Though Chinese civilization stretches back to Neolithic times, the earliest known dynasty, the Xia, is of limited importance to a discussion of Chinese literature, as there is no evidence that a written language was in use. The succeeding dynasty, the Shang, was a Bronze Age agricultural civilization. During the Shang, characters were written on oracle bones (usually made of turtle shell or cattle shoulder bones, and later on bamboo strips, silk, and bronze), but no literature from this time is extant.
The Shang were overthrown by the king of Zhou, a small dependent nation in the Wei River Valley in the western Shang territory, and thus began the Zhou dynasty, the first great period of Chinese literature. It was during the Zhou dynasty that the doctrine that the Chinese King was exercising a "Mandate of Heaven" in his rule developed. It later became an extremely important doctrine both to justify imperial rule and to explain the fall of an empire (should an emperor prove corrupt or weak, heaven would remove his mandate). The Zhou dynasty is the longest of China's many dynasties, and is divided into the Western Zhou (1122-771 BCE) and the Eastern Zhou (771-256 BCE), as the Zhou were forced out of their capital at Xian by barbarian invaders from the north, and moved east to found their new capital in Luoyang. The Eastern Zhou is itself subdivided into the Spring and Autumn Period (771-481 BCE) and the Warring States Period (463-221 BCE). The troubled Warring States Period marked the waning years of the dynasty. Such great thinkers, moralists, and philosophers as Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi lived during the Eastern Zhou. It was the time of the Hundred Schools of Thought, the golden age of Chinese philosophy, when the great traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, Militarism, and Mohism developed. In this period, itinerant thinkers traveled with their followers, finding employment with rulers, who would seek their advice on warfare, morality, diplomacy, and government. The Zhou dynasty eventually weakened to the point where it ruled only in name, as seven powerful warring states vied for dominance. In 221 BCE, the ruler of a western state emerged triumphant from the ongoing warfare and unified China, naming himself Shi Huangdi (the "first emperor") and beginning the Qin dynasty. After eight hundred years, heaven had removed its mandate from the Zhou at last.
The three Zhou dynasty texts presented here are the source of Chinese poetic literature, evolving out of the beginnings of Chinese writing, and foreshadowing what was to come in this extraordinary three thousand year tradition. Chinese poetry begins with the Book of Songs, comprised of folk songs, hymns, and court songs collected largely from ordinary people living along the Yellow River, and putatively edited by Confucius himself (thus the collection is sometimes referred to as the Confucian Odes). The fact that the Chinese poetic tradition begins with folk poetry reworked and set to music has meant that the long tradition of Chinese poetry written by the nobility has often striven for a sense of folk authenticity to blend with the master poet's craft and skill, simplicity balancing elegance. The four-character verses in the Book of Songs are the model for shi poetry, whose variations came to dominate classical Chinese poetry for the next two thousand years.
The Book of Songs is one of the Confucian classics, studied throughout Chinese history by the nobility and by those who wished to rise in society as scholar-officials. Poetry is held to be one of the great arts that educated Chinese men (and sometimes women) should know and be able to practice. In fact, poetry has been in the mainstream of literary expression in Chinese literature, and so it is often afforded great powers of influence in the Chinese critical tradition. The "Great Preface" to the Book of Songs states that poetry is a Confucian rectifier that establishes the proper relationships between spouses, encourages respect and loyalty for the old, strengthens human ties, improves civilizations, and excises bad customs. In the Analects, Confucius often mentions the Songs. In Analect 2.2, for example, he states, "There are 300 Songs, but they can be summed up with one phrase: let your thoughts be free of depravity." Poetry serves a moral purpose, according to Confucius, "stimulating the reader, and making him observant, sociable, and capable of expressing his grievances," while at the same time "helping him to serve his family and his King" (Analect 17.8). Though the poems in the Book of Songs were in fact simply songs of the peasants, they were read as moral allegories, or as analogues to political and historical events.
