The Shi King, the Old “Poetry Classic” of the Chinese. A Close Metrical Translation, with Annotations by William Jennings (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1891). http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2109,
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The Shih Ching (The book of poetry) predates Confucius by some three centuries, although he is often credited with arranging it into its current form sometime around 520 B.C. This work is a compilation of some three hundred verses of poetry illustrating the proper conduct of a sovereign and general rules “for inculcation of propriety and righteousness.”
The text is in the public domain.
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
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 properly under the title Wei, since it is that State with which all are connected.
[The first stanza is in praise of his mother and wife.]
[The remainder is to be understood of King Wăn himself.]
[The second stanza begins abruptly with a description of the preparation by King T‘ai† for this new settlement in the plain of Chow and on Mount K‘i]:—Edition: current; Page: 
[This Ode requires a little introduction, for general readers. It is in honour of How-tsih (or, more properly, of the How-tsih, a title meaning “lord of the millet,” his duties being the supervision of agriculture). The House of Chow traced their pedigree back to him, and when this dynasty was founded, sacrificial honours were paid to him. The Duke of Chow is said thereupon to have written this Ode, and probably it was “said or sung” at the time of the sacrifices. Kiáng Yün, the mother of How-tsih, is said to have been the Princess Consort of the Emperor Kuh, bc 2435-2357; but this can hardly have been so, because How-tsih flourished in the reign of Shun, which bears the date bc 2255-2205. In the legend of her son’s conception and birth, which is given in the first stanza of this Ode, while evidently they were believed to be miraculous, it is somewhat doubtful whether we are to translate (ti) in the sixth line by “God,” or by “Emperor” (meaning her husband.)*
The strange and easy birth, related in the second stanza, was regarded by the mother as an unlucky omen, and this explaint Edition: current; Page:  why in the third stanza she is represented as “exposing” him to be trampled on by cattle, then in the forest’s solitude, then on the ice. From all these dangers he had wonderful escapes, and she therefore took him back, and the name K‘i, “the Castaway,” was given to him in memory of these adventures. His early talent for husbandry grew with his years, he taught the people many improvements in it, and, becoming famous, the Emperor Yau at length made him Minister of Husbandry. The succeeding Emperor, Shun, made him Lord of T‘ai (stanza 5), and it was only after this that he became known as the How-tsih. The “old duke T‘an-fu,” mentioned in the “Wăn Wong” decade as the progenitor of the House of Chow, was his lineal descendant. How-tsih was, we are told here, the first to offer sacrifices as thank-offerings for the harvest, which were continued to the time of the Chow dynasty; but now, in the ritual of the Duke of Chow, he was joined with Heaven (), like the deceased Emperors.]
[It is uncertain, but probable, that this Ode is again responsive,—the feasters of the last Ode expressing their admiration for their Prince and Host.]
[See III. ii. 9.—The poet here warns the king of the impending judgment of Heaven upon his misrule, drunkenness, and promotion of bad men to office.
In the first stanza we have the first intimation of the doctrine first instilled into all Chinese children at school at the present time and for centuries back, that man is born good, but deteriorates as life goes on.
The remaining stanzas afford an excellent instance of Chinese obliqueness in the way of putting things. King Li is warned by the warning that Wăn gave formerly to the last sovereign of the Yin-Shang dynasty. There was great boldness, however, in this, for the comparison is with one who is looked upon as China’s worst emperor, and Wăn had been put into prison for his remonstrance.]
[The king’s address to the dead]:—
[The king’s address to the dead]:—
[Shang,—also called Yin, and Yin-Shang, as appears elsewhere in this volume,—was the dynasty that preceded Chow. As in the case of the Chow poems, only certain kings are singled out from the many. Of these T‘ang, the founder of the dynasty, naturally has the chief place. There are said to have been seven poems, in addition to the following five, in existence at the beginning of the eighth century bc, but they appear not to have reached the hands of Confucius.]
[There is no variation of rhymes in the original in any stanza except the last; and this peculiarity is here preserved.]
The name Shi King is explained on the title-page, Shi meaning poetry or verse, and King a classic. There are several “King” in ancient Chinese lore, but the Shi and the Shu (History) are the principal.
It has of late been doubted, chiefly on account of their “elaborate and finished style,” whether these five are really older than the Chow poems; yet it is not clear what could be the object of forging any such. Each of them refers to matters which could have been of no importance to any other time than that which it commemorates.
