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2.4: The Book of Songs

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    Existed before Confucius (born around 551 B.C.E.)

    The Book of Songs (the Shi king, also translated as The Classic of Poetry and The Book of Odes) is a collection of poems written by various anonymous authors over several centuries. Traditionally, Confucius has been credited as the editor of the collection, and it was part of the canon of Confucian works that scholars were expected to study. Scholars debate how much influence Confucius may have had on them; one theory is that he took a much larger work (possibly several thousand poems) and chose just over three hundred to form the standard version that exists today. Poetry collections in China were meant to represent the voice of the people (male and female, all social classes). The poems capture moments in time, speaking to the reader about the problems and joys of individuals who were not necessarily the rulers or heroes of other stories.

    Written by Laura J. Getty


    License: Public Domain

    Translated by William Jennings


    The Wedding-Journey of a Princess

    The magpie has a nest;
    The dove yet takes possession.

    Lo! the young bride departs,
    In many-wheeled procession.
    The magpie has a nest;
    The dove yet there will quarter.—
    Lo! the young bride departs;
    And countless cars escort her.
    The magpie has a nest;
    The dove will fill it (quickly).—
    Lo! the young bride departs,
    With chariots mustered thickly.

    A Reverent Helpmate

    There gathers she the fragment herb
    Along the islets, by the pools,
    To mingle with the votive gifts
    Of him that o'er the princedom rules.
    There gathers she the fragrant herb
    Amid the mountain streams again,
    To mingle with the votive gifts
    Her prince will offer in the fane.
    With head-gear all erect and high
    Ere dawn the temple she attends;
    With head-gear all uncared for now
    Back to her place her way she wends.

    A Long-Absent Husband

    Now the crickets chirp and grind;
    And the hoppers spring and fly.
    But my lord not yet I find;
    Ay, and sore at heart am I.
    O to see him once again!
    O to meethim once again!
    Stilled were then the swelling sigh.
    Climbed I yonder up South Hill.
    Plucked sweet brackens as I went.
    But my lord I saw not still;
    Loud was yet my heart's lament.
    O to see him once again!
    O to meet him once again!
    So my heart were well content.
    Climbed I yonder up South Hill,
    Now to pluck the royal fern.
    Yet my lord I saw not still;
    Still my heart must pine and yearn.
    O to see him once again!
    O to meet him once again!
    So my heart's-ease might return.

    The Young Wife's Zealous Care in the Worship of her Husband's Ancestors

    She goes to gather water-wort,
    Beside the streams south of the hills;
    She goes to gather water-grass
    Along the swollen roadside rills;
    Goes now to store her gathered herbs
    In basket round, in basket square;
    Goes now to seethe and simmer them
    In tripod and in cauldron there;
    Pours out libations of them all
    Beneath the light within the Hall.

    And who is she—so occupied?
    —Who, but (our lord's) young pious bride?

    In Memory of a Worthy Chieftain

    O pear-tree, with thy leafy shade!
    Ne'er be thou cut, ne'er be thou laid;—
    Once under thee Shâu's chieftain stayed.
    O pear-tree, with thy leafy crest,
    Ne'er may they cut thee, ne'er molest;—
    Shâu's chief beneath thee once found rest.
    O pear-tree, with thy leafy shroud,
    Ne'er be those branches cut, nor bowed,
    That shelter to Shâu's chief allowed.

    The Resisted Suitor

    All soaking was the path with dew.
    And was it not scarce daybreak, too?
    I say: the path was drenched with dew.
    Who says the sparrow has no horn?
    How bores it then into my dwelling?
    Who says of thee, thou art forlorn?
    Why then this forcing and compelling?
    But force, compel, me, do thy will:
    Husband and wife we are not still.
    Who says of rats, they have no teeth?
    How do they bore then through my wall?
    Who says of thee, thou art forlorn?
    Why force me then into this brawl?
    But force me, sue me,—even so,
    With thee I do not mean to go!

    Dignity and Economy of King Wăn's Councillors

    Clad in lambskin or in sheepskin,
    Five white silken seams that show,
    To their meal from court retiring,
    With what dignity they go!
    Bare of wool, the lamb or sheepskin
    Five white sutures may reveal,
    Still with dignity retire they
    From their Master to their meal.
    Though the skins, now rent in patches,
    Five white silken seams require,
    Still with dignity the wearers
    To their meal from Court retire.