The second text presented here is the marvelous, riddling, profound, and elegantly difficult Dao De Jing of Laozi (better known in the West by an earlier transliteration as the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu). As the Book of Songs stands as one of the key texts that gave birth to the Confucian tradition, so the Dao De Jing (along with another great text, the Zhuangzi) stands as the source of the great religious and philosophical tradition of Daoism, and ultimately of Chinese Buddhism, which blended with Daoism in a particularly Chinese philosophical and spiritual mélange. Though it is not normally considered to be poetry, the Dao De Jing translates as marvelous poetry. A selection from it can help give Western readers an understanding of the concepts that underlie so many of the great Daoist and Buddhist poets in China who were to come later.
The final text in this section is a selection from the great long poem Encountering Sorrow, by Qu Yuan (c. 332-c. 295 bce). This poem comes from the Verses of Chu, the second great early anthology of Chinese poetry, which included Qu Yuan's poetry, as well as that of a later poet, Song Yu. Encountering Sorrow and other poems in the collection tell of how Qu Yuan's dedication to his king was rewarded with banishment, leading him to drown himself in despair. The poems are celebrated for their Confucian dedication to duty. The work of Qu Yuan represents the beginning of an ornate literary tradition in China, which is counterbalanced by the simpler, vernacular, folk tradition of the Book of Songs. His poems are also the source of Chinese fu poetry, an irregular blend of poetry and prose that was to become an important part of the Chinese tradition. Fu poems usually begin and conclude with prose passages, with rhymed poetry in the center.
Qu Yuan is supposedly the first Chinese poet whose name we know (though in fact there are a few cases in the Book of Songs in which a poet's name is embedded). That the Verses of Chu begins the tradition of named poetry in China is more important than one might think. When one knows a poet's name, and something of his or her life, one gets a powerful sense of human connection to the person behind the poem. As poets name the world, so their own names name something to us as readers-a life and, perhaps more important, a lifework. Though the songs from the Books of Songs can often feel personal, they are almost exclusively anonymous and written to set generic topics. Thus, despite their allusive and elaborate nature, the poems of Qu Yuan are the fountainhead of personal poetry in China.BOOK OF SONGS
(c. 600 bce)
The Book of Songs is the earliest anthology of Chinese poetry, and the thematic and formal source of the Chinese poetic tradition. The Chinese name for the Book of Songs is the Shi Jing, and the term shi (the general term for poetry, like the Japanese term waka) derives from its name. Legend has it that its 305 poems were compiled by Confucius (551-479 bce) from an earlier manuscript of around three thousand songs. The assertion that Confucius was the compiler is questionable, but certainly the anthology was extant in Confucius's time, and it seems likely that the anthology was collected between 1100 and 600 bce. Confucius refers to the Book of Songs in the Analects, and it was part of the curriculum of his disciples; it is counted among the Confucian classics that form the basis of Confucian education. The collection was banned in the third century bce, along with the other Confucian classics, but was reconstructed during the Han dynasty, and the edition that is most complete derives from this time.
The Book of Songs contains three basic categories of song: folk songs and ballads, court songs, and sacrificial songs. Like the Sanskrit Vedas of India, these songs provide us with a window onto the simple and beautiful life of an ancient time. Heroes and ancestors are praised, love is made, war is waged, farmers sing to their crops, people complain about their taxes, and moral categories are set forth in stark and powerful form. Though these are songs, the music has been lost, and some of them have been revised from folk song roots by court musicians, rhymed and arranged into stanzas. Others were aristocratic songs, songs to be sung to accompany ritual dancing, or to accompany the rites of ancestor worship.White Moonrise
The white rising moon
is your bright beauty
binding me in spells
till my heart's devoured.
The light moon soars
resplendent like my lady,
binding me in light chains
till my heart's devoured.
Moon in white glory,
you are the beautiful one
who delicately wounds me
till my heart's devoured.
Translated by Tony Barnstone
and Willis Barnstone
Fruit Plummets from the Plum Tree
Fruit plummets from the plum tree
but seven of ten plums remain.
You gentlemen who would court me,
come on a lucky day.
Fruit plummets from the plum tree
but three of ten plums still remain.
You men who want to court me,
come now, today is a lucky day!
Fruit plummets from the plum tree.
You can fill up your baskets.
Gentlemen if you want to court me,
just say the word...