Six Poems from Shih Ching (The Book of Songs)

To learn more about this famous collection of poems, click here.

 

'Fair, fair,' cry the ospreys

The following poem is the first poem appearing in Mao's ordering of the Shih Ching, but is often numbered 87 in English versions of that anthology. Virtually every Chinese student memorizes this poem. The song is a traditional wedding song.

'Fair, fair,' cry the ospreys 
On the island in the river. 
Lovely is this noble lady, 
Fit bride for our lord. 

In patches grows the water mallow: 
To left and right one must seek it. 
Shy was this noble lady; 
Day and night he sought her. 

Sought her and could not get her; 
Day and night he grieved. 
Long thoughts, oh, long unhappy thoughts, 
Now on his back, now tossing on to his side. 

In patches grow the water mallow; 
To left and right one must gather it. 
Shy is this noble lady; 
With bells and drums we hearten her.

Notes 

An osprey, or fish hawk, is a bird of prey, similar to a falcon.

Water  mallow is also known as duckweed.

Questions:

1. What imagery or scenes from biological nature does the poet juxtapose with a scene from human society or human experience?
2. Why might the speaker begin his poem with the image of a male bird calling to a female bird?
3. Why is it significant that the water mallows in the paddy grow to the left and right, but never directly ahead? (I.e., what happens if the man picking the mallows leans too far to the left or the right?)
4. Why is the woman juxtaposed with the water mallow?
5. Why is it necessary to hearten the woman with song and music? How does that connect to the beginning of the poem?

 

In the wilds there is a dead doe

The following poem is the 23rd poem appearing in Mao's ordering of the Shih Ching, but is often numbered 63rd in English versions of that anthology.

In the wilds there is a dead doe;
With white rushes we cover her.
There was a lady longing for the spring;
A fair knight seduced her.

In the woods there is a clump of oaks,
And in the wilds a dead deer
With white rushes well bound;
There was a lady fair as jade. 

"Heigh, not so hasty, not so rough;
Heigh, do not touch my handkerchief. 
Take care, or the dog will bark."

Notes:

Line 2: If Chinese peasants would find a deer in the woods that has died, they would cover it with rushes as a sign of respect. --Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry. 60.

Line 8: Jade was considered the most valuable and precious stone in China, somewhat akin to the way Europeans think of diamonds or gold. It was thought to have the power to elongate life, and at one Chinese burial site, the body of a nobleman was founded wearing armor composed entirely of small pieces of jade, a costume probably designed not only to illustrate his great wealth, but also to preserve his corpse from decay.

Line 10: The garment translated as "handkerchief" was normally worn at the girdle, i.e., wrapped around the waist.

Questions:

1. What scene from the world of nature is being juxtaposed with an event in human courtship?

2. How is the lady like or unlike the dead doe wrapped in white rushes?

3. What is the lady concerned about? Why is she afraid the dog will bark? What is the knight like as a lover, given her words?

 

King Wn is on High

The following poem is the 243rd poem appearing in commentator Mao's ordering of the Shih Ching, but is often numbered 241st in English versions of that anthology. The poem recounts the passing of old dynasties and their replacement with new ones, and offers didactic advice to Zhou rulers regarding appropriate behavior.

King Wn is on High; 
Oh! He shines in Heaven! 
Zhou is an old people,
But its mandate is new. 
The land of Zhou became illustrious, 
Blessed by Heaven's Mandate.
King Wn ascends and descends
On God's left hand, on His right.

Very diligent was King Wn,
His high fame does not cease;
He spread his bounties in Zhou,
And now his grandsons and sons,
In his grandsons and sons
The stem has branched
Into manifold generations,
And all the knights of Chou
Are glorious in their generation.

Glorious in their generation,
And their counsels well pondered.
Mighty were the many knights
That brought this kingdom to its birth.
This kingdom well they bore;
They were the prop of Zhou.
Wonderful were those many knights
Who gave comfort to King Wn.

