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China's Ancient 'Book of Songs'

by Lu Ying

Chinese Food History

Fall Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(3) page(s): 5, 6, and 23


The Book of Songs, in Pinyin is Shi Jing, and is a collection of songs sung by people from all walks of life. Some three thousand years ago these were poems called ‘songs’ because they were passed down mouth to mouth. Some had rhymes, others simply tones, all were ancient, many more have been lost over time.

In the Chinese tradition, poetry and music are related and often performed simultaneously. As time went on, people gradually lost the rhymes but remembered the lyrics they called poems. Their sentences are divided into lines of four or eight characters appearing in eleven-line sets. In Chinese, they are easy to chant, and the first sentence in this Book of Songs is:

Guan-guan go to the ospreys,
On the islet in the river,
The modest retiring virtuous young lady:
For our prince, a good mate she.

This is the oldest collection of poems in the pre-Qing era. This Book of Songs is regarded as the very beginning of Chinese poetry. Included are 305 ancient poems written from between the 11th century and the 6th century BCE; and they are in areas named today as: Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan. Hebei, Shandong, and Northern Hubei.

This book has records of many activities from ancient times including farm work, marriages, wars, fights, corvee, customs, rituals, ancient worship, banquets, and celestial phenomena. They reflect the social conditions of the five hundred years from early Western Zhou Dynasty times about the 11th century to 771 BCE which is from the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period from 770 to 476 BCE.

As to the authors of these poems, and how they were collected, that is a long story. According to ancient literary materials, there was a system of collecting poems in those times with the Emperor of Zhou having special officers called Qiu Ren or Xing Ren collecting them. Guo Yu recorded that higher officials such as the Duke or Prime Minister had rights to offer beautiful songs to the ruler. These were professional officers taking care of these poems and teaching them and their music in the Royal Palace. Generally speaking, it is believed that Confucius edited and checked them.

Until the time of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (220 BCE to 220 CE), this collection was called the Classic of Poetry and it was listed as one of The Five Classics; the others were: Book of History, Book of Changes, Book of Rites, and Spring and Autumn Annals.

This Book of Songs has three sections; Feng, Ya, and Song. Each one includes several chapters with several songs in each of them. Feng includes songs sung by the common people in different political states during the Zhou Dynasty such as those of Bei, Bin, and Yong. These are the names of three of them. Ya is honored as ‘Songs for the Emperor’ in Zhou Zhuan. These are songs sung by the upper classes in royal and imperial courts. This section is in two parts called: Da Ya and Xiao Ya. These mean 'large' and 'small Ya; the former more formal, the latter similar to Feng. The Song section is more sacred and were played in ancestral temples during worship. Some make fun saying that Feng, Ya, and Song are equivalent to pop music, elegant music, and serious music.

Gu Donggao (1679 - 1759 CE), a scholar in the Qing Dynasty, has statistics in his: Mao Shi Lei Shi that says that twenty-four kinds of cereal, thirty-eight of vegetables, seventeen of medicines, thirty-seven of grasses, and fifteen of flowers and fruits are mentioned in The Book of Songs. Through them, we can imagine the variability of foods eaten in those days.

Throughout history, there has been much research about this poem. Many generations are making comments and notes about them. There were different versions over the ages because one Chinese character can lead to a totally different interpretation. This is why many scholars have dedicated themselves to these translations.

The poem, interpreted below, is the longest one in the book. Its title means July, and it mentions eating, living, and the clothes of the common people during this Western Zhou Dynasty time. Each set, as already said, has eleven lines, four Chinese characters in each one of them. Here is my translation:

In the 7th month, the Fire Star passes the meridian, In the 9th month, clothes are given out. In the days of the 4th month, the wind blows cold, In the days of the 2nd one, the air is cold. Without the clothes and garments of hair, How could we get to the end of the year? In days of the 3rd month, they take plows in hand, In days of the 4th, they make their way to the fields. Along with my wife and children, I carry food to them in those south-lying acres, The surveyor of our fields comes, and is glad.

In the 7th month, The Fire Star passes the meridian, In the 8th month are the sedges and reeds. In the silkworm month they strip the mulberry branches of their leaves, And take axes and hatchets, To lop off those that are distant and high, Only strip the young trees of their leaves. In the 7th month, the shrill is heard, In the 8th month, they begin their spinning. They make dark fabrics and yellow, The red made is very brilliant, It is for the lower robes of out young princes.

In the 4th month, the small grass is in seed, In the 5th, the cicada gives out its note. In the 8th, they reap, In the 10th, the leaves fall. In the days of the 1st month, they go after badgers, And take foxes and wild cats, To make furs for our young princes. In the days of our 2nd month, there is a general hunt, And they proceed to keep up the exercises of war. The boars of one year are for themselves, Those of three years are for our prince.

In the 5th month, the locust moves its legs, In the 6th month, the spinner sounds it wings. In the 7th month, in the fields, In the 8th month, under the eaves, In the 9th month, about the doors, In the 10th, the cricket enters under our beds. Chinks are filled up, and rats are smoked out, The windows facing north are stopped up, doors are plastered. Ah! Our wives and children, Changing the year requires this: Enter here and dwell.

The 6th month they eat sparrow-plums and grapes, In the 7th, they cook the Kui and pulse, In the 8th, they knock down the dates, In the 10th, they reap the rice; For the benefit of bushy eyebrows. In the 7th month, they eat the melons, In the 8th, they cut down the bottle-gourds, In the 9th, they gather the hemp seed. They gather the sow thistle And make firewood of the fetid tree, To feed our husbandmen.

In the 9th month, they prepare vegetable gardens for their stacks, In the 10th they convey the sheaves to them. The millet, both the early sown and the late, With other grain, hemp, pulse, and wheat. O my husbandmen, Our harvest is all collected. Let us go to town, and be at work on our houses: In the daytime collect the grass, And at midnight twist them into ropes, Then get up quickly on our roofs, We shall have to recommence our sowing.

In the days of our 2nd month, they hew ice with harmonious blows, And in our 3rd month, they convey it to ice-houses. Which they open in the 4th, early in the morning, Having offered in sacrifice, a lamb with scallions. In the 9th month, it is cold with frost, In the 10th, they sweep clean their stack-sites, Th two bottles of spirits are enjoyed, And they say ‘Lets kill our lambs and sheep, And go to the hall of our prince, There raise the cup of rhinoceros horn, And wish him long life; may he live forever.

Most paintings based on the contents of this book were made in later times. They are worthy of your attention, and one can learn from them. But do keep in mind that most are missing parts ruined by now.

Emperor Kangxi, in the Qing Dynasty, had official painters who made a series of them. These can be found in the Palace Museum in Taipei, and in the Royal Library in Japan. Thee are also other versions. Paintings drawn during the Song Dynasty has three versions; these are in the United States. One version was drawn by Li Gonglin and is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, one by Ma Hezhi is at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and the third by Ma Yuan is at Ohio’s Cleveland Museum of Art.
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Lu Ying, born in 1989 in Hangzhou in China, is a PhD candidate at the School of Humanities at Zhejiang University there. Her research focuses on the aesthetics of literature and art. She offers her e-mail for those who have questions, and tells us it is: 11404027@zju.edu.cn
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