Chinese Poems The Shijing And The Chuci

Chinese Poems: The Shijing And The Chuci Essay, Research Paper

Michael Yu

Chinese Literature 471

Professor Rolston


Ancient Chinese Poems: The Shijing and The Chuci

Two of the most important collections of poems in the long history of Chinese literature are the Shijing (Book of Odes) and the Chuci (Songs of Chu). The Shijing is the oldest collection of Chinese poetry; it dates from the 10th through 7th centuries B.C., during the Zhou Dynasty, and Northern Chinese feudal nobility are thought to have authored most of the works. The poetry of the Shijing is not very complex; rather it is characterized for its realistic subject matter, which tended to be the many aspects of contemporary life of the time. The Shijing has four sections: “Daya” (Great Odes), “Xiaoya” (Lesser Odes), the “Guofeng” (Airs) and “Songs” (Hymns). The collection has been cut to and added to through the years; it is said that Confucius from an original body consisted of over 3000 poems, selected 305 poems for it.

The Chuci, on the other hand, originates from South China. Much of the earlier works in it, such as “Lisao,” are credited to Qu Yuan (340 –278 B.C.), an under-appreciated official during the Warring States period kingdom of Chu. There is a religious theme in many of the poems of the Chuci, with shamanism as a prevailing theme, particularly in the “Jiuge” (Nine Songs).

Chinese poetry is difficult to understand and interpret, with the need for translation and cultural ignorance being two of the main culprits hindering a complete understanding. This paper will compare and contrast these two collections of poetry in order to gain a better understanding of Chinese poetry. In the attempt to do so, these two collections (with an emphasis on the Chuci) will be extracted, explored, and explicated.

The Shijing: “Great Odes” and “Smaller Odes”

The “Great Odes” consists of 31 poems. In general, the poems of the “Great Odes” take the form of 8 stanzas consisting of 8 lines per stanza. Many poems of the “Great Odes” are historical poems; the origins of the Zhou Dynasty and the great achievements of the Zhou rulers are reoccurring themes. Take “Spreading,” which is an account of the settlement of the “plain of Zhou.” Stanza three reads:

The Plain of Zhou was fat and fair,

Where thistle and buttercup tasted like honey.

There he started, there he reckoned, there he pierced our tortoise shells.

Stop, it was, and Stand, in this place they built houses.

In the later parts of this poem, there is a description of the Zhou city and the expansion of the kingdom by conquering surrounding kingdoms. There is almost an epic feel to this poem; the reader gets the sense that the founder (Dan-fu) of the Zhou is legendary.

“The Greater Brightness” is another example of a poem in the “Great Odes,” gives an account of how the Zhou came to power through good deeds, strategic marriages, and by following the plan from the Charge of Heaven to rule. “The Greater Brightness.” The beginning of the second stanza reads:

From Zhi the second daughter, Ren,

went from the land of Yin and Shang.

She came to marry into Zhou, in its great city, foreign bride.

Together then with Ji the King they did that work of Power.

Owen calls poems that celebrate the dynasty’s anointment by right of receiving Heaven’s Charge “propaganda of Zhou.” Some of this “propaganda of Zhou” is seen in the fourth stanza:

Heaven scanned the land below,

its charge was laid upon him.

In the first doing of King Wen

Heaven made a mate for him.

In the sixth stanza we read:

There was a charge from Heaven,

a charge for Wen the King….

I who preserve you, charge you

to join and smite the great Shang.

Later on in the poem, the Zhou would destroy the Shang. It is important to note that a lot of the poems in the “Greater Odes” focus on the king and Heaven, thus giving the poems a more mythic tone to them. The “Lesser Odes” also contains poems concerning military affairs, but as Owen points out, the focus of the poems in the “Lesser Odes” is not on the high ruler or Heaven, rather the spotlight is on the officers and soldiers. Political satire was also a common subject matter of the “Odes,” and there are even blatant complaints pointed towards those in power. The poems of the “Lesser Odes” can be in the first person, whereas in the “Great Odes” the poems are more in the third person.


