The Book of Songs





Textual Difficulties


The Classic of Poetry or Book of Odes is a collection of verses from roughly 1000 BC to 600 BC. It thus rather fully represents the first historical period in China, the Jo (Zhou) dynasty (1045-256 BC.) The Poetry Classic is more or less contemporary with the Homeric poems, and like them it is a collection of traditional oral poetry which achieved a nearly scriptural status in the first few centuries after it was written down.

            Confucius (551-479 BC) knew this collection in a form that at least approximated that we have in hand today, and quoted it with high reverence. When Confucianism was made the official ideology of the state, in the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), the poetry classic developed a body of traditional commentaries that brought it into line with its educational role. Every poem was explained as an allusion to this or that historical figure, with morally edifying conclusions. Any textual difficulty was explained fancifully away to arrive at the appropriate goody-goody pious sentiment. Later literary tradition, which included the earliest dictionaries (on which all the later ones were based) accepted the orthodox “Confucian” interpretations of difficult words and constructions.

            Historical and accurate readings of the Poetry Classic begin in the nineteenth century with western scholarship. Of the English translations, of which there are four, Legge still relies on the traditional glosses. Waley is free of these, but he emends the text with a trust in his instinct which cannot always be endorsed by our present knowledge of Ancient Chinese grammar.  Nonetheless, it should be noted that Waley’s solutions to the textual problems are almost uniformly brilliant, and my debt to him is enormous. Pound’s renderings, though the only ones which one could enjoy as poetry, give no clear idea of the meaning of the original text. Still, Pound’s notion that the flavor of archaic Chinese verse could be conveyed by pseudo-Elizabethan ballad style, is clever.

            The only scientifically researched and lexically accurate version is Bernhard Karlgren’s (1889-1978). This Swedish Sinologist, whose researches tower above those of his fellows, published his translation and commentary in the 1940’s and 50’s. Karlgren is unique in resolving the lexical problems by comparing the way the troublesome words are used in other early texts. Karlgren’s work should be referred to by all students who wish a clear, literal and didactic rendering with philological notes. In fine, Karlgren is a reliable trot.

            I hope that my translation will prove to be both literary and accurate. As regards the latter concern, I believe I may even have a little something useful to add to the scholarship: my understanding of the Classical grammar.  This permits me to resolve certain problems, and authorizes me to indicate where the text is really too corrupt to permit any reading.



Value of the Book


I am translating this book in its entirely because it is, arguably, the single most valuable book we possess from Ancient China. Poetry in ancient societies, like the novel in modern ones, provides the most vivid and truthful account of lived life. It tells what people were really like, enables one to almost breathe the air of another epoch.

            To approach the more profound and abstract texts, like the Analects or the Dao De Jing, without first learning their context from the Classic of Poetry, will be to miss much of their point and to mistake their tone wholly. Thus a full and readable rendering of this entire classic seemed the most useful service I could perform.  




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