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Poems from the Book of Songs

This paper will analyze and discuss the value to the historian of three of the poems from the ancient Chinese anthology, the Book of Songs. One of these, “The peach tree is young and elegant”, would be of interest to a social historian and to the historian concerned with the development of the Chinese aesthetic sense. A second, “King Wen is on high” would be of interest to the political historian and to the historian of Chinese religion. A third, “How admirable! How complete” would be of interest to the historian who is interested in the ritualistic aspects of the ancient Chinese civilization.

Poems from the Book of Songs

Nr. 6, as do many of the poems in the anthology, involves stanzas which embody repetitive elements. The theme is marriage and there is an aesthetic equation drawn between the beauty of a peach tree and the ordering of a familial institution, the household. This simple, but gorgeous, poem equates the growth of a new family with the glories of nature. It reflects the importance of the family and thus reflects a theme that is a perennial aspect of Chinese culture.

Nr. 235 is about Wen, whose son, Wu, overthrew the Shang Dynasty and established the Chou (Zhou) Dynasty in its place. The transition occurred in either the eleventh or the twelfth century B.C. . The poem contains much laudatory praise of the Zhou and, since the Book of Songs is dated 1027-771 B.C. (see introduction) it could be the case that there was some degree of authenticity in the events described. They may not have been legends out of a foggy past, but rather, they may have had some degree of historicism.

Nr. 301 is about the role that ritual in the form of music and dance played in the culture of the Chinese. “The rites”, both as cult practices and as a set of moral precepts, proved to be very important aspects of Chinese culture. By the time of Confucius the rites (li) will have evolved into a comprehensive system of behavioral rules. In this poem we see them as a system of cult practices which are beginning to acquire a more comprehensive normative tinge.

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