Confucius once remarked that without poetry all meaning is lost and words are left empty. The Book of Songs or The Classic of Odes is the first Chinese historical collection of poetry, odes, and music with accompanying images dated to the Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BC). Confucius (551-479 BC) traveled all through the Eastern Zhou dynasty, advising feudal lords on how to go about their businesses. Also, he collected poems and odes which would come to be known as the Book of Songs.
The Book of Songs is regarded as one of the preeminent Confucian classics today. Most of the ancient texts from other parts of the world such as Homers Iliad and Beowulf tend to praise individual heroism. The Book of Songs is markedly different because it promotes moral values, the family unit, the unity provided by the empire (ruling elite) and the Emperor and above all, it praises Heaven as the ultimate destination everyone strived for back then. The Emperor in ancient China was revered and regarded as a divine representative of heaven here on earth.
The poems have specific qualities- the stanzas are mostly composed of four lines. The poems use repetition of sounds, themes, and symbolism to represent various topics. The poems have a musical lilt to their structure; their wordings and sounds use a lot a vowel redundancy to create a harmonious effect. Most likely Confucius designed the poems to have a musical feel intentionally to be remembered by the ordinary Chinese people and be passed down the generations by word of mouth.
The poems all had specific themes attached to them. There are instances of odes which have several themes in them, but the standard feature about all of them is that they have one central idea. For example, in poem number 6 titled "The Peach Tree is Young and Elegant" the beauty of the peach tree is symbolic of the hallowed place marriage occupied in ancient China. Here is the first stanza:
The peach tree is young and elegant; Brilliant are its flowers. This young lady is going to her future home And will order well her chamber and house.
The peach tree, in this case, represents marriage, and the flowers represent the beautiful nature of marriage in ancient Chinese society. It was every lady's wish to be married and be happy. In the same stanza we get to know the role of women in ancient China- that of being the keeper of the household- And will order well her chamber and house. There is a parallel between features of the peach tree such as flowers and the structuring of the family house. The woman or wife in a marriage was to stay and keep the home pristine.
In the second stanza of the same poem, line 2 states that Abundant will be its fruits to mean that the success of marriage was dependent the number of children the couple begot. Like most ancient societies, the people of Zhou dynasty China believed that children were a gift from heaven above. Indeed childless couples supplicated to the gods with offerings and sacrifices to be blessed with children.
The place of heaven in Zhou dynasty China and the emperor were intertwined. According to Chinese legend Shang Di, The Heavenly Emperor (or simply God) was the founding father of the ruling Zhou clan. During Confucius time, however, people had lost the divine respect accorded to the emperor by previous generations. Poem number 235 titled "God" in the Book of Songs retells this legend using King Wen.
Profound was king Wen;Oh! Continuous and bright was his feeling of reverence.Great is the appointment of Heaven! There were the descendants of Shang;
The reason Confucius handpicked this poem was to show the Chinese lords and commoners their history in a bid to reestablish the reverence given to the king by previous generations. The king had the title of "The Son of Heaven" hence it can be seen that the king was not only a ruler but also a divine figure. This narrative is standard in many ancient epics, where a son or a daughter is chosen by a god to rule.
As this poem shows, leadership needs people with specific qualities. For the ancient civilizations that usually meant divine anointment (for example King David in the Bible being anointed by Samuel). The parallel with modern society is this- we do not choose our leaders anyhow. There are certain qualities of leaders which the people the electorate have to take into account such as track record, competence, charisma and so on. For the Zhou dynasty China the king was Gods mandated agent on earth.
The economic activities of Zhou dynasty China included farming and animal rearing. Farming was usually done by the peasants who worked on rice fields and took their produce to the feudal lords. The peasant farmers were in turn rewarded by being given part of the produce and lived in the fields belonging to the lords so long as they kept working them. In the poem number 297, there is a poem about horse-breeding which was then a noblemans profession.
Fat and large are the stallions,On the plains of the far-distant borders.Of those stallions, fat and large,Some are black and white-breeched; some light yellow ;Some, pure black; some, bay ;
The poem continues to describe how the stallions beyond the borders are "fat and large," appealing to the Zhou dynasty nobleman's imagination. Another contemporary of Confucius during the Spring and Autumn period of Ancient China was Sun Tzu (military strategist and general) who wrote the very famous "The Art of War." Several passages in The Art of War insists on the importance of the cavalry (soldiers fighting on horseback) in winning the war- they were the ones who would finish off the enemy once they were vanquished and running for their lives.
No doubt every nobleman during Confucius and Sun Tzus time wanted to perfect the art of war. Horse-breeding was a noble profession, but besides that, the ode above encourages the sense of adventure and exploration. On the plains of the far distant borders was meant to make a nobleman in Zhou dynasty China to think about the territories beyond the borders. War and conquest were very prevalent at this time in history and The Spring and Autumn period of ancient Zhou China was no exception. The king must have rewarded chivalry in attempts to gain territories and in so doing expand the kingdom. Courage and the sense of curiosity are values which are encouraged up to this day. Zhou dynasty China seems to have encouraged their men to be courageous and adventurous in venturing into the unknown. As already seen from poem number 6 no such expectation was put on women. Through the songs, we learn that there were specific gender roles in ancient China. Of course, today that has completely changed but the historical lessons of the odes will be here forever.
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