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Lecture II — Folk Songs Ancient and Modern

I imagine Chinese folk songs are just as naive and unaffected as those of any other people with an advanced culture. The Confucianist, moralistically minded, has tried in vain to disguise our ancient odes and chants with far-fetched politico-religious exegesis. Their background was distorted. For a time we thought they had suffered the same fate as your Old Testament literature, but now we find them as lively as ever. So we turn to the Book of Odes at once.

What are the Odes? The present collection is composed of poems mostly of the twelfth to the sixth century B.C., just before the time of Confucius. According to a former belief, Confucius received from his predecessors a compilation of about three thousand poems from which he made a selection in accordance with his theories of moral decency and of the function of the state. Thus he handed down only a little over three hundred pieces. We have every reason to doubt whether Confucius ever insulted our intelligence to that extent. It was the custom of those days for the king in the first month of the year to send messengers to the districts where a wooden bell was rung, announcing that the royal recorders of songs and poems had arrived. Returning from those excursions, they presented what they had transcribed to the Grand Master, the king's tutor. The latter re-examined the rhythm and the music and transmitted the collection to the king himself so that he could learn from it how the people were reacting to the affairs of the state. This legend accounts for more than half of the poems in the present Book of Odes. The rest of the book originated with the court. They were composed on special occasions, such as state sacrifices and military expeditions; sometimes they were eulogies of virtuous premiers, celebrated warriors, etc. The poems that were actually collected from the principalities can be called genuine folk songs. The selections I shall present in this lecture are mainly translated from the Winds of the Countries, songs that drifted in the air.

The original text of the Book is almost completely in four-syllable lines, with slight variations here and there. This particular poetic form became practically extinct after the time of Confucius, and was revived either sporadically or purposely, but never with much success. My selections are made with two considerations in view. First, the patterns of the songs ought to be fairly represented. These vary from the simplest folk song pattern to that of the Chinese descriptive poem. Second, we should have a good sample of the motifs, the subject matter. We are dealing with plain, rural folks. What were they dreaming of? How did their imagination work? How did the technique of the folk song later lend form and motif to the poetry of the literary man?

In presenting the translations, I confess that I make no pretense to be poetic or even rhythmic in the Western sense. My only hope is to be faithful to the sense and at the same time to carry the mood of the original. For that reason I have not hesitated to resort to slang and colloquial expressions where I believe the original mannerism cannot be rendered in any other way.*


*  As in Lecture I, I chanted the original poems. I also made a feeble attempt to restore the ancient rhymes. The Chinese language has changed so much within the last thirty centuries that many of the songs have lost their characteristic rhyme-scheme when read with modern pronunciation.






The emotional tension here reached is as high as any to be found in the folk songs of the West. The theme is repeated three times with synonymous words that happen to rhyme with one another. I do not believe we can find another poem of exactly the same primitive type in the history of Chinese literature. There is no development of the theme, only redundancy perhaps, but that was meant to intensity the expression of pain and pining. I make no apology for being able to translate only one stanza.





*  Gatherers of mulberry leaves.

Back to the country, home to our mountains, in other words. The commentators assure us that the song was composed by a man who had lost favor in the eyes of his feudal lord and was hinting to his friends that they better retire in good time. The theme of the first stanza is repeated in the second with only slight variation in content. That form is typical of some of the Western folk songs also.






This is another love song - the love of woman for man. The verses rapidly approach a climax, the sort of school-girl exaggeration that you often find in your own popular songs.






Nothing needs to be said about the pattern of the poem. It represents a totally different attitude toward life. The king was calling out his army against the Huns. We had to fight the same war over and over again.






In this translation the first two lines of each stanza are adapted from Legge with slight changes.* This piece is a scathing satire voicing in a subtle but very effective way the condemnation by the people of the licentious imbecility of the feudal families. The subject-matter involves one of the worst scandals in Chinese court annals. The Duke of Qi (Ch'i) carried on an incestuous love affair with his sister before she was married to the Duke of Lu. A rent basket cannot hold big fish. So the Duchess returned to her maternal home, carrying with her also the broken basket. From then on the royal couple was detained in the Duchy of Qi until finally the basket was conveniently got rid of. I wonder whether you can sense our subtle humor. The technique of the poem is similar to that of the war song above. The poet resorts to metaphorical allusions as a means of satire which is typically Chinese.


*  She King (Shijing), p. 137.

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