    The Lonely Wife

    Hearken! there is thunder
    On South Hill's lofty crest.
    Hence why must he wander,
    Nor dare a moment rest?
    True-hearted husband, fain, oh fain
    Were I to see thee home again.
    Hearken! now the thunder
    Rolls lower on South Hill.

    Hence why must he wander,
    Nor ever dare be still?
    True-hearted husband, fain, oh fain
    Were I to have thee home again.
    Hearken! now the thunder
    Is down upon the plain.
    Hence why must he wander,
    Nor dare awhile remain?
    True-hearted husband, fain, oh fain
    Were I to find thee home agian.

    Fears of Mature Maidenhood

    Though shaken be the damnson-tree,
    Left on it yet are seven, O.
    Ye gentlemen who care for me.
    Take chance while chance is given, O.
    Though shaken be the damson-tree,
    Yet three are still remaining, O.
    Ye gentlemen who care for me,
    Now, now; the time is waning, O.
    Ah, shaken is the damson-tree,
    And all are in the basket, O.
    Ye gentlemen who care for me,
    Your question
    —would ye ask it, O!

    Contented Concubines

    Starlets dim are yonder peeping,—
    In the East are five, and three.
    Softly, where our lord is (sleeping),
    Soon or late by night go we.
    Some have high, some low degree.
    Starlets dim are yonder peeping,—
    Pleiades, Orion's band.
    Softly nightly go we creeping,
    Quilt and coverlet in hand.
    Some take high, some lower stand.

    Jealousy Overcome

    The Kiang has arms that wayward wind.
    Our lady erst as bride
    Our help declined,
    Our help declined;

    Anon she was of other mind.
    The Kiang has banks within its bed.
    Our lady erst as bride
    Our presence fled,
    Our presence fled;—
    Anon a calmer life she led.
    The Kiang has creeks that leave it long.
    Our lady erst as bride
    Spurned all our throng,
    Spurned all our throng;—
    Her sneering now is turned to song.

    The Cunning Hunter

    In the wild there lies a dead gazelle,
    With the reed-grass round it wrapt;
    And a maid who loveth springtide well
    By a winsome youth is trapped.
    In the wood thick undergrowth is found,
    In the wild the dead gazelle,
    With the reed-grass round its body bound;

    And the maid she looketh well.
    "Ah! gently, not so fast, good sir;
    My kerchief, prithee, do not stir;
    Nor rouse the barking of my cur."

    A Royal Wedding

    What radiant bloom is there!
    Blossoms of cherry wild.
    What care attends the equipage
    Of her, the royal child!
    What radiance! Like the bloom
    Of peach and plum in one!
    Granddaughter of the Just King she,
    He a true noble's son.
    How was the bait then laid?
    'Twas trimmed with silken twine.
    He the true noble's son (thus caught)
    Her of the Just King's line!

    The Tsow Yu

    Out there where the reeds grow rank and tall,
    One round he shoots, five wild boars fall.
    Hail the Tsow Yu!
    And there where the grass is waving high,
    One round he shoots, five wild hogs die.
    Hail the Tsow Yu!

    Note.—Although this is one of the shortest and apparently most trivial of the Odes in the Book of Poetry, it is credited by the Chinese editors with as much meaning as the largest. It is regarded, like so many more, as illustrating the extent of the reformation brought about by King Wăn. Not only was the kingdom better ruled, society better regulated, and individuals more self-disciplined and improved in manners, but the reformation affected all things: vegetation flourished, game became most abundant, hunting was attended to at the right seasons, and the benign influence of the King was everywhere felt by the people. The poet thinks it is sufficient to dwell upon these last characteristics. Probably the lines were written after some royal hunt.


    P'ei was one of three principalities which King Wu created after he overthrew the dynasty of Shang. It was in the north; and the two others were—Yung in the south, and Wei in the west. P'ei and Yung were, after a short time, absorbed in Wei, which had a long history. We have, in Books III., IV. and V. titles taken from all three; but evidently the division is only artificial: the three Books might all have been included probperly under the title Wei, since it is that State with which all are connected.