August is Wn the king;
Oh, to be reverenced in his glittering light!
Mighty the mandate that Heaven gave him.
The grandsons and sons of the Shang,
Shang's grandsons and sons,
Their hosts were innumerable.
But God on high gave His command,
And by Zhou they were subdued.

By Zhou they were subdued;
Heaven's charge is not forever.
The knights of Yin, big and little,
Made libations and offerings at the capitol
What they did was to make libations
Dressed in skirted robe and close cap.
O chosen servants of the king,
May you never thus shame your ancestors!

May you never shame your ancestors,
But rather tend their inward power, 
That for ever you may be linked to Heaven's charge
And bring to yourselves many blessings.
Before Yin lost its army
It was well-linked to Heaven above.
In Yin you should see as in a mirror
That Heaven's high mandate is hard to keep.

The mandate is not easy to keep.
Do not bring ruin on yourselves.
Send forth everywhere the light of your good fame;
Consider what Heaven did to the Yin.
High Heaven does its business
Without sound, without smell.
Make King Wn your example,
In whom all the peoples put their trust.

 

Outside the Eastern gate

The following poem is the 93rd poem appearing in Mao's ordering of the Shih Ching, but is often numbered 36th in English versions of that anthology.

Outside the Eastern gate
Are girls many as the clouds;
But though they are many as clouds
There is none on whom my heart dwells.
White jacket and gray scarf 
Alone could cure my woe.

Beyond the Gate Tower
Are girls lovely as rush-wool;
But though they are lovely as rush-wool
There is none with whom my heart bides.
White jacket and madder skirt
Alone could bring me joy.

 

Note: White jacket and gray scarf are the conventional garb of a humble lover. See Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, page 43, note 2.

Questions:

1. Why is the speaker unhappy even though he is surrounded by pretty girls?
2. Why might clouds and rush-wool be considered suitable metaphors for the beauty of women?
3. What does this poem imply about the traits that make for a happy relationship or an ideal lover? How is this similar to or different from Western ideas of what makes for a passionate romance?

A very handsome gentleman

The following poem is the 88th poem appearing in Mao's ordering of the Shih Ching, but is often numbered 20th in English versions of that anthology. It reminds one of carpe diem poems in the Western tradition. In its elegant simplicity, it captures the teenage angst a young girl might feel, regretting a choice made out of timidity, longing for the road not taken. I particularly find moving the way she frets over her clothes. Note in particular the subtle repetition of words in reverse order.

A very handsome gentleman
Waited for me in the lane;
I am sorry I did not go with him.

A very splendid gentleman
Waited for me in the hall;
I am sorry I did not keep company with him.

I am wearing my unlined coat, my coat all of brocade.
I am wearing my unlined skirt, my skirt all of brocade!
Oh uncles, young and old,
Let me go with him to his home!

I am wearing my unlined skirt, my skirt all of brocade.
And my unlined coat, my coat all of brocade.
Oh uncles, young and old,
Let me go with him to his home!

 

Unsteady is that cypress boat

The following poem is the 45th poem appearing in Mao's ordering of the Shih Ching, but is often numbered 53rd in English versions of that anthology.

Unsteady is that cypress boat 
In the middle of the river.
His two locks looped over his brow 
He swore that truly he was my comrade,
And till death would love no other.
Oh, mother! Ah, Heaven!
That a man could be so false!

Unsteady is that boat of cypress-wood
By that river's side.
His two locks looped over his brow
He swore truly he was my mate,
And till death would not fail me.
Oh, mother! Ah Heaven!
That a man could be so false! 

Notes:

Line 1: "The cypress boat is frequently a symbol of fluctuating intention." --Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, page 53, note 1)

Line 3:As Waley again notes, having locks of hair dangle over either side of the brow implies the man is adolescent, and has not yet shorn his hair in an adult fashion.

Line: 14: The repetition of these lines suggests the poem's origins as a song or an oral-formulaic composition. In poetry that was memorized and performed rather than written down (oral-formulaic poetry), the material often features a pattern of repeated elements (which appeared in each performance of the song) broken by sections of improvisational work (which varied from performance to performance).

 

Most of the material here is copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2004, whose web-site grants permission for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction.