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The Shī Jīng 诗经 or Book of Songs (or Book of Odes) is made up of short poems. Although we must assume they were sung, we do not know the tunes that went with any of these songs. Indeed we know very little about China's earliest music in general, except for the instruments used to play it. We do know that music was popular, that some music was used in rituals, and that Confucius and others placed great value upon it.
The Book of Songs is composed of three parts:
The first of these categories, Songs of the States, has attracted most interest from modern readers because of their informality and because of the glimpse they are believed to give us into Chinese life three thousand years ago. It is hard to estimate how popular most of these songs were or for how long, but they are usually assumed to have been widely known folk songs of the early Zhōu period.
Sīmǎ Qiān 司马迁, in his biography of Confucius, drafted about 400 years after that philosopher’s death in 479 BC, says that Confucius collected some 3,000 old poems and reduced them to the 305 remaining to later generations. If so, the inclusion of folk songs seems a bit out of character for that otherwise rather severe gentleman, and if the attribution is accurate, it softens our sense of him. Perhaps he was more fun at parties than we usually imagine.
James Legge, the most influential translator of the Confucian corpus into English, argues that the expurgated collection probably already existed before that, although Confucius was interested in it and may have made some modifications in it.
The Book of Songs was among the many works destroyed by the First Emperor. After his death it was reconstructed from memory, but apparently a memory more of the songs as heard than as written, so that different new transcriptions were not always written in identical characters.
Because of the position of the Book of Songs as part of the Confucian Canon, it has been meticulously examined for many centuries, and there are volumes of commentary on it, with commentators through the ages rejoicing in contradicting other commentators. Various editions can be correlated by use of standardized numbers —so-called “máo 毛 numbers” established by a certain Máo Hēng 毛亨 and his descendent Máo Cháng ( 毛苌), who were among the most successful of the early students of this collection, and the latter of whom successfully introduced the work into the imperial college, possibly in the year 129 BC (Legge 11).
Obviously, no translator of this material into English can undertake the task without the absolute certainty that others will denounce the resultant rendering as misleading and/or dead wrong. The most prominent and widely quoted translator was, of course, the formidable James Legge (1892), although his subsequent verse renderings seem unfortunate. Perhaps the translator most widely admired as litterateur is Arthur Waley (1937). A more recent abridged bilingual version is Yáng & Dài 2001, which to my ear is the best. A handful of poems from the Book of Songs normally appears in most anthologies of Chinese poetry.
Provided here are a mere four of the folksongs to give a sense of the kind of material and style involved. As elsewhere on this web site, the Chinese is presented in traditional and simplified characters, respectively blue and red. The English translations are my own in order to make them available without copyright considerations, and they may be freely reprinted for educational purposes. To each translation I have added a few notes seeking to explain, if not really justify, my interpretive choices. No effort has been made to render them singable.
(The full Book of Songs in Chinese and in Legge's translation can be found at Chinese Classics & Translations.)Works Cited:
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In this charming song, a maiden, eager for a husband, meditates upon being passed over and contemplates the closing of her window of marital opportunity. (Click here for additional introductory comments.)
1. Plop go the plums. Only seven out of every ten remain on the tree. |
All you men who want me, seize this lucky time!
Piǎo yǒu méi, qí shí qī xī.
Qiú wǒ shù shì，dài qí jí xī!
2. Plop go the plums. Now only three out of every ten remain on the tree. |
All you men who want me, seize the present moment!
Piǎo yǒu méi, qí shí sān xī.
Qiú wǒ shù shì，dài qí jīn xī!
3. Plop go the plums. They’ve been gathered into baskets. |
All you men who want me, speak right up!
Piǎo yǒu méi, qǐng kuāng jì zhī.
Qiú wǒ shù shì，dài qí wèi zhī!
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In this song a girl laments the inattention of a boyfriend. Alternatively, a studious student regrets the absence of a more easily diverted one. The blue collar refers to the standard blue student's robe of the imperial period. (Click here for additional introductory comments.)
1. Blue-collared lad, you’ve long been in my heart. |
Although I cannot go to you, couldn’t you send word to me?
Qīng qīng zǐ jīn, yōu yōu wǒ xīn.