I have been repeatedly cautioned by certain missionaries in China against the adoption in my translation of these terms, but I know not how otherwise to translate. Though the Chinese notion of the Supreme Being may be widely different in many respects from our own, and may be inferior even to those of Jews or Mahomedans, still there ought to be no more offensiveness in translating the terms Ti and T‘ien by “God” and “Heaven” than when Christians themselves adopted the Greek Theos and afterwards the very term “God” from heathen use.
IV. iii. 3.
N.B.—“Chow” and “How-tsih” should for uniformity’s sake be spelled with au, but they are too familiarly known in the East as here printed.
N.B.—These titles are assigned by the Translator. In the original the various pieces are known by the opening words only.
By “Chow” is here meant the Royal State, or crown-lands, as distinguished from the Feudal States around. It was the district in which the ancient Chow family had had their seat from bc 1325 to King Wăn’s time (1231-1135). It lay between the rivers Han and Wai (the latter a tributary of the Ho, or Yellow River). By “the South” we are to understand the States or country south of this Chow.
The song is supposed to have been made by the inmates of the Palace, the ladies of the harêm, who, it seems, were far from being jealous of her: see Ode 4. Her retiring, gentle ways and chaste disposition made her a proper match as the principal wife of this virtuous prince. For an account of Wăn see the whole of Part III. Book I.; in Odes 2 and 4 of that Book will also be found reference to his bride. Her name was T‘ai-sze.
There is a difference of opinion as to the name of the birds: some say they are ospreys or fish-hawks, some a species of duck, found always in pairs and inseparable.
Kwân, Kwân, onomatopoetic, like our “quack, quack”; but the Chinese commentators will have it that it is the harmonious call and response of the pairs of birds.
Strictly, an aquatic gentian,—marsh-flower; sought for its beauty and purity.
I give the meaning of these perplexing verbs as found in the old Chinese Dictionary, the Urh-ya.
“Lute” is here given for an instrument with a single octave of strings; “harp” for a larger instrument of the same kind with several octaves.
Bells and drums were much used in old China as musical instruments.
The creeper here specified (Kŏ) has no English name. It is a species from the fibres of which a material for clothing is made.
A Court-Stewardess, or Mistress of Ceremonies.
Referred also to T‘ai-sze.
The “mouse-ear” is a Chinese edible fungus; so called from its shape.
A cup made of rhinoceros’ or unicorn’s horn.
The creeper is here again the Kŏ. The bending trees would naturally seem to represent the husband, and the creepers the wife. But, the speakers being the concubines, some suppose that T‘ai-sze is the tree, and those ladies themselves the creepers, delighting in her society, and showing themselves absolutely free from jealousy.
Under the figure of the locusts—prolific and harmonious—a wish is here expressed for one of the blessings most highly valued by the Chinese,—a numerous progeny; or, if such were already the case with T‘ai-sze, then it is congratulation:—i, translated “may” in the third line, means strictly “it is fitting.” This piece is also supposed to emanate from the Court ladies, who, it is said, were willing even to count their own children as hers!
The maiden is not thus directly addressed in the original; but the above is otherwise exactly literal.
Under King Wăn’s rule men of all, even the humblest, classes who did their duty well and energetically were qualifying themselves for promotion. Two men are said in his reign to have been raised to the rank of Ministers from their rabbit-trapping.
This simple song is inserted to illustrate the cheerful industry of the time of peace brought about by King Wăn. The women go out collecting ribgrass or plantains for medicinal or other purposes after their ordinary day’s labours are over, and sing as they go.
King Wăn had brought about a great reformation in the manners of the people, which heretofore had been very dissolute. The damsels in the neighbourhood of the river Han could now roam unmolested; men could not mix even with the grass-cutters and fuel-gatherers, under the pretence of helping them. It was as if the broad Han and the long Kiang (the Yang-tse) kept them asunder.
A kind of southernwood is here named in the original.
The husband had been absent with Wăn (who at that time was in charge of military affairs) during the wars of Shau, the last and most tyrannical sovereign of the Shang dynasty.
Meaning that a year had passed, and spring had come again.
This last stanza is full of confused and certainly confusing metaphor. The bream’s tail is not naturally red, but is said to become so after lashing about in shallow waters: such was the husband’s sunburnt and beaten appearance when he returned. I have taken some liberty with the last three lines. In the original the characters literally mean
The Chinese commentators treat the words “house” and “flames” as representing government with barbarity; and Chu Hi, one of the best of these commentators, thinks that the expression “father and mother” refers, by way of contrast, to the paternal authority and protection of Wăn.