    The cedar boat is drifting,
    On currents never still.
    Sleepless I lie, vexed inly,
    As with some unknown ill.
    'Tis not that wine is wanting,
    Or leave to roam at will.
    My heart is no mere mirror
    That cannot comprehend.
    Brothers I have, but may not
    On brothers e'en depend.
    Tush! when I go complaining
    'Tis only to offend.
    No stone this heart of mine is,
    That may be turned and rolled;
    No mat this heart of mine is,
    To fold or to unfold.
    Steadfast and strict my life is;
    Nought 'gainst it can be told.
    Yet here I sit in sorrow,
    Scorned by a rabble crew.
    My troubles have been many
    My insults not a few.
    Calmly I think—then, starting,
    I beat my breast anew.
    O moon, why now the brighter?
    O sun, why now dost wane?
    My heart wears grief as garments
    Inured to soil and stain.
    Calmly I think—then, starting,
    Would fly—but all in vain.


    Green now my robe!
    Green, lined with yellow.
    Ah! when shall Grief
    Be not my fellow!
    Green is the robe;
    Yellow the skirt!
    Ah! when shall Grief
    Nevermore hurt!
    Green is the silk;
    Ruled so by you.—
    Guide me, ye ancients!
    Harm lest I do.
    Lawn, fine or coarse,
    Chills in the wind.—
    Guide me, ye ancients!
    Save me my mind.

    Friends In Distress

    O the swallows onward flying,
    Wings aslant, irregular!
    O the lady homeward hieing;
    O'er the wilds escort her far.
    Gaze I till I gaze in vain,
    And my tears are like the rain.
    O the swallows onward flying,
    Soaring upward, darting low!
    O the lady homeward hieing;
    Far then let her escort go.
    Gaze I till I gaze in vain;
    Long I stand and weep amain.
    O the swallows onward flying,
    High and low, with twittering mouth!
    O the lady homeward hieing;
    Far escort her to the South.
    Gaze I till I gaze in vain,
    And my heart scarce bears the pain.
    Lady Chung
    —on love relying,
    And of feelings true and deep,
    Ever sweet and much-complying,
    Strict, yet, self-respect to keep—
    Thoughtful of the dead she:
    Bright example to poor me!

    Clouds Gathering

    O sun, O moon, ye downwards turn
    To earth your glorious gaze.
    But ah! that men there be like this,
    Forsaking ancient ways!

    Where can be peace? Alas, his glance
    From me for ever strays!
    O sun, O moon, this earth below
    Hath you as crown above.
    But ah, that men there be like this,
    That give not love for love!
    Where can be peace? Alas that he
    Should so responseless prove!
    O sun, O moon, that morn and eve
    Rise in yon Eastern sky.
    Alas that men there be like this,
    Whose deeds fair words belie.
    Where can be peace? Ah, better now
    If memory could but die!
    O sun, O moon, that morn and eve
    Rise yonder in the East.
    O parents mine! your charge of me
    Hath not for ever ceased.
    Where can be peace? For to my love
    responds he not the least.

    The Storm

    Long, long the stormwind blew, and wild.
    He turned to look at me: he smiled;
    But mockery was there, and scorn.
    Ah, how my very heart was torn!
    Long, long it blew, with dust for rain.—
    "Be kind, and come to me again."
    He came not, neither went his way;
    And long in pensive thought I lay.
    On still it blew, with storm-clouds black;
    Scarce light there was, so dense the pack.
    Wakeful I lay, nor closed mine eyes;
    And anxious thought brought fitful sughs.
    Black and more black yet grew the gloom;
    Then came loud thunder, boom on boom.
    Awake I lay, all sleep was fled,
    And anxious thought my fever fed.

    The Soldier Sighs For Wife And Home

    When the beating of drums was heard around,
    How we sprang to our weapons with leap and bound!
    But the fields must have some, and the walls of Ts'o;—
    We alone to the South must a-marching go.
    So we followed our leader Sun Tse-Chung,
    And a peace there was made with Ch'in and Sung.
    But of homeward march is no sign as yet,
    And our hearts are heavy, and pine and fret.
    Ah! here we are lingering; here we stay;
    And our steeds go wandering far astray;
    And quest of them all must needs be made
    Away in the depths of the woodland shade.
    But, though far to be severed in death or life,
    We are bound by the pledge each gave to his wife;
    And we vowed, as we stood then hand in hand,
    By each other in life's last years to stand.
    Alas! now wide is the gulf between!
    And life to us now is a blank, I ween.
    And, alas, for the plighted troth—so vain!
    Untrue to our words we must aye remain.

    The Discontented Mother

    From the South the gladdening breezes blow
    On the heart of that bush of thorn;
    And the inmost leaves in it gaily grow.

