An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

yaoyan 謠諺, ballads and sayings

Feb 8, 2022 © Ulrich Theobald

Yaoyan 謠諺 is a combination of the terms geyao 歌謠 "ballad" (songs not accompanied by musical instruments) and yanyu 諺語 "saying", and is thus a general term for popular types of micro-literature consisting of short songs, often with an education or moral intention, or sayings conveying basic knowledge in a concise form. As traditional Chinese life was characterized by the rural environment, there is also the specialized genre of "farmer's proverbs" (nongyan 農諺).

Even if some ancient sayings or ballads are traditionally laid into the mouth of mythological persons, the oldest written examples of popular ballads or statements are found in the poetry collection Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs". It was believed that the original collection was substantially longer than the transmitted version, but was abbreviated by Confucius who selected the most notable songs from the various regional states, the so-called "airs of the states" (guofeng 國風). Quite a few of them include proverbial sayings. This is also true for the "southern counterpart" of the "Songs", namely the collection Chuci 楚辭 "Poetry of the South".

Apart from these collections that explicitly assemble songs or song-like texts, many book from antiquity quote from popular sayings. Such are the song of the bow (Tange 彈歌) quoted in the history book Wu-Yue chunqiu 吳越春秋 (ch. Gou Jian yinmou waizhuan 勾踐陰謀外傳), or the hunter ballad (Lieci 蠟辭) quoted in the ritual classic Liji 禮記 (ch. Jiaotesheng 郊特性).

Quotation 1. The ballad Tange 彈歌 "Song of the bow"
Split the bamboo, tie the bamboo,
let fly the clods, and rouse the meat.
Translation: Legge 1885.
Quotation 2. Lieci 蠟辭 "The hunter ballad"
May the ground no sliding show, Water in its channels flow.
Insects to keep quiet now; Only in the fens weeds grow!
Translation: Legge 1885.

A large part of sayings and ballads allegedly date from oldest times, but were recorded in books compiled much later. It can be assumed that at least part of them was on the one or other shape transmitted orally. The final, written form is surely not the original shape of the text, and quite a few might have been inventions of later times. Examples for ballads from the oldest time are Jirang ge 擊壤歌 "Charging the soil", Qingyun ge 卿雲歌 "Song of the coloured clouds", Xiaren ge 夏人歌 "The people of Xia" or Maixiu ge 麥秀歌 "The wheat is flowering". The Jirang ge, allegedly dating from the time of the mythological emperor Yao 堯, goes (quoted in Diwang shiji 帝王世紀):

Quotation 3. The ballad Jirang ge 擊壤歌 "Charging the soil"
We work at sunrise, and rest at sunset.
We bore the well to drink and plough the fields to eat.
帝力何有于我哉! How could the emperor’s force be compared to ours?

The imagination of a common well or of the emperor's power dates from later times, and not the neolithic era. Another example of altering or forging is Qingyun ge, quoted in the history book Shangshu dazhuan 尚書大傳 (ch. Jiuyao mo 咎繇謨):

Quotation 4. Qingyun ge 卿雲歌 "Song of the coloured clouds"
Bright are the coloured auspicious clouds, interwoven and spiry,
Shining lucidly are sun and moon, refulgant and limpid.
Clear and light the sky above, brilliant over all the stars.
Shining lucidly are sun and moon, reflected in the One [Yu the Great].

Stemming from the very end of the Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), the ballad Caiwei ge 采薇歌 "Gathering wild peas" (quoted in Shiji 史記, ch. 62 Bo Yi liezhuan 伯夷列傳) is similar to the four-syllable verses of the Shijing collection, but surprisingly, the verses are interspersed with the pause syllable xi 兮, which is rather common in southern lyric.

Quotation 5. The ballad Caiwei ge 采薇歌 "Gathering wild peas"
I climb the western hills, and gather wild peas.
Replacing a tyrant with tyranny, [King Wu of Zhou] does not know his faults.
Shen Nong of old, and Yu (Shun), and the Xia, they perished over night – what quiet place will I go to?
How sad to die – after a life that step by step decayed.