The lin was a fabulous creature, somewhat corresponding to our unicorn. It was supposed to appear only when a race of good rulers arose, as the auspice of all good. Its hoofs hurt nothing living, it did not butt with its brow, and its horn, though formidable-looking, was tipped with soft flesh. The song is in praise of King Wăn’s descendants and kindred. Surely the lin had come! The descriptive “chan chan” in each second line in the original has various meanings assigned to it, which may justify the varied translation given above.
Shâu was a feudal State west of the Chow of last Book, and adjoining it. Both together were originally one district, known as K‘i-Chow. “The South” refers to the lands south of Shâu.
The cockney rhyme must be pardoned; the words are a literal rendering.
The Ode is said to illustrate the influence of the reforms of King Wăn. The wife of a feudal prince is here praised for her diligence in preparing for her husband’s offerings in the ancestral temple.
The white southernwood.
Different seasons of the year are thus poetically referred to in the opening lines of each verse. The ferns were edible ones.
Further illustrating the reformations made by King Wăn. The women by the new rules are able to protect themselves against forcible seizure and marriage. Dr. Legge thus cites the account given by an ancient writer of the origin of these lines: “A lady of Shin was promised in marriage to a man of Fung. The ceremonial offerings from his family, however, were not so complete as the rules required; and when he wished to meet her and convey her home, she and her friends refused to carry out the engagement. The other party brought the case to trial, and the lady made this Ode, asserting that while a single ceremony was not complied with, she would not allow herself to be forced from her parent’s house.” The language of the piece is, however, very difficult and obscure.
Wu kiâ, lit., “without home”, but the commentators twist it into meaning “without going through the rites of engagement and betrothal.”
Kiâ shih puh tsuh;—“kiâ shih” often stands for husband and wife, and “puh tsuh” (lit., not sufficient) may simply mean “not quite.”
These seem to be the meanings of kih and tsung, as variations from the p‘i, the woolly skin of the first stanza. The idea of the writer seems to be that, however faded and worn these garments were, they still retained and exhibited entire their dignity and self-respect.
The husband being constantly called forth for military expeditions, the wife is led to think of him by the occurrence of storms, to which he must be exposed.
Lit., “callings in life are various.” The ladies of the bed-chamber, or inferior wives,—quasi servants,—are here represented, like those in Book I. (Odes 1 and 4), as recognizing their position, and as being free from envy of the lady who occupies the rank of “first wife.”
The words are put into the mouths of some Prince’s concubines. The new wife was at first jealous of these, but afterwards, owing, it is said, to the example of T‘ai-sze in King Wăn’s household, she ceased to be so.
Helping words are used in the translation, to give more clearly the idea in these lines of separation and reunion.
Native expositors find here an instance of maidenly modesty and virtue (another result of Wăn’s beneficent rule); but who will take the concluding lines in this light?
Lit., like a jewel.
The name “Ki,” in the original, was the surname of the House of Chow.
This was doubtless the son of one of the feudal lords or princes. Such marriages tended to strengthen the union of the States and the throne.
Tsow Yu was the name of a fabulous beast resembling a tiger, supposed to appear only in the time of princes of rare benevolence and uprightness. There is a later explanation of the term, which makes it the name of a celebrated hunter; but the old view is more probably the right one.
It is very probable that the first five Odes in this Book, and the third of the Odes of Wei (Bk. V.), are to be taken as referring to the same lady,—the wife of Duke Ch‘wang, of Wei (who ruled that state bc 756-734). Putting the six together, and the last first—as the Epithalamium—we have part of the story of this admirable and beautiful lady (Ch‘wang Kiang), as given in one or two histories of those times. The chief points in that story may be stated here. Ch‘wang Kiang had had the misfortune to be childless, and was in consequence rudely treated, and at length supplanted by another wife. The second wife, another lady of rank, bore a son, but he died in childhood. There was, however, another son (Hwan) by a concubine, the cousin of Ch‘wang Kiang, whom the duke looked upon as his successor, and Ch‘wang Kiang, at his wish, readily adopted the child as her own. On the death of the duke, a third son, Chow-Yu, the child of a concubine of meaner birth, brought trouble into the family, and in course of time murdered Hwan, and tried, but without success, to usurp his position.
The lamentations in many of these Odes are the usual tale of the misery resulting upon Eastern polygamy and concubinage; yet they reveal much that is noble and good in the character of the lady Ch‘wang.
See Ode 4. The reference to the sun and moon changing positions seems to point to her own abandonment for another.
This is truly Chinese. Ch‘wang Kiang feels her degraded position, and the expression of her grief takes a very metaphorical turn. Green is a colour less esteemed than yellow. All things are inverted, and out of place.
Lit., I muse upon the ancients,—i.e., the examples of great women of old time.
Grass-cloth. She must even now wear a cold dress in cold weather.