Zòng wǒ bù wǎng，zǐ zhù bù sì yīn?
2. Blue-belted lad, you’re in my loving thoughts. |
Although I cannot go to you, couldn’t you come here to me?
Qīng qīng zǐ pèi, yōu yōu wǒ sī.
Zòng wǒ bù wǎng，zǐ zhù bù lái?
3. I keep pacing and climbing the lookout tower of the city wall.
One day without seeing you is like three months to me.
Tiāo xī dá xī, zài chéng què xī.
Yī rì bù jiàn，rú sān yuè xī.
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This song seems like a complaint by workers against the idleness of the rich, and the unfairness of people living in luxury off of the labor of others. The sweet-smelling sandalwood referred to here was used especially for making passenger wagons used by the upper class. (Click here for additional introductory comments.)
1. Whack, whack goes the cutting of sandalwood trees; the wood is piled by the riverbank, where the water is clear and sparkling. |
If they do not sow or reap, how can they have three hundred fields?
Kǎn kǎn fá tán xī，zhì zhī hé zhī gān xī，hé shuǐ qīng qiě lián yī.
Bù jià bù sè, hú qū hé sān bǎi chán xī?
If they do not hunt or chase, how can they hang badgers to dry in their courtyards? |
Wouldn’t truly superior men eat simpler food?
Bù shòu bù liè, hú zhān ěr tíng yǒu xiàn huán xī?
Bǐ jūn zǐ xī，bù sù cān xī?
2. Whack, whack goes the cutting of the wood for the spokes; they are stacked by the riverbank, where the water is clear and sparkling. |
If they do not sow or reap, how can they have three million stalks of grain?
Kǎn kǎn fá fú xī, zhì zhī hé zhī cè xī, hé shuǐ qīng qiě zhí yī.
Bù jià bù sè，hú qū hé sān bǎi yì xī?
If they do not hunt or chase, how can they hang prey to dry in the court? |
Wouldn’t truly superior men eat simpler meals?
Bù shòu bù liè, hú zhān ěr tíng yǒu xiàn tè xī?
Bǐ jūn zǐ xī, bù sù shí xī?
3. Whack, whack goes the cutting of the wood for the wheels; they are stacked by the shore, where the water is clear and rippling. |
If they do not sow or reap, how can they fill three hundred bins?
Kǎn kǎn fá lún xī, zhì zhī hé zhī qún xī, hé shuǐ qīng qiě lún yī.
Bù jià bù sè, hú qū hé sān bǎi qūn xī?
If they do not hunt or chase, how can they hang quail to dry in their courtyards? |
Wouldn’t truly superior men eat simpler suppers?
Bù shòu bù liè, hú zhān ěr tíng yǒu xiàn chún xī?
Bǐ jūn zǐ xī, bù sù sūn xī?
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Perhaps part of the charm of this song is the implausibility of an army recruit not having anything suitable to wear, and the equal implausibility of a comrade offering to share his underwear.
The song is traditionally regarded as evidence for extreme enthusiasm of a population eagerly volunteering to take up arms on behalf of the beloved state, although to a modern mind men sharing underwear suggests other possibilities.(Click here for additional introductory comments.)
1. How can you say you don’t have clothes? I’ll share my heavy robe with you. |
The king is raising troops. I’m preparing my battle-ax and spear to fight our enemies with you.
Qǐ yuē wú yī? Yǔ zǐ tóng páo.
Wáng yú xīng shī, xiū wǒ gē máo，yǔ zǐ tóng chóu.
2. How can you say you don’t have clothes? I’ll share my undershirt with you. |
The king is raising troops. I’m preparing my spear and halberd to do it with you.
Qǐ yuē wú yī? Yǔ zǐ tóng zé.
Wáng yú xīng shī, xiū wǒ máo jǐ, yǔ zǐ xié zuo.
3. How can you say you don’t have clothes? I’ll share my underskirt with you. |
The king is raising troops. I’m preparing my armor and weapons to march forth with you.
Qǐ yuē wú yī? Yǔ zǐ tóng cháng.
Wáng yú xīng shī, xiū wǒ jiǎ bīng, yǔ zǐ xié xíng.
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