1902 Encyclopedia > China > Chinese Literature (cont.) - Chinese Poetry; The Book of Odes.

(Part 51)


Chinese Poetry. The Book of Odes.

In China, as elsewhere, the first development of literary talent is found in poetry. The songs and ballads which form the Book of Odes, already spoken of, date back to time long antecedent to the production of any works of which we have knowledge. In those early, days before China was China, the then empire was divided into a number of feudal states, all of which, however acknowledged fealty to the ruling sovereign, at whose court were a number of music-masters and historiographers, whose duty it was to collect and set to music the songs of the people, and to preserve the historical records of the empire. In strict imitation of the surroundings of their liege lord the feudatory princes numbered among their retinues officers of like position and professing similar functions. At stated intervals these princes, accompanied by their followings, were in the habit of meeting the king at certain recognized places to take orders for the future and to receive credit or blame as the case might be for their past conduct. On such occasions the music masters would carry with them the ballads and songs collected in their principalities, and present them to their superior at the royal court. These he would collect and classify, reminding one of Queen Elizabeth’s minister, who, according to the Spectator, "had all manner of books and ballads brought to him, of what kind soever, and took great notice how much they took with the people ; upon which he would, and certainly might very proper way of applying them according to his Confucius there existed an official collection of some 3000 songs. On these the sage set to work, and, in the words of the historian Sze-ma-Tseen, "he rejected those which were only repetitions of others, and selected those which would be serviceable for the inculcation of propriety and righteousness." Such he arranged to the number of 311 under four heads, namely, "National Airs," the "Lesser" and the "Greater Eulogies," and the "Song of Homage," and gave the title of She king, or Book of Odes, to the collection.

If we can imagine ourselves seated in the study of the royal minister, searching with him into the ballads thus laid before us for an indication of the temper and mind of the people among whom they had had their birth, we should e inclined to congratulate him on the easy task entrusted to him of governing such a population. Through most of them there breathes a quiet calm and patriarchal simplicity of thought and life. There are few sounds of war, little tumult of the camp, but, on the contrary, a spirit of peaceful repose, of family love, and of religious feeling. We have brought before the minds eye the lowly cottage, where dwell a family united by the bonds of affection and of duty. Their food is the produce of the soil and the spoils of the chase. The highest ambition of the men is to excel as archers and charioteers, and their religious worship is the same as that which, untainted by Buddhism or any other form of philosophical teaching, is now practised at the imperial temples of heaven and earth, by the emperor only as high priest. Their wives are objects of affection and respects, and though in one song we find the belief expressed that "a wise woman will ruin a city," yet there seems to have been abundance of regard for honest housewives who did their duty, who shared the toil of their husbands, and enjoyed with them the simple pleasures within their reach.

It is true that now and again we meet with traces of scenes of revelry bordering on licentiousness ; but their idyllic surroundings, and the absence of all violence deprive the most dissolute descriptions of all vulgarity and coarseness. More serious by far are the wailing complaints of misrule and tyranny under which the subjects of certain princes groan. But even here there are no signs of insubordination or tumult ; the remedy which suggests itself to a people patient and long-suffering to a degree is to emigrate beyond the reach of the tyrant, not to rise in rebellion against him. In the following lines, for instance, the writer begs his friends to fly with him from the oppression and misery prevailing in his native state, which he likens to the north wind and thickly falling snow :—

"Cold blows the North wind ;
Thickly falls the snow.
Oh come all ye that love me,
Let’s join hands and go.
Can we any longer stay,
Victims to this dire dismay?"

Foxes and crows were looked upon as creatures of evil omen, and so, giving play to his imagination, he tells us that the only variations noticeable in the monotony of the present distress were these prognostics of future evil, in these words :—

"Nought red is seen but foxes,
Nor aught else black but crows,
Oh come all ye that love me,
Let’s fly before our foes.
Can we any longer stay,
Victims to this dire dismay?

Though the style and diction of these songs are of the simplest description, yet through some of them there runs a rich vein of sentiment, and in forming a judgment on them it is necessary to remember that they are not studied poems, but simply what they profess to be, songs of the people. Like all political ballads also, many of them refer to contemporary events about which we know next to nothing. We are therefore much in the hands of the commentators, and they tell us that the following song is intended to depict a rural scene, in which an industrious wife impresses on her husband the necessity of early rising, and encourages him to make virtuous and respectable acquaintances :—

" ‘Get up, husband, here ’s the day!
‘Not yet, wife, the dawn ’s still grey.
Get up, sir, and on the right
See the morning star shines bright.
Shake off slumber, and prepare
Ducks and geese to shoot and snare.

" ‘All your darts and line may kill
I will dress for you with skill.
Thus, a blithesome hour we’ll pass,
Brightened by a cheerful glass ;
While your lute its aid imparts
To gratify and soothe our hearts.

" ‘On all whom you may wish to know
I ’ll girdle ornaments bestow ;
And guide ornaments I’ll send
To any one who calls you friend ;
With him whose love for you’s biding
My girdle ornaments dividing.’ "

(The Book of Odes, pt. i. bk. vii. Ode 8.)

One other we will quote, taken from the songs of homage, or hymns which were sung either by or before the emperor that this one was sung by King Seuen on the occasion of a great drought in the 8th century B.C. In it he expostulates with God for bringing this misery upon him, and expresses his belief that he had a right to expect succour instead of disaster from the Most High.

"Brightly resplendent in the sky revolved
The milky way.

The monarch cried, Alas!
What crimes is ours, that Heaven thus sends on us
Death and Disorder, that with blow on blow
Famine attacks us?

Surely I have grudged
To God no victims ; all our store is spent
Of tokens. Why is it I am not heard?
Rages the drought. The hills are parched, and dry
The streams. The demon of the drought
Destroys like one who scatters fiery flames.
Terrified by the burning heat my heart,
My mourning heart, seems all consumed with fire.
The many aukes and ministers of the past
Pay me no heed.

O God! From Thy great Heaven
Send me permission to withdraw myself
Into seclusion.

Fearful is the drought.
I hesitate, I dread to go away.
Why cause for it know I. Full early rose
My prayers for a good year ; not late was I
In off’ring sacrifice unto the Lords
Of the four quarters and the land.

A far
In the high Heaven God listens not. And yet
Surely a reverent man as I have been
To all intelligent Spirits should not be
The victim of their overwhelming wrath."

(The Book of Odes, pt. iii. bk. iii. Ode 4.)

Such is the poetry of the Book of Odes, and such we should have expected to find it, since the earliest specimens of poetry in every land partake of a simple and religious nature, are crude in their measure, and are wanting in that harmony which is begotten of study and cultivation. The Chinese say of poetry that the Book of Odes may be likened to its roots, that during the Han and Wei dynasties it burst into foliage, and that during the Tang dynasty (620-907) it came into full bloom.

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