An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

song 頌, hymn or praise

Mar 25, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Praise or hymn (song 頌) is a literary genre often used to summarize the achievements and qualities of individual persons or of their literary works. Most famous is its use in the sense of "hymns" at the ancestral altars of the ancient dynasties (the hymns of the Zhou, Zhou song 周頌, the Shang, Shang song 商頌, and the state of Lu, Lu song 魯頌), as seen in the Classic Shijing 詩經, where it constitutes one of the three great poetic genres.

The word and character song 頌 must not be confounded with the equally pronounced word song 誦, which means "to recite, to sing".

The word song /zǐwoŋ/ was during the early imperial period explained with the word pun rong /jǐwoŋ/ 容, i.e. the description of beauty and virtue. In the oldest function, song were used as announcements to the ancestral spirits, as seen in "Complete!" (Na 那) of the Shang hymns "The Hallow Temple" (Qingmiao 清廟) of the Zhou hymns. A second function was a report to a sovereign, like in the songs "Fat horses" (Jiong 駉) and "Strong horse teams" (You bi 有駜) of the Lu hymns. A third function emerged in the early imperial period for personal use, like the lamentation of Zhang Hong 張紘 (153-212), Tao hou aisong 陶侯哀頌 from the late Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE).

The use of song-type praise texts of imperial times differed from the early use and was applied for persons or historical events, like Yang Xiong's 揚雄 (53 BCE-18 CE) praise Zhao Chongguo song 趙充國頌 written posthumously for Zhao Chongguo, Lu Ji's 陸機 (261-303) Han Gaozu gongchen song 漢高祖功臣頌 for the deserving ministers of Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖 (r. 206-195 BCE) of the Han dynasty, or Han Yu's 韓愈 praise Zichan bu hui xiang jiao song 子產不毀鄉校頌 or Bo Yi song 伯夷頌, both written in commemoration of historical personalities (Zichan and Bo Yi). Some song-type hymns also praised martial efforts or good government, like Cai Yong's 蔡邕 (132-192) Jingzhao Fan hui qu song 京兆樊惠渠頌 on Mao Ling's 樊陵 (d. 189) construction of a canal and Yuan Jie's 元結 (723-772) Da-Tang zhongxing song 大唐中興頌 on the glory of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907). Sometimes, song-style hymns were playfully used to describe secular matters like in Liu Ling's 劉伶 (c. 221-300) Jiude song 酒德頌 on the "virtues of wine".

Song-style texts might be written in prose or in verses with rhymes, but were mostly using beautiful and refined language. Liu Xie 劉勰 (d. 522) says therefore in his literary critique Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 (ch. Song-zan 頌贊) that the genre of song was similar to rhapsodies (fu 賦) in its narrative character, but without the latter's "florid and excessive language". Instead, the hymn or praise had a "spirit of reverence and prudence" like inscriptions (jing shen ru ming 敬慎如銘), but lacked the latter's nature of serving as warnings or admonitions.

The word songwen 頌文 usually refers to four-syllable verses with rhyme. The word song is often combined with another literary genre of praise or eulogy, zan 贊, leading to the expression songzan 頌贊 (also written 頌讚, also called zansong 贊頌, 讚頌), which can refer to a literary text (also such incised in stone slabs), or be used as a verb. Other combinations with literary genres are songyao 頌謡 or songge 頌歌, when the character as a song is stressed, songzhu 頌祝 in case prayers or incantations are referred to, or songlun 頌論, when a prose text or essay with a final, summarizing praise is meant. The combination fusong 賦頌 joins long rhapsodies with shorter hymns. The words songci 頌辭, songci 頌詞 or songyu 頌語 denote the text of a hymn or praise.

In the religious realm, the word song is used for a Buddhist kind of hymn called jisong 偈頌 (ji /gǐɛt/ is derived from the Sanskrit word gāthā).

Somewhat different from this ancient use is the elegy Jusong 橘頌, which is part of the "Nine Declarations" (Jiuzhang 九章) of the Southern Poetry (Chuci 楚辞). It is superficially the praise of an orange tree, but as an allegory of the author or perhaps the figure of Qu Yuan 屈原 (d. 278 BCE). This elegy is also called Chusong 楚頌.

Lin Fei 林非, ed. (1997). Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 41.
Luo Zhufeng 羅竹風, et al. (1993). Hanyu da cidian 漢語大詞典 (Beijing: Hanyu da cidian chubanshe), , Vol. 4, 1148; Vol. 10, 219; Vol. 12, 271.
Qi Tinggui 戚廷貴, Liu Xiaoyan 劉孝嚴, Tang Shufan 唐樹凡, eds. (1992). Dong-Xifang yishu cidian 東西方藝術辭典 (Changchun: Jilin jiaoyu chubanshe), 1302.
Yan Jinghan 閻景翰, ed. (1990). Xiezuo yishu da cidian 寫作藝術大辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 23.