Examples for similar ballads with southern influence are Chu kuang Jie Yu ge 楚狂接輿歌 "Madman Jie Yu from Chu" (in three versions, one quoted in Lunyu 論語, ch. Weizi 微子, one in Zhuangzi 莊子, ch. Renjianshi 人間世, and one in Huangfu Mi's 皇甫謐 Gaoshizhuan 高士傳) or Ruzi ge 孺子歌 "Song of the boy" (quoted in Mengzi 孟子, ch. Lilou A 離婁上).

Quotation 6. The ballad Chu kuang Jie Yu ge 楚狂接輿歌 "Madman Jie Yu from Chu"
O Phoenix! O Phoenix! How is your virtue degenerated!
As to the past, reproof is useless; but the future may still be provided against.
Give up your vain pursuit. Give up your vain pursuit. Peril awaits those who now engage in affairs of government.
Translation: Legge 1895.
Quotation 7. Ruzi ge 孺子歌 "The song of the boy"
When the water of the Canglang is clear, it does to wash the strings of my cap;
When the water of the Canglang is muddy, it does to wash my feet.
Translation: Legge 1895.

Even closer to the Chuci is the ballad Yuren ge 越人歌 "Song of the girl of Yue" from the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). The book Shuoyuan 說苑, where it is quoted, says that the ballad was originally sung in the language of the regional state of Yue 越, which was different from the Chinese of the Yellow River plain, or perhaps not Chinese at all. The Chinese version is of refined literary quality, even with word puns (zhi 枝 "twig of a tree" standing for zhi 知 "to know"), and close to the popular songs (minge 民歌) of the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420-589). In his collection Gushiyuan 古詩源, Shen Deqian 沈德潛 (1673-1769) compares the ballad with the elegy Xiang furen 湘夫人 "Lady of the River Xiang" of the Chuci collection (part of the sequence Jiuge 九歌).

Quotation 8. The ballad Yuren ge 越人歌 "The girl of Yue"
What is this night tonight? I’m steering a boat in the river.
What is this day today? I’m riding a boat with my prince.
I cover well my bashfulness, and he does not scold me.
My heart is confused, utterly, to meet my lord.
There are trees on the mountain, trees with twigs. I’m delighted about my lord, but my lord does not know.

Sayings or proverbs from high antiquity are very rare. The richest source in this respect is the history book Zuozhuan 左傳, which quotes sayings as:

Quotation 9. Examples of sayings (yan 諺)
心茍無瑕,何恤乎無家。(Mingong 閔公 1) If only one's heart has no flaws, why be concerned about not having a family?
狐裘尨茸,一國三公,吾誰適從。(Xigong 僖公 5) The fox-fur cape is unkempt. One domain, three lords: Which one am I to follow?
輔車相依,唇亡齒寒。(ibid.) The chariot and its running boards depend upon each other; if the lips perish, the teeth grow cold.
非宅是卜,唯鄰是卜。(Zhaogong 昭公 3) It is not the residence itself one divines about: what one divines about is the neighborhood.
Translations: Durrant, Li & Schaberg 2016.

How many of these proverbs or sayings once existed, cannot be determined, nor can their origins be traced. The first two examples show that the literary character of ballads and sayings is relatively similar, while the two other sayings have the character of aphorisms (geyan 格言). The refined style of all four, however, shows that they cannot date from oldest historical times.

Books whose core texts were compiled during the late Zhou period, like Lunyu, Mengzi, Xunzi 荀子, Guoyu 國語 or Zhanguoce 戰國策 include large amounts of ballads and sayings which demonstrated how important this literary shape was indeed to reflect historical events or issues of daily life.

The largest collection of traditional sayings and ballads is Du Wenlan's 杜文瀾 Guyaoyan 古謠諺 (1815-1881) from 1861.

Hong Zhanhou 洪湛侯 (1986). "Gu yaoyan 古謠諺", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 195.
Wu Feng 吳楓, ed. (1994). Zhonghua gu wenxian da cidian 中華古文獻大辭典, Vol. Wenxue 文學卷 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 135.
Zhang Quansheng 張全生 (1997). "Yaoyan 謠諺", in Men Kui 門巋, Zhang Yanjin 張燕瑾, eds. Zhonghua guocui da cidian 中華國粹大辭典 (Xianggang: Guoji wenhua chuban gongsi), 690.