The largest and latest section of the Shijing is known as the “Airs.” It is estimated that this section of poetry became fixed around the seventh century B.C. There is a scholarly debate as to whether the “Airs” represents the voice of the Zhou people, or whether the “Airs” came to fruition under the guidance of the Zhou feudal courts. If one looks at the works, this can be argued both ways. From the perspective of the Mao commentary, every poem is interpreted as in some way dealing with the “moral history of the Zhou Dynasty.” Therefore, any poem is seen as in some way as an allegorical reference to how the Zhou Dynasty dealt with dilemmas or attained greatness.


The “Hymns” contains forty poems. It is important to note that in the other three sections of the Shijing, the even lines rhyme. This is not the case in some of the poems in the “Hymns.” The poems in the “Hymns” are the oldest of the poems in the Shijing. Like the “Odes,” matters of state are often touched upon. There are also many ceremonial poems that were sung or recited during religious ceremonies.

The Chuci Tradition: “Encountering Sorrow”

The opening work of the Chuci is called “Lisao” (Encountering Sorrow). It is ninety-two stanzas long, with four lines per stanza. In comparison to other poems of the Chuci, this is a long poem, but justifiably long. Like many other works in the Chuci Tradition, “Encountering Sorrow” makes numerous references to flowers, herbs, and spices, but their interpretations are up in the air. The reason for this is partly due to the difficulty of translation. Owen contends that the floral characteristics could refer to “qualities of the deity, who is, on one occasion addressed by a flower name.” It is important to note the existence of this debate; how one interprets the flowers will have an impact on the meaning of the poem.

“Encountering Sorrow” appears to be an autobiographical work by Qu Yuan. Qu Yuan is like an ancient version of today’s postal worker. According to Wilt Idema and Lloyd Haft, “Qu Yuan became the archetypical model of the loyal but unrecognized official.” He is disgruntled, and this dissatisfaction evolves into torment. He was under appreciated by his king, and fell into the king’s disfavor as a result of rivals who slandered him! The poet says, “They made scurrilous songs, / they said I loved lewdness.” / Legend has it that he was banished from his homeland. He allegorically represents his exile by comparing himself to a shaman who is in love with a goddess and then wrongfully scorned and the affair is broken off. Qu Yuan writes in “Encountering Sorrow” of how the times were morally backwards; how the wicked are promoted and the good are banished:

Of these times the firm folkways: to be skillful in guile,

facing compass and square,

they would alter the borehole.

They forswear the straight line,

go chasing the crooked;

rivals for false faces,

such is their measure.

He is left feeling hollow. He yearns for a new match, a new lover. Surely, the events that had stripped him of his dignity had a very profound effect on him. Instead of lashing out by killing his co-workers, he killed himself: “Best to die promptly, to vanish away, / for I cannot bear to show myself thus.” Before doing this, Qu Yuan ascends to the Heavens and goes on a bizarre quest of fulfillment. He appeals to deities to aid him, but to no avail:

I tied there a message,

and bade Lady Mumbler act as my envoy….

she suddenly balked, she could not be swayed….

though beautiful truly, she lack right behavior,

I let her go then, I sought for another.

The events of his past life have made Qu Yuan very cynical. This creates a dichotomy between Qu Yuan’s actions and his attitudes. He is in search of an ideal that fulfills his yearnings, yet he is uncertain as to whether this ideal exists or not. Qu Yuan is given a good piece of news from the Sovereign spirit on where to find what he is looking for. He reaches his destination only to reach it rather anticlimactically. “My driver grew sad, my horses felt care…and would not go on. / In all the kingdom there is no man, no man who knows me.” He is left dejected and pondering: “then why should I care for that city my home?” Qu Yuan is truly tragic, but after thousands of years he is redeemed. Modern Chinese society views him as a patriot.

“The Nine Songs”

“The Nine Songs” contain shaman poems dedicated to different deities from the various areas of South China: “The Monarch of the East,” “Lord in the Clouds,” “The Princess of the Xiang River,” “Lady of the Xiang River,” “Junior and Senior Master of Lifespans,” “The Lord of the East,” “The River God,” and “The Mountain Spirit.” From the English translations, there does not seem to be a set form for the songs. Some of the songs are one long stanza, whereas others contain stanzas with a different amount of lines per stanza.

