Shi Jing (The Book of Poetry) - The Earliest Existing Collection of Chinese Poems




Shi Jing (诗经), translated variously as the Classic of Poetry, the Book of Songs, the Book of Poetry, or the Book of Odes, is the earliest existing collection of Chinese poems. It comprises 305 poems, some possibly written as early as 1000 BC.

Shi Jing contains some of the oldest pieces of Chinese literature. It is said to have been compiled by Confucius himself, who has chosen out some 300 poems out of 3000. During the Former Han Dynasty, there were still existant four versions of the collection: in the states of Lu 鲁 (by Shen Gong, 申公), Qi 齐 (by Hou Cang 后仓 and Master Sun 孙氏) and Han 韩 (by Han Ying 韩婴), and the private collection of Duke Mao 毛公. Only the last has survived until now, the commentaries to the Han version have survived in the collection Hanshi waizhuan 韩诗外传.

The four divisions of the Book of Songs are the "Airs of the states" (Guofeng 国风), mostly songs of love and emotions, the Minor Odes (Xiaoya 小雅), partially with social critics, the Major Odes (Daya 大雅), concerning the praise of the Zhou Dynasty, and the Hymns (Song 颂), ritual songs of the house of Zhou 周, the dukes of Lu 鲁 and the descendants of the house of Shang 商. All poems have a small preface (xiaoxu 小序), the first poem has a Great Preface (Daxu 大序). The content of these prefaces is a moral or even political interpretation of songs that surfacially seem to be simple love songs. The characteristic of these songs is that the initial verse creates a certain mood, in most cases using a picture of nature, birds or plants.

Almost all scholars of Han, Tang and Song wrote commentaries to the Book of Songs, because it was an integral part of Confucian teaching and had to be learned by heart by generations and generations of scholars.

Collected in Shi Jing were poems popular around the region from the north of the Yellow River basin to the Jianghan Drainage Area during the period from the early Western Zhou Dynasty (the 11th century BC) to the mid Spring and Autumn Period.

In the ancient times, poems are lyrics for accompanying tunes. The Shi Jing is classified into three parts according to contents, namely Feng (ballads), Ya (peoms from intellectuals or aristocrats), and Song (songs for praying). Feng, also called Guofeng, is mostly the collection of folk songs. It is divided into 15 groups and has a total of 160 poems, which mainly express the love between men and women and the dissatisfaction of the people toward the emperor. Ya contains 105 poems, including 31 articles of Daya and 74 articles of Xiaoya, most of which were written by court officials and aristocrats. Song collects 40 poems, which are songs for offering sacrifice and praising emperors by the aristocrats. They are usually accompanied with dance during the performance. Although the Book of Songs is a collection of works of many people, authors of most works are unknown, just a small part of them were researched out by later generations.

The Shi Jing exerted a very profound effect on ancient China in terms of politics, culture, language, and even thinking. During the Spring and Autumn Period, diplomats often expressed words that they didn’t want to say by themselves or that were difficult to say by quoting sentences from the Book of Songs, which is similar to today’s diplomatic language. Confucius, a sage of China and who gave a high praise to the Shi Jing, claimed that people’s cultures, observation abilities and interpersonal skills could be highly improved through the study of the Shi Jing.