    But the mother with care is worn.
    From the SOuth the gladdening breezes blow
    On the twigs of that thorny tree.
    And the mother is wise and good, but oh!
    Bad and worthless men are we.
    From the spring 'neath the walls of Tsun there runs
    A cool and refreshing rill.
    But the mother, though hers be seven sons,
    Unrelieved here toils on still.
    And the golden bright-eyed orioles
    Wake their tuneful melodie.
    But the mother's heart no son consoles,
    Though we seven around her be.


    The male pheasant has taken his flight,
    Yet leisurely moved he his wings!
    Ah, to thee, my beloved, thyself
    What sorrow this severance brings!
    The male pheasant has taken his flight;
    From below, from aloft, yet he cried.
    Ah, true was my lord; and my heart
    With its burden of sorrow is tried.
    As I gaze at the sun and the moon,
    Free rein to my thoughts I allow.
    O the way, so they tell me, is long:
    Tell me, how can be come to me now?
    Wot ye not, then, ye gentlemen all,
    Of his virtue and rectitude?

    From all envy and enmity free,
    What deed doth he other than good?

    Untimely Unions

    "The leaves of the gourd are yet sour to the taste,
    And the way through the ford is deep" (quoth she).

    —"Deep be it, our garments we'll raise to the waist,
    Or shallow, then up to the knee" (quoth he).
    "But the ford is full, and the waters rise.
    Hark! a pheasant there, in alarm she cries."
    —"Nay, the ford when full would no axle wet;
    And the pheasant but cackles to fetch her mate."
    "More sweet were the wildgoose' cries to hear,
    When the earliest streaks of the dawn appear;
    And that is how men should seek their brides,—
    (In the early spring) ere the ice divides.
    The ferryman beckons and points to his boat:—
    Let others cross over, I shall not.
    The others may cross, but I say nay.
    For a (true) companion here I stay."

    Lament Of A Discarded Wife

    When East winds blow unceasingly,
    They bring out gloominess and rain.
    Strive, strive to live unitedly,
    And every angry thought restrain.
    Some plants we gather for their leaves,
    But leave the roots untouched beneath;
    So, while unsullied was my name,
    I should have lived with you till death.
    With slow, slow step I took the road,
    My inmost heart rebelling sore.
    You came not far with me indeed,
    You only saw me to the door.
    Who calls the lettuce bitter fare?
    The cress is not a whit more sweet.
    Ay, feast there with your new-found bride,
    Well-pleased, as when fond brothers meet.
    The Wei, made turbid by the King,
    Grows limpid by the iselts there.
    There, feasting with your new-found bride,
    For me no longer now you care.
    Yet leave to me my fishing-dam;
    My wicker-nets—remove them not.
    My person spurned,—some vacant hour
    May bring compassion for my lot.
    Where ran the river full and deep,
    With raft or boat I paddled o'er;
    And, where it flowed in shallower stream,
    I dived or swam from shore to shore.
    And what we had, or what we lost,
    For that I strained my every nerve;
    When other folks had loss, I'd crawl
    Upon my knees, if aught 'twould serve.
    And you can show me no kind care,
    Nay, treated like a foe am I!
    My virtue stood but in your way,
    Like traders' goods that none will buy.
    Once it was feared we could not live;
    In your reverses then I shared;
    And now, when fortune smiles on you,
    To very poison I'm compared.
    I have laid by a goodly store,—
    For winter's use it was to be;—
    Feast on there with your new-found bride,—
    I was for use in poverty!
    Rude fits of anger you have shown,
    Now left me to be sorely tried.
    Ah, you forget those days gone by,
    When you came nestling to my side!

    A Prince And His Officers In Trouble

    Fallen so low, so low!
    Wherefore not homeward go?
    And we,
    —how could we for our chief refuse
    Exposure to the nightly dews?
    Fallen so low, so low!
    Wherefore not homeward go?
    And did we not our chief himself require,
    How lived we here in mud and mire?

    Li Finds No Help In Wei

    How have the creepers on the crested slope
    Crept with their tendrils far and wide!
    And O, ye foster-fathers of our land,
    How have our days here multiplied!
    Why is there never movement made?
    Comes surely some expected aid.
    Why is this long, protracted pause?
    'Tis surely not without a cause.
    With foxfurs worn and frayed, without our cars,
    Came we not Eastward here to you?
    O ye, the foster-fathers of our land,
    Will ye have nought with us to do?
    A shattered remnant, last of all our host,
    But waifs and vagabonds are we!
    And ye, the foster-fathers of our land,
    Smile on, but deaf ye seem to be!

    Buffoonery At Court

    Calm and cool, see him advance!
    Now for posturing and dance,

    While the sun's in middle sky,—
    There in front of platform high!
    See him, corpulent and tall,
    Capering in that ducal hall!
    Tiger-like in strength of limb,—
    Reins like ribbons were to him!
    Left hand now the flute assumes,
    Right hand grasps the phaesant's plumes;
    Red, as though with rouge, the face.
    "Give him liquor!" cries His Grace.
    There are hazels on the hill,
    There is fungus in the fen.
    Say to whom my thoughts then flee.—
    To those fine West-country men.
    Those are admirable men!
    The West-country men for me!


    Fain are those waters to be free,
    Leaving their spring to join the K'i.
    So yearns my heart for thee, dear Wei;

    No day but there in thought I fly.
    Here are my cousins, kind are they:
    O, before these my plans I'll lay.
    On leaving home I lodged in Tsi.
    And drank the god-speed cup in Ni.
    Maids, when their wedding trip they take,
    Parents and brothers all forsake.
    Yet let me go my aunts to greet;
    Let me my elder sisters meet.
    And, leaving here, I'd lodge in Kan,
    Then drink the god-speed cup in Yen.
    Oil me then well my axles, O!
    Back in my carriage let me go.
    Soon should I be in Wei—but oh!
    Were I not wrong in acting so?
    Ah!—For that land of fertile streams
    Long do I sigh in waking dreams.
    So when I think of Siu and Ts'o,
    Full is my heart, to overflow.
    Drove I but forth to wander there,
    Then were unbosomed all my care.

    Official Hardships

    Out by the northern gate I go my way,
    Bearing a load of sorrow and of care;
    Vulgarly poor am I, and sore bestead,
    And of my hardships all are unaware.
    Ah, so indeed!
    Yet Heaven hath so decreed;
    What therefore can I say?
    On me devolves the business of the king,
    On me official burdens fast encroach;
    On me, at home, arriving from abroad,
    My household all conspire to heap reproach
    Ah, so indeed!
    Yet Heaven hath so decreed;
    What therefore can I say?
    All urgent is the business of the king;
    Official cares press on me more and more.
    And when at home, arriving from abroad,
    My household one and all thrust at me sore.
    Ah, so indeed,
    Yet Heaven hath so decreed;
    What therefore can I say?


    Cold north winds are blowing,
    Heavy falls the snow.
    Friend, thy hand, if thou art friendly!
    Forth together let us go.
    Long, too long, we loiter here:
    Times are too severe.
    How the north wind whistles,
    Driving snow and sleet!
    Friend, thy hand, if thou art friendly!
    Let us, thou and I, retreat.
    Long, too long, we loiter here:
    Times are too severe.

    Irregular Love-Making

    A modest maiden, passing fair to see,
    Waits at the corner of the wall for me.
    I love her, yet I have no interview:

    I scratch my head—I know not what to do.
    The modest maid—how winsome was she then,
    The day she gave me her vermilion pen!
    Vermilion pen was never yet so bright,—
    The maid's own loveliness is my delight.
    Now from the pasture lands she sends a shoot
    Of couchgrass fair; and rare it is, to boot.
    Yet thou, my plant (when beauties I compare),
    Art but the fair one's gift, and not the Fair!

    The New Tower

    Past the New Tower, so spick and span,
    The Ho majestic rolled.
    There she who sought a gallant mate
    Found one deformed and old.

    'Neath the New Tower's high battlements
    The Ho ran smooth and still.
    She sought a gallant mate, and lo!
    A shapeless imbecile!
    The net was ready for a fish
    A goose there came instead.
    And she who sought a gallant mate,
    Must with this hunchback wed.

    The Two Sons

    Two youths there were, each took his boat,
    That floated, mirrored in the stream;

    And O the fear for those two youths,
    And O the anxiety extreme!
    Two youths they were, each took his boat,
    And floated on the stream away;—
    And O the fear for those two youths;
    If harmed, yet innocent were they.

    This page titled 2.4: The Book of Songs is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Laura Getty & Kyounghye Kwon (University of North Georgia Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.