The supplanted wife seems to have lived harmoniously, and even very amicably, with the lady who took her place. In this Ode she pours out her grief at the departure of the latter, who after the murder of her son Hwan returned home to her parents.
Chung is properly the “second” sister or daughter. Her name was Tai Kwei.
Lit., the former lord. From this we learn that the husband was now dead.
This and the following piece ought properly to have been placed before Ode 3.
A city in Wei.
Chow-yu (see note on Ode 1 of this Book), after his murder of Hwan, found the people disaffected towards him, and sought popularity by directing an expedition against Ch‘in, in the South, for which he obtained the co-operation of these two States, Ch‘in and Sung.
Seven sons accuse themselves of being the cause of their mother’s discontent and fretfulness. It is supposed the fault was her own, and that, although having so many sons, she desired more; and the sons, in making these lines, and laying the blame on themselves, wished delicately to recall her to a sense of duty. The Ode is said by the Chinese commentators to illustrate the licentious manners of Wei. The opening lines of each verse point, by way of contrast, to the glad content of nature all around her.
The wife of some officer tells of their mutual regret at his absence on foreign service.
The husband’s comrades.
i.e., the gourds (the shells of which were used in crossing rivers) were not yet ripe.
The proper custom, when a man wished to have a day fixed for the bringing home of his bride, was to send a live goose to her parents’ house at the early dawn.
Marriages took place in the spring, and the ceremony of sending the goose was to be observed some time before, ere the winter’s ice began to break up. It may be that this explains the allusion to the swollen ford.
The whole piece is very difficult of interpretation, and I see in it no more than the expostulation of a lady against her lover, who seems to have desired to dispense with the usual formalities.
In explanation of this piece we are told that in the time of Duke Swân, of Wei, the chief of the adjoining state of Li had been driven out of his territory by the Tih hordes, and had sought help in Wei; but was long detained there by false promises, and was reduced to great straits, and evidently treated with indignity. His officers, while showing attachment to him, complain of his hardships and their own, and urge him to return to Li.
See note on the last Ode. The officers of the Chief of Li complain of the delay and indifference of their brother officers of Wei in their extremity.
Lit., O ye younger and elder uncles.
Satire. The Duke of Wei was employing his best men as buffoons.
These refer to various dances. See I. vi. 3, and II. vi. 4.
In the West-country was the seat of Chow, where the rulers knew better than to use such a man as this merely as a dancer.
A princess of Wei, married to the chief of some other State, desires to visit her native land. This it would have been permissible to do, had her parents been still living; but these being dead, she could not do so. She forms her plans for the journey, and thinks that a visit to her relatives might not be objected to, but again shrinks back in doubt as to the propriety of so doing.
One of the chief rivers of Wei.
The ladies of the palace, who had come with her.
Places in Wei through which she had passed on her wedding journey. The terms translated “god-speed cup” refer to the parting feast which was usual on the return of the escorting friends. At this feast an offering was first made to propitiate “the spirits of the way.”
Lit., “I think of the Fei-ts‘ün, and for it am perpetually sighing.” Fei-ts‘un is said to be the name of a river in Wei; but the words signify fertile springs.
Cities of Wei. We have met with the latter in Ode 6.
An officer of Wei, hard pressed by work and poor pay, sets forth his grievances and his meek submission to them as the will of Heaven, yet slyly means the whole to be a rebuke to the Governwent. “Passing out by the north gate” is an apt introduction to what follows, as symbolizing the way to cold and darkness. Cf. beginning of next Ode.
In a time of tyranny and confusion in Wei, the peasants felt compelled to emigrate to another State.
The opening lines are merely symbolical of the oppression felt by the people.
The fox and the crow were regarded as ill omens.
This is said to be directed against the times; therefore, according to this view, the opening words, “the modest maiden,” must be understood from the lover’s point of view.
The city wall.
Duke Swân, one of the most dissolute of the rulers of Wei, had contracted for the marriage of his son Kĭ with a lady of T‘si. But when the father saw her, he became so enamoured of her beauty that he took her himself, and lodged her in a tower which he caused to be built on an island in the Ho. She is afterwards known by the name of Swân-Kiang.
Quite a romantic story is attached to this piece, which may be told in the words of the commentator Chu-Hi. Swân-Kiang (see note on last Ode) became the mother of two sons, Sheu and Sŏ. Sŏ and his mother brought some charge against Kĭ, the son of a former wife of the Duke (see again note to last Ode); and the Duke, believing it, sent him on some errand to T‘si, and employed some ruffians to waylay and murder him. Sheu heard of this, and warned Kĭ of his danger. Kĭ answered: “The Duke has given me a command, and I cannot disobey it.” Whereupon Sheu secretly disguised himself and took the journey himself, and was killed in the place of his brother. When Kĭ came to the spot he cried: “The Duke gave orders that I should be killed. What wrong has Sheu committed?” The murderers killed him also. The country folks were hurt at this, and made this Ode.