The “Monarch of the East” is a description of some kind of shaman ceremony where there are offerings in the form of food, drink, and incense that are given up to the Monarch and it seems to follow a ritual format. There are drums that are beaten, chimes that are struck, and songs that are chanted, all in attempts to bring pleasure to the deity. The spirit descends and the ritual is a success: the deity is pleased.

In the “Lord in the Clouds,” again the shaman has prepared him/herself in anticipation of the deity: “I have washed in brew of orchid, bathed in sweet scents, / many-coloured are my garments; I am like a flower.” The deity descends down, but this time the deity leaves the shaman feeling empty, longing for the deity. This longing that the shaman is left with introduces an erotic element in the relationship between the shaman and the spirit, something that is common in these songs.

In “The Princess of the Xiang River,” the “Princess” never actually has a meeting with the shaman in search of her. Along the Great River he searches for her, but all for naught. The shaman is left lonely and aimless.

“The Lady of the Xiang River” is very similar to the previous song. There seems to be a pattern forming here. The shaman is in search of a spirit for romantic reasons, it seems. The spirit seems like it is teasing the shaman, leaving the shaman at the end of each song sad and utterly dejected.

The patterns continue to form in “Senior Master of Lifespans.” In the previous songs, the shaman rides some sort of transport to meet the deity. In this particular song, the shaman rides a dark cloud. The shaman meets the deity, only to be abandoned in the end. Another reoccurring action seems to be the shaman picking a flower in hopes of giving it to the deity.

In the “Junior Master of Lifespans,” there is a twist to the conventional pattern that was being developed. In this song, the god handpicks the shaman; they meet without a word from the god, and following precedent, he abandons the now melancholy shaman.

“The Lord of the East” is a description of a shamanistic musical ceremony. There is no romantic meeting or yearning, and the shaman is not left in despair. Instead, the song gives a description of the spirit descending and observes the musicians and their various instruments. The spirit then ascends, shooting an arrow at a star, and drinks some cassia-juice. The spirit then descends again and heads east.

“The River God” is an account of an experience the shaman has with Ho-po, the river god. The two ride a boat down the Nine Rivers and the shaman is in an ecstatic state, but is saddened by thoughts of the conclusion of their journey. They go as far as the southern shore, but this is as far as the shaman goes. Ho-po leaves and heads east.

The Shaman in the “Mountain Spirit” is convincing herself that the spirit loves her. The shaman has come out on top of the mountain to meet the deity, but it seems as if the spirit is late. The shaman gathers flowers to give the spirit, but alas, the spirit never shows. This is a familiar theme; the shaman is left with the blues.


After reading works from both anthologies, it is easy to say that there are not many similarities between the two. Themes of the Shijing vary from the history of the Zhou Dynasty, everyday life in the Zhou Dynasty, to political satire and matters of state. Many of the poems have a mythic element to them. The works of the Chuci have a religious/shamanistic tone to them, and the importance of one figure, Qu Yuan, varies. One tradition developed in the North in the 10th through 7th centuries B.C., while the other developed in the South some four centuries later. A commonality that joins the two is the difficulty that scholars have had in both translating and interpreting the collections. Depending on who you ask, all works of the Shijing could deal with matters of the Zhou feudal elite, or they could all deal with the Zhou people, making the anthology a collection of folk poems, or maybe it’s a combination of the two. It is in contention whether the Chuci had anything to do with Qu Yuan, which if not the case, could alter the whole meaning of “Encountering Sorrow.” Even if evidence were dug up to support anyone’s theories, it would still be a daunting task to reach a consensus on the translations and interpretations of these two fine collections.

Haft, Idema, and Lloyd, Haft. A Guide to Chinese Literature. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997.

Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature. New York, NY:

W. W. Norton and Company, 1996.

Waley, Arthur. The Nine Songs. London, Great Britain: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1955.


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