An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Shijing 詩經 or Maoshi 毛詩

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs" (or "Book of Poetry" or "Book of Odes"), also known as Maoshi 毛詩 "Mao's (version of the) Book of Songs" is one of the Confucian Classics. It is a collection of three different types of songs originating in the Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) and the early and middle phase of the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), with a number of 305 poems. Of six poems only the names are preserved (Nangai 南陔, Baihua 白華, Huashu 華黍, Yougeng 由庚, Chongqiu 崇丘, and Youyi 由儀), while the texts are lost.

The Shijing and Related Texts
詩經 Shijing The "Book of Songs"
毛詩草木鳥獸蟲魚疏 Maoshi caomu niaoshou chongyu shu (Sanguo: Wu) 陸璣 Lu Ji
韓詩外傳 Hanshi waizhuan (Han) 韓嬰 Han Ying
詩經樂譜全書 Shijing yuepu quanshu (Qing) imp. ord.

Origin of the Text

The three types of songs are feng 風 "airs", ya 雅 "odes", and song 頌 "hymns". The 160 Airs are arranged according to the regional state they originated from (hence called guofeng 國風 "airs from the states"). The Odes are divided into Major Odes (daya 大雅) and Minor Odes (xiaoya 小雅) and arranged in decades (shi 什). The Hymns are religious chants sung in the ancestral temples of the house of Zhou, as well as Lu 魯, the regional state of the Duke of Zhou 周公 and the home state of Confucius, as well as the house of Shang, whose descendants lived in the state of Song 宋. The Airs of the states are folk songs, often concerned with a love theme. The Odes are said to come from the aristocratic class, the Major Odes being sung at the royal court, and the Minor Odes at the courts of the regional rulers. The songs collected in the Shijing are not only of a high literary value as the oldest songs in China, but they also reveal much of the activities of different social strata in early China. All poems are accompanied by a short preface (xiaoxu 小序), while the first poem or song is also introduced by a Long Preface (Daxu 大序), which can be seen as a theoretical introduction into the collection.

The oldest sources say that the court of the Zhou dynasty once ordered the collection of folk songs from among the empire, quite similar to what the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) did later with the establishment of the Music Bureau (yuefu 樂府). This is how the Airs came into being. The Odes, however, were said to have been submitted by their composers to the throne directly. According to records an original collection of songs included 300 chapters, a corpus which was compiled by Confucius, who chose the best from more than 3,000 pieces. In reality the compilation of the Shi 詩 corpus, as it was called through imperial times, began in the 6th century BCE. That the "songs" were music, and not only recited poems, is revealed by numerous sources. The oldest parts are said to be the hymns from Zhou. The Major Odes were written in the early decades of the Zhou, while the Minor Odes and part of the Major Odes were probably compiled in the late Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE). The major part of the Airs and the Hymns of Lu and Shang were recorded in written form during the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE).

Genres and Styles

Apart from the airs, odes, and hymns, there must have been other types of songs (altogher six, the liushi 六詩 "six types of songs" or liuyi 六義 "six meanings") of which no examples are preserved, namely the types of fu 賦 "straightforward" (which during the Han period reappears as the genre of prose rhapsody, which is a very descriptive and often didactic type of poem), bi 比 "simile, parable", and xing 興 "with an atmospherical introduction". The great Tang-period 唐 (618-907) commentator Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574-648) interprets those terms in the following way: feng, ya and song referred to certain formal compositional forms or functions, while fu, bi and xing were designations for certain methods of how the content of the poem was approached, in other words—stylistic devices. During the Han period, when only the four designations of feng, daya, xiaoya and song were used, they were interpreted as the "four beginnings" (sishi 四始) describing the emergence, flourishing, revival, and decline of the royal house of Zhou.

Table 1. Genres and Stylistic Devices in the "Songs"
Musical Forms and Genres in the "Songs"
feng "airs"
ya "odes"
song "hymns"
Stylistic Devices in the "Songs"
fu "straightforward"
bi "parable"
xing "atmospherical introduction"

A very good example for the xing type is the beginning of the air Guanju 關雎, where an image of nature is presented that has nothing to do with the main topic of the air, namely the search for an ideal spouse.

