The Classic of Poetry, also Shijing or Shih-ching (Chinese: 詩經; pinyin: Shījīng), translated variously as the Book of Songs, Book of Odes or simply known as the Odes or Poetry (Chinese: 詩; pinyin: Shī), is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, comprising 305 works dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC. It is one of the "Five Classics" traditionally said to have been compiled by Confucius, and has been studied and memorized by scholars in China and neighboring countries over two millennia.
It is also a rich source of chengyu (four-character classical idioms) that are still a part of learned discourse and even everyday language in modern Chinese. Since the Qing dynasty, its rhyme patterns have also been analysed in the study of Old Chinese phonology.
Early references refer to the anthology as the 300 Poems (shi). The Odes first became known as a jīng, or a "classic book", in the canonical sense, as part of the Han Dynasty official adoption of Confucianism as the guiding principles of Chinese society. The same word shi later became a generic term for poetry. In English, lacking an exact equivalent for the Chinese, the translation of the word shi in this regard is generally as "poem", "song", or "ode". Before its elevation as a canonical classic, the Classic of Poetry (Shi jing) was known as the Three Hundred Songs or the Songs.
The Classic of Poetry contains the oldest chronologically authenticated Chinese poems.The majority of the Odes date to the Western Zhou period (1046–771 BC), and were drawn from around 15 kingdoms, those which were mainly provinces and cities in the Zhongyuan area. A final section of 5 "Eulogies of Shang" purports to be ritual songs of the Shang dynasty as handed down by their descendants in the state of Song, but is generally considered quite late in date. According to the Eastern Han scholar Zheng Xuan, the latest material in the Shijing was the song "Tree-stump Grove" (株林) in the "Odes of Chen", dated to the middle of the Spring and Autumn period (c. 700 BC).
The content of the Poetry can be divided into two main sections: the "Airs of the States", and the eulogies and hymns. The "Airs of the States" are shorter lyrics in simple language that are generally ancient folk songs which record the voice of the common people.They often speak of love and courtship, longing for an absent lover, soldiers on campaign, farming and housework, and political satire and protest. On the other hand, songs in the two "Hymns" sections and the "Eulogies" section tend to be longer ritual or sacrificial songs, usually in the forms of courtly panegyrics and dynastic hymns which praise the founders of the Zhou dynasty. They also include hymns used in sacrificial rites and songs used by the aristocracy in their sacrificial ceremonies or at banquets.
"Court Hymns", contains "Lesser Court Hymns" and "Major Court Hymns". Most of the poems were used by the aristocracies to pray for good harvests each year, worship gods, and venerate their ancestors. The author of "Major Court Hymns" are nobilities who were dissatisfied with the political reality. Therefore, they wrote poems not only related to the feast, worship, and epic but also to reflect the public feelings.
Whether the various Shijing poems were folk songs or not, they "all seem to have passed through the hands of men of letters at the royal Zhou court". In other words, they show an overall literary polish together with some general stylistic consistency. About 95% of lines in the Poetry are written in a four-syllable meter, with a slight caesura between the second and third syllables. Lines tend to occur in syntactically related couplets, with occasional parallelism, and longer poems are generally divided into similarly structured stanzas.
All but six of the "Eulogies" consist of a single stanza, and the "Court Hymns" exhibit wide variation in the number of stanzas and their lengths. Almost all of the "Airs", however, consist of three stanzas, with four-line stanzas being most common. Although a few rhyming couplets occur, the standard pattern in such four-line stanzas required a rhyme between the second and fourth lines. Often the first or third lines would rhyme with these, or with each other. This style later became known as the "shi" style for much of Chinese history.
One of the characteristics of the poems in the Classic of Poetry is that they tend to possess "elements of repetition and variation". This results in an "alteration of similarities and differences in the formal structure: in successive stanzas, some lines and phrases are repeated verbatim, while others vary from stanza to stanza". Characteristically, the parallel or syntactically matched lines within a specific poem share the same, identical words (or characters) to a large degree, as opposed to confining the parallelism between lines to using grammatical category matching of the words in one line with the other word in the same position in the corresponding line; but, not by using the same, identical word(s). Disallowing verbal repetition within a poem would by the time of Tang poetry be one of the rules to distinguish the old style poetry from the new, regulated style.
The works in the Classic of Poetry vary in their lyrical qualities, which relates to the musical accompaniment with which they were in their early days performed. The songs from the "Hymns" and "Eulogies", which are the oldest material in the Poetry, were performed to slow, heavy accompaniment from bells, drums, and stone chimes. However, these and the later actual musical scores or choreography which accompanied the Shijing poems have been lost.
Nearly all of the songs in the Poetry are rhyming, with end rhyme, as well as frequent internal rhyming. While some of these verses still rhyme in modern varieties of Chinese, others had ceased to rhyme by the Middle Chinese period. For example, the eighth song (芣苢 Fú Yǐ[b]) has a tightly constrained structure implying rhymes between the penultimate words (here shown in bold) of each pair of lines:
Chinese Characters Mandarin Pronunciation (Pinyin) Cantonese Pronunciation (Jyutping)
Cǎi cǎi fú yǐ, báo yán cǎi zhī.
Coi2 coi2 fau4 ji5, bok6 jin4 coi2 zi1
Cǎi cǎi fú yǐ, báo yán yǒu zhī.
Coi2 coi2 fau4 ji5, bok6 jin4 jau5 zi1
Cǎi cǎi fú yǐ, báo yán duó zhī.
Coi2 coi2 fau4 ji5, bok6 jin4 zyut3 zi1
Cǎi cǎi fú yǐ, báo yán luó zhī.
Coi2 coi2 fau4 ji5, bok6 jin4 lyut3-6 zi1
Cǎi cǎi fú yǐ, báo yán jié zhī.
Coi2 coi2 fau4 ji5, bok6 jin4 git3 zi1
Cǎi cǎi fú yǐ, báo yán xié zhī.
Coi2 coi2 fau4 ji5, bok6 jin4 git3 zi1
The second and third stanzas still rhyme in Standard Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese, with the rhyme words even having the same tone, but the first stanza does not rhyme in Middle Chinese or any modern variety. Such cases were attributed to lax rhyming practice until the late-Ming dynasty scholar Chen Di argued that the original rhymes had been obscured by sound change. Since Chen, scholars have analyzed the rhyming patterns of the Poetry as crucial evidence for the reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology.
Traditional scholarship of the Poetry identified three major literary devices employed in the songs: straightforward narrative (fù 賦), explicit comparisons (bǐ 比) and implied comparisons (xìng 興). The poems of the Classic of Poetry tend to have certain typical patterns in both rhyme and rhythm, to make much use of imagery, often derived from nature.