THE BOOK OF SONGS
(c. 15th to 6th century B.C.E.)
THE EARLIEST GATHERING from China’s oral tradition is The Book of Songs (Shih Ching), an anthology of 305 poems. This collection was compiled, according to cultural legend, by no less a figure than Confucius (551 to 479 B.C.E.), who selected the poems from a total of about 3,000 that had been gathered from China’s various component states, each of which spoke its own dialect. The poems are traditionally dated between the twelfth and sixth centuries B.C.E., but any poem in the oral tradition evolves over time, and the origins of the earliest Shih Ching poems no doubt stretch back well beyond the twelfth century. The Songs can be seen as an epic of the Chinese people from the origins of China’s earliest historical dynasty, the Shang (traditional dates 1766 to 1122 B.C.E.), to the unraveling of the Chou Dynasty (1122 to 221 B.C.E.) in Confucius’s age, a span of time during which Chinese culture underwent a fundamental transformation from a spiritualized theocratic society to a secular humanist one.
Religious life in the Shang Dynasty focused on the worship of ancestors, and the Shang emperors ruled by virtue of a family lineage that connected them to Shang Ti, literally “High Lord” or “Celestial Lord,” a monotheistic god very like the Judeo-Christian god in that he created the universe and controlled all aspects of its historical process. In the mythological system that dominated Shang culture, the rulers were descended from Shang Ti and so could influence Shang Ti’s shaping of events through their spirit-ancestors, thereby controlling all aspects of people’s lives: weather, harvest, politics, economics, religion, and so on. Indeed, the Chinese people didn’t experience themselves as substantially different from spirits, for the human realm was known as an extension of the spirit realm—a situation very similar to the Judeo-Christian West, where people think of themselves as immortal souls, spirits only temporarily here in a material world before they move on to heaven, their true spirit-home.
Eventually the Shang rulers became cruel and tyrannical, much hated by their people, and they were overthrown by the Chou, a people living on the Shang border who had recently adopted Chinese culture. The Chou conquerors were faced with an obvious problem: if the Shang lineage descended directly from Shang Ti, and so had an absolute claim to rule Chinese society, how could the Chou justify replacing it, and how could they legitimize their rule in the eyes of the Shang people? Their solution was to reinvent Shang Ti in the form of Heaven, an impersonal divine power of the cosmos, thus ending the Shang’s claim to legitimacy by lineage. The Chou rulers then proclaimed that the right to rule depended upon a “Mandate of Heaven”: once a ruler became unworthy, Heaven withdrew its Mandate and bestowed it on another. This concept was a major event in Chinese society: the first investment of power with an ethical imperative.
The early centuries of the Chou Dynasty appear to have fulfilled that imperative admirably. But the Chou eventually foundered because its rulers became increasingly tyrannical, and they lacked the Shang’s absolute metaphysical source of legitimacy: if the Mandate could be transferred to them, it could obviously be transferred again. The rulers of the empire’s component states grew increasingly powerful, claiming more and more sovereignty over their lands, until finally they were virtually independent nations. The final result of the Chou’s “metaphysical” breakdown was, not surprisingly, all too physical: war. There was relentless fighting among the various states and frequent rebellion within them. This internal situation, so devastating to the people, continued to deteriorate after Confucius compiled the Shih Ching, until it finally led to the Chou’s collapse two and a half centuries later.
By Confucius’s time, the old social order had crumbled entirely, and China’s intellectuals began struggling to create a new one. In the ruins of a grand monotheism that had dominated China for over a millennium, a situation not at all unlike that of the modern West, these thinkers created an earthly humanist culture: Confucius and Mencius crafting its political dimensions, Lao Tzu (see p. 36) and Chuang Tzu its spiritual dimensions.
This remarkable cultural transformation is reflected in the Songs. Although the situation was complex, with developments evolving differently in different regions and strata of society, the general movement appears to have been from poems of spiritualized power (ritual hymns and historical odes that celebrate the ruling class and its power) to secular folk-songs. The book’s older hymns and odes tend to focus on the ruling class and its concerns: the historic and religious framework that legitimized the Shang and Chou rulers, the Chou overthrow of the Shang, and finally the Chou’s rule.
Unfortunately, there is only a small group of five poems relating to the Shang Dynasty. They must have originated back in the Shang, eventually evolving into their Shih Ching forms, which were performed in a region of the Chou empire that maintained its connection to the Shang. With this one exception, the hymns and odes all relate to the Chou Dynasty. According to legend, a majority of them (nearly seventy) were written by the Duke of Chou, the last of the three revered rulers from the founding of the Chou, and the one credited with expanding and consolidating the Chou empire. He was also widely thought to have composed many of the folksongs (see Lu Yu’s reference on p. 398). This is legend. The concept of a fixed written text composed by a particular individual did not exist at the time, so this attribution must have been invented much later, when that concept did exist. But as with so much of early Chinese culture, this legend became part of the reality upon which the culture was built, so the Duke of Chou might be considered China’s first great poet. This remarkable figure is further credited with inventing the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, and so might also be considered the first of China’s great philosophers.