Quotation 1. The air Guanju
關關雎鳩, Guan guan ju jiu,
在河之洲。 zai he zhi zhou.
窈窕淑女, Yaotiao shu nü,
君子好逑。 junzi hao qiu.
"Kwan, kwan, go the ospreys,
On the islet in the river.
The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady:
For our prince a good mate she.
参差荇菜, Cenci xingcai,
左右流之。 zuo you liu zhi.
窈窕淑女, Yaotiao shu nü,
寤寐求之。 wumei qiu zhi.
Here long, there short, is the duckweed,
To the left, to the right, borne about by the current.
The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady:
Waking and sleeping, he sought her.
求之不得, Qiu zhi bu de,
寤寐思服。 wumei si fu.
悠哉悠哉, You zai you zai,
輾轉反側。 zhanzhuan fan ce.
He sought her and found her not,
And waking and sleeping he thought about her.
Long he thought; oh! long and anxiously;
On his side, on his back, he turned, and back again.
参差荇菜, Cenci xingcai,
左右采之。 zuo you cai zhi.
窈窕淑女, Yaotiao shu nü,
琴瑟友之。 qin se you zhi.
Here long, there short, is the duckweed;
On the left, on the right, we gather it.
The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady:
With lutes, small and large, let us give her friendly welcome.
参差荇菜, Cenci xingcai,
左右芼之。 zuo you mao zhi.
窈窕淑女, Yaotiao shu nü,
鐘鼓樂之。 zhong gu le zhi.
Here long, there short, is the duckweed;
On the left, on the right, we cook and present it.
The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady:
With bells and drums let us show our delight in her."
Legge 1871: 1.

An example for the bi type is the air Shuoshu 碩鼠, where scheming and exploitative aristocrats are compared to "large rats".

The air Qiyue 七月 proves an example for the fu type with an introduction, where, in a straight way, thumb rules for rural life are presented.

Quotation 2.
七月流火、Qi yue liu huo,
九月授衣。jiu yue shou yi.
"In the seventh month, the Fire Star passes the meridian;
In the 9th month, clothes are given out."
Legge 1871: 226.

Especially the Hymns, but also the Odes, can be used as historiographical sources for the late Shang and early Zhou periods. Information about institutional history, leisure time activities of the upper class, as well as the hardships of the life of ordinary people can be found. Many of the Airs are simple love songs, the most famous of which is the air Guanju, the first song of the Shijing.

Very typical for the airs and also for some of the minor odes, is the repetition of verses in each of the stanzas, a phenomenon which is known in the West in poems of the rondo type, but also in many folk songs. Another phenomenon very common in the airs are double rhymes within one word (dieyun 疊韻), like in the verse yaotiao shu nü 窈窕淑女 in the air Guanju, multiple or special readings (shuangsheng 雙聲), like in the verse cenci [instead of cancha] xingcai 參差荇菜 in the same air, and repeated words (diezi 疊字), like in the verses of the air Fengyu 風雨:

Quotation 3.
風雨凄凄,Feng yu qiqi,
鷄鳴喈喈。ji ming jiejie.
"Cold are the wind and the rain,
And shrilly crows the cock."
Legge 1871: 143.

A large part of the verses has four syllables, especially among the airs. The songs in the Shijing are the oldest examples for regular poems (lüshi 律詩) that later became so popular as. From a linguistic viewpoint the rhymes of the songs are an important help for the reconstruction of archaic Chinese.

An example for an ode is Qingmiao 清廟 "Hallowed temple"

Quotation 4. The ode Qingmiao
于穆清廟, Yu mu qing miao,
肅雝顯相。 su yong xian xiang.
濟濟多士, Jiji duo shi,
秉文之德。 bing Wen zhi de.
"Ah! solemn is the ancestral temple in its pure stillness.
Reverent and harmonious were the distinguished assistants;
Great was the number of the officers:
[All] assiduous followers of the virtue of [king] Wen.
對越在天, Dui yue zai tian,
駿奔走在廟。 jun beng zou zai miao
不顯不承? Bu xian bu cheng?
無射於人斯! wu she yu ren si!
In response to him in heaven,
Grandly they hurried about in the temple.
Isn't he distinguished and honoured?
He will never be wearied of among men!"
Legge 1871.

History of the Text

The Shijing had always attracted the interest of all groups of persons. Confucius once said that without the Shijing there was nothing to talk about. With many examples from the Shijing he even instructed his disciples.

