: the “Airs of the Domains”, the “Odes/Elegances” and the “Hymns”. The choice and arrangement of the poems were seen as an expression of Confucius’s philosophy. Moral virtue contributes to social order. Confucius’s high opinion of the Classic of Poetry led to its inclusion in the canon of “Confucian Classics.” The Confucian Classics became the curriculum of the state academy (124 B.C.). A “Great Preface,” written for the anthology, became the single most fundamental statement about the function and nature of poetry in East Asia. It claimed there were “six principles” of poetry: the three categories in which the poems were placed and the three rhetorical devices of “enumeration”, “comparison” and “evocative image”. Scholars have debated these issues ever since. They developed the idea that poetry and song can bridge the gulf between social classes, that they can serve as a tool for mutual “influence” and “criticism.” Poetry and songs give the people a voice, helping them keep bad rulers in check, and was central to the Confucian understanding of poetry and society. Poetry made room for social critique and created the institution of “remonstration”: the duty of officials in the bureaucracy to speak out against abuses of power.
Almost all poems in the Classic of Poetry are anonymous and give voice to many different players in Zhou society. The constraints imposed by society, and the conflict between individual desire and social expectations, are important themes in the “Airs” section. The protagonists in the romantic plots that appear in the poems of the “Airs of the Domains” could be from any culture, past or present. The central stylistic device of the Classic of Poetry is repetition with variation. Enumeration is often used and is the telling of sequences of events in straightforward narrative fashion. Poems from the “Airs” section, by contrast, mostly employ “comparisons” and “evocative images.” Evocative images are much more elusive and do not easily translate into any rhetorical trope in the Western tradition. Xing, the term rendered as “evocative image,” literally means “stimulus” or “excitement.” Xing brings natural images into suggestive resonance with human situations, stimulating the imagination and pushing perception beyond a simple comparison of one thing to another. This collection was part of the education of political elites. They contain pristine simplicity and evocative power to voice fundamental human emotions and challenges.
Classic of Poetry
About how women should act and a young man tormented by desire. The pretty girl is fit for a prince and she is forever desired. Went looking for her; she is always in my thoughts. Couldn’t sleep. We play music for the pretty girl. We play music to make her happy. Does this poem encourage women to not be jealous if their men take another lover?
Peach Tree Soft and Tender
The peach tree has cycles like a woman who will become a wife and mother. The bride is like a blossom. She will plump and ripen like the peach. She will mature into a bride.
Plums Are Falling
The fruits become fewer with each repetition until the woman decides whom she wants to marry. Seven men want me; I hope I end up with the fine one. Now there are three; I want a steady man. Although many men want me, I want only to be the bride of one.
[In the Airs section we can see how individual desire interacts with societal expectations.]
Dead Roe Deer
A girl who has just been seduced and now sits beside a dead deer. Death hovers ominously over deer, woman and maidenhood. The deer is wrapped in white rushes and the maiden is also white as marble. The maiden says to not touch her or make her cry out because the dog will bark.
Boat of Cypress
A heart that refuses to bend to society’s wishes. The wine does not calm my restlessness. My brothers do not help me with my grief. Neither you nor I can tell my heart what to do, but my behaviors have remained dignified. I contemplate little injustices. These troubles of the heart are like unwashed clothes and I cannot get away.
I pretty girl waits for me, but she is in shadow and I cannot see her. She gave me a scarlet pipe. I find delight in her beauty. She also brought me a reed, but what made it beautiful was the giver.
She gave me a quince and I gave her a garnet. Even though the exchange is unequal, our love will last. She gave me a peach; I have gave her an opal. She gave me a plum and I gave her a ruby. The gifts are not equal in monetary value, but we continually give to each other which will make our love last.
A suitor with very strong desires! The girl fears a scandal. Zhongzi, don’t cross my village wall and break the willows. My mom and dad already know you are trying to see me…and they don’t like it! Don’t cross my fence and crush the mulberries. My brothers will see that and there’ll be trouble. Don’t come into my garden and trample the sandalwood. The neighbors will talk.
Zhen and Wei
Festival scene along two rivers: the Zhen and the Wei. Erotic flirting. The man and maiden frolicked at the river’s edge. They throw flowers in the water.
A voracious rodent compared to an exploitative lord. This huge rat has been eating my grain for three years, but I get nothing in return. I should leave and go to a happier place. I feed you, but you never thank me. In a happy realm I will find what I deserve. You do not reward my toil. I need to escape to a place where no one wails or cries.
She Bore the Folk (from the Odes section)
Enumeration lends structure here. The miraculous birth of Lord Millet: ancestor of the Zhou and inventor of agriculture. A resourceful mother who steps into a god’s footprint. She gave birth to Millet with no pain. He was protected everywhere he roamed. He wailed when he was left alone. When he became hungry he began to plant. The art of agriculture. “He passed us down these wondrous grains…he spread the whole land with black millet.” The gathering and using of the harvest. Because of him we are able to live comfortably.