It was the Duke of Chou’s concept of a Mandate of Heaven that led to the most celebrated and enduring section of The Book of Songs: the later folk poetry that makes up nearly two-thirds of the collection. According to Chou ideology, Heaven bestowed its Mandate on a ruler only so long as that ruler successfully furthered the interests of the people, and it was thought that the best indication of the people’s well-being was their poetry. So noble rulers would send officials out among the people to gather folk-songs in order to gauge how their policies were succeeding. These songs were translated from regional dialects into the standard literary language by government officials and performed with music at the court. It should, therefore, be remembered that this is not folk poetry itself, but folk poetry that was substantially reshaped by the poet-scholars who edited and translated it.
The organization of the Songs reflects China’s overall cultural development, though in rough and reverse chronological order, beginning with the more recent folk-songs and ending with the ancient Shang hymns. The selection translated here is arranged chronologically, beginning with hymns and odes that move from Shang origins (pp. 9–10) through the rise of the Chou people and their eventual overthrow of the Shang (pp. 11–17), a period during which all cultural value was focused on the ruling class. It then continues through the troubled Chou, where the increasing value accorded the common people is reflected in the collection of folk-songs, with their quotidian themes and almost complete lack of Shang metaphysics. So at the end of this process, once the spiritualized social framework had been replaced by a secular humanist one, the poetry too had moved from religious hymns and historical odes celebrating the ruling class’s interests to a plainspoken poetry of the common people. This latter poetry contains the two fundamental orientations that came to shape the Chinese poetic mainstream: it is a secular poetry having a direct personal voice speaking of immediate and concrete experience, and it is a poetry that functions as a window onto the inner life of a person.
Heaven bade Dark-Enigma bird
descend and give birth to Shang,
our people inhabiting lands boundless and beyond,
then our Celestial Lord bade brave and forceful T’ang
establish boundaries to the far corners of our lands,
bade him then rule these lands,
these nine regions in splendor.
So T’ang, first emperor of Shang,
received the Mandate. Ever safe,
it has passed now to Wu Ting’s
sons, to his sons and grandsons,
our emperors brave and forceful,
nothing they will not overcome—
their lords with dragon banners
parading grains to the sacrifice,
their domain thousands of miles
offering the people sure support.
He pushed the boundaries of our land to the four seas,
and now from the four seas comes
homage, such abounding homage.
And our far frontier is the river.
That Shang received the Mandate was due, right and due,
and its hundred blessings continue.
Majestic, O ancestors majestic
ablaze shaping blessings this
bounty on and on stretching
boundless across your lands:
we bring you crystalline wine
and you answer our prayers.
We bring well-seasoned soup,
approach mindful and tranquil
and hushed in silent homage,
leaving all strife far behind,
and you ease our pained brows,
letting old age grow boundless.
Hubs veiled and harness inlaid,
eight phoenix-bells clittering,
we offer sacrifice and homage.
The Mandate we received is vast and mighty.
It’s from Heaven—this rich ease,
this life abounding in harvests.
We offer homage, and you accept,
sending boundless good fortune,
honoring autumn and winter
offerings from T’ang’s children.
BIRTH TO OUR PEOPLE
Birth to our people—it was she,
Shepherdess Inception, who
gave birth to our people. How?
She offered sacrifice, prayers
that she not be without child,
wandered the Lord’s footprint, quickened
and conceived. She grew round,
dawn-life stirring there within,
she gave birth and she suckled,
and the child—it was Millet God.
And so those months eased by
and the birth—it was effortless.
Free of all rending and tearing,
free of pain and affliction, she
brought forth divine splendor.
The Celestial Lord soothing her,
welcoming sacrifice and prayer,
she bore her son in tranquillity.
And so he was left alone in a narrow lane,
but oxen and sheep nurtured him.
And so he was left alone on a forested plain,
but woodcutters gathered round.
And so he was left alone on a cold ice-field,
but birds wrapped him in wings,
and when the birds took flight,
Millet God began to wail, he
wailed long and wailed loud,
and the sound was deafening.
And so he soon began to crawl,
then stood firm as a mountain.
When he began to feed himself,
he planted broad-beans aplenty,
broad and wind-fluttered beans,
and lush grain ripening in rows,
wheat and hemp thick and rich,
and melons sprawled everywhere.
And so Millet God farmed, understanding
the Way to help things grow.
He cleared away thick grass
and planted yellow treasure.
The seeds swelled and rooted.
Planted well, they grew lovely,
grew tall and lovely in bloom,
they ripened to a fine finish
and bent low with rich plenty.
He built a house there, in T’ai, and settled.
And so he gave to us exquisite
millet: midnight and twin-seed,
red-shafted and white-frosted.
He grew midnight and twin-seed
far and wide, cut acre after acre,
cut red-shafted and white-frosted,
hauled it in, shoulder and back
home to begin offering sacrifice.
And so our offerings—how are they done?
Some thresh and some sweep,
some winnow and some tread;
we wash it clean, whisper-clean,
and steam it misty, misty sweet.
Pondering deeply, thoughts pure,
we offer artemisia soaked in fat,
offer rams to spirits far and wide,
and meat smoke-seared we offer
to bring forth another new year.
We offer bounty in altar bowls,
in altar bowls and holy platters,
and when the fragrance ascends,
fragrance perfect in its season,
our Celestial Lord rests content.
Millet God began these offerings,
and free of trespass always they
continued down to our own time.
Melons sprawl from root.
In Pin riverlands, earth
gave birth to our people.
Our true old father T’ai
made us shelters, kiln-huts,
for houses were unknown.
Excerpted from Classical Chinese Poetry by .
Copyright © 2008 by David Hinton.
Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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