During the so-called literary inquisition under the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇 (r. 246/221 – 210 BCE) the Shijing survived virtually without damage, certainly because most of its songs were mainly passed on orally, which is easier for songs than for prose texts. During the early Han period there were four different versions available: the Qi 齊, Lu 魯, Han 韓, and Mao 毛 versions. The three former were written in the modern chancery script style (lishu 隸書) and therefore considered as new-script texts, while the Shijing of Mao Heng 毛亨 and his son Mao Chang 毛萇, Maoshi, was written in ancient characters and thus considered to be from the old-text tradition (see old-text/new-text debate). For the Qi, Lu and Han versions there were "professorships" (boshi 博士 "erudites") established at the National University (taixue 太學), which means that they were the imperially acknowledged versions. The Lu version was already lost in the 4rd century CE, while the Han version survived until the end of the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126).

Table 2. Chapters of the Shijing
1.-160. 國風 Guofeng Airs of the States (160)
1.-11. 周南 Zhaonan Airs South of Zhou (11)
12.-25. 召南 Shaonan Airs South of Shao (14)
26.-44. Bei Airs of Bei (18)
45.-54. Yong Airs of Yong (10)
55.-64. Wei Airs of Wei (10)
65.-74. Wang Airs of the Royal Domain (10)
75.-95. Zheng Airs of Zheng (21)
96.-106. Qi Airs of Qi (11)
107.-113. Wei Airs of Wei (7)
114.-125. Tang Airs of Tang (12)
126.-135. Qin Airs of Qin (10)
136.-145. Chen Airs of Chen (10)
146.-149. Gui Airs of Gui (4)
150.-153. Cao Airs of Cao (4)
154.-160. Bin Airs of Bin (7)
161.-234. 小雅 Xiaoya Minor Odes (74)
161.-170. 鹿鳴之什 Luming zhi shi Decade "Deer Cry"
171.-180. 南有嘉魚之什 Nan you jiayu zhi shi Decade "In the south there are lucky fish"
181.-190. 鴻鴈之什 Hongyan zhi shi Decade "Wild geese"
191.-200. 節南山之什 Jienanshan zhi shi Decade "High-crested southern hills"
201.-210. 谷風之什 Gufeng zhi shi Decade "Valley wind"
211.-220. 甫田之什 Futian zhi shi Decade "Large field"
221.-234. 魚藻之什 zhi shi Yuzao Decade "Fish and water-plants"
235.-265. 大雅 Daya Major Odes (31)
235.-244. 文王之什 Wenwang zhi shi Decade "King Wen"
245.-254. 生民之什 Shengmin zhi shi Decade "Birth to the people"
255.-265. 蕩之什 Tang zhi shi Decade "Mighty"
266.-305. Song Hymns (40)
266.-296. 周頌 Zhou song Hymns of Zhou (31)
266.-275. 清廟之什 Qingmiao zhi shi Decade "Hallowed temple"
276.-285. 臣工之什 Chengong zhi shi Decade "Servants and officers"
286.-296. 閔予小子之什 Min yu xiaozi zhi shi Decade "Pity me, your child"
297.-300. 魯頌 Lu song Hymns of Lu (4)
301.-305. 商頌 Shang song Hymns of Shang (5)


A kind of commentary on the Han version, Hanshi waizhuan 韓氏外傳 compiled by Han Ying 韓嬰 (c. 200-130 BCE), has lived on, which was treated as a sub-classic writing ever since. The Qi version was lost during the 3rd century. The Mao version had been transmitted by descendants of Zixia 子夏, a disciple of Confucius. Mao Heng introduced this version of the Shijing to Han-period scholars, but it only obtained official status during the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) and was revised and commented by Zheng Zhong 鄭眾 (d. 83 CE), Jia Kui 賈逵 (30-101 CE), Ma Rong 馬融 (79-176) and Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200). The latter wrote a commentary called Maoshi zhuanjian 毛詩傳箋. The most important commentary is Kong Yingda's Maoshi zhengyi 毛詩正義. Today the Mao version is the only surviving one. The Neo-Confucian master Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) assembled all Song-period commentaries on the Maoshi and published them as Shijizhuan 詩集傳.

Legge, James (1871). The Chinese Classics, Vol. 4, The She King, or the Book of Poetry (London: Frowde).
Loewe, Michael (1993). "Shih ching", in Michael Loewe, ed. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China/Institute of East Asian Studies), 415-423.
Waley, Arthur (1996). The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry (New York: Grove).
Wang, Ching-hsien (1986). "Shih-ching 詩經", in William H. Nienhauser, ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 692-694.

Further reading:
Nylan, Michael (2001). The Five "Confucian" Classics (New Haven: Yale University Press).