On the name Yung see note on I. iii. page 54.
The widow’s name is given as Kung-Kiang. Her husband, Kung-poh, son of the Marquis Hi (bc 854-813), died early, and her mother wished her to marry again, contrary to what she regarded as right and proper. She made a solemn vow to remain true to her departed husband, and here commemorates the fact.
During the lifetime of the parents, sons wore their hair in two tufts over the temples.
, Mu ya t‘ien chi. Cf. II. v. 8, last line of 4th stanza.
The “wrong” meant here is re-marriage. To abstain from this “wrong” was, and is still accounted a great virtue in China.
Contrast with the last. Swân-Kiang (see on I. iii. 18) was now a widow, and had consented to live with Hwan, the son of her late husband by a former wife. The people condemned this as incest, but dared only speak of it indirectly.
I have coined this name for a prickly creeper which has not yet, so far as I know, been identified.
Tuh () here to recite, or hum over.
Satire on Swân-Kiang. The satire consists probably in the exaggeration of her beauty, but chiefly in the concluding lines of the first and second stanzas, which so quaintly spoil all that goes before and after.
The names of the plants seem to be of little importance, only introduced in the original to rhyme with the names of the women.
A district in Wei.
The eldest daughter of the house that bore that family name. So with Yih and Yung. All three were great names; why introduced here in a popular love song? Probably it is satire, and aimed by the people at their superiors.
The names in the last three lines are those of small localities in the district of Mei.
The wanton ones are Swân-Kiang and Hwan, living together as stated in note on Ode 2 of this Book. The piece is intended as satire, the words being put into the mouth of Sŏ (step-brother of Hwan), who was then ruling, and ought not to have permitted such conduct in the palace. Bitter satire it is, and truly Chinese!
Duke Wăn—about bc 660. Soon after the time of Duke Swân the State of Wei almost collapsed, and its capital was in ruins; but the country found a reformer in this new ruler Wăn, otherwise known as Wei (), a son of Hwan and Swân-Kiang.
Ting was a small constellation composed of some stars in Pegasus. Its culmination at the termination of husbandry-work signalled the proper time for commencing building operations.
Lit., measuring or computing by the sun; the aspect of the palace was thus determined.
This probably points to the duke’s love of music.
The walls of the old capital.
A city on the hills of Ts‘u.
Scil., to urge and encourage the labourers in their work.
I believe this is the correct translation of this concluding passage, though it differs from all I have so far seen. It agrees also with most native commentaries.
Said to refer to the change in the people’s morals brought about by Duke Wăn of Wei.
The rainbow was supposed to be the result or offspring of some irregular union between the male and female principles in nature (Yin and Yang). People were ashamed now to point at the rainbow; greater modesty was seen, and marriage unions were formed according to the established rules.
The meaning seems to be that irregular or unlawful love does not last long. This is contrary to our ideas of “a rainbow in the morning,” so far as the rain is concerned.
Fearing the time may never come, and taking the matter into their own hands, instead of leaving it to the parents.
See note explanatory of the last Ode. This refers to the altered tone of manners rather than morals. Man without manners was a self-contradiction; and no more should a man continue to live without them than a rat without skin, teeth, and limbs. In the original the words and (i, chi, and li), all represent, with slightly different shades of meaning, the same thing,—propriety in the outward conduct.
Lit., “See, the rat has teeth”; but the word for teeth often has the sense given above.
There are conflicting opinions as to the meaning of this Ode, even amongst the old Chinese interpreters. It seems to illustrate, further, the good effects of the rule of Duke Wăn of Wei;—showing the kind of welcome accorded to men of worth, and showing also that the visits of such would be attended with profit to those who entertained them.
It will be observed that as one of these worthies approaches a town the attendance upon him gradually increases.
A daughter of Swân-Kiang, married to the baron of Hiu, hears of the troubles in Wei, her native State (see note on Ode 6), and wishes to return home to condole and consult with her brother in his distress; this was not permissible, her parents being dead, and some great officer was despatched instead; but, unlike another princess of Wei (see I. iii. 14), she clung to her wish as being pardonable under the circumstances, and here expostulates with the ministers of Hiu, although yielding to their decision.
The “Mang” () is described as a “mother-of-pearl”