Also known as the Book of Odes
, Classic of Songs
. Chinese Shih-ching
. The oldest book of Chinese poetry
, one of the five classics
of early Confucianism
The work consists of 305 old poems. Most, called "airs" and named after different regions of Warring States times, appear to be folksongs, sometimes rather randy. Confucian moralism, however, insisted on interpreting them as allegories about the virtue of the ruler or his consorts. They were frequently quoted in the political dialogues between Warring States sophists and their rulers, such as those appearing in the Mencius.
In addition to the folksong-type, there are a group of "hymns" dealing with the legendary ancestors of the Zhou royal house. One of the most famous describes how the Zhou ancestress trod in a giant footprint and suddenly found herself pregrant with the future ruler.
Tradition has it that Confucius himself edited the book, but there is no evidence one way or the other. Certainly he advised his students to study these songs, in order to learn propriety, the names of many plants and animals (ubiquitous in folksong), and elegant language.
The most famous English translations are those of Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound.
Below is a translation by Ezra Pound. Typically, it is a beautiful poem, but somewhat removed from the original. After it is another recent translation, far more literal.
Translation by Ezra Pound (Shih-ching, p. 69, #1-12/VIII)
The erudite moon is up, less fair than she
who hath tied silk cords about
a heart in agony,
she at such ease
so all my work is vain.
* Pound’s note: A few transpositions but I think the words are all in the text.
My heart is tinder, and steel plucks at my pain
so all my work is vain,
she at such ease
as is the inquiring moon
A glittering moon comes out
less bright than she the moon’s colleague
that is so fair,
of yet such transient grace,
at ease, undurable, so all my work is vain
torn with this pain.*
translation by David Prager Branner
From the “Airs of Chén”: “The Moon Appears”
The moon appears, gleams, yea —
lovely woman, fine, yea —
moves away, graceful, yea —
pains my heart, aches, yea —
The moon appears, splendid, yea —
lovely woman, radiant, yea —
moves away, allures, yea —
pains my heart, burns, yea —
The moon appears, shines, yea —
lovely woman, dazzling, yea —
moves away, smoulders, yea —
pains my heart, forlorn, yea —