Monday, August 27

Reading assignment:  Verses From the Book of Poetry (start by reading the Study Questions on p. 19)

Today, we'll observe features of early Chinese society by focusing on a limited number of poems from the Book of Poetry, a collection that was compiled during the Western Zhou (1045-771) and early Spring and Autumn eras, probably reaching its present form by approximately 600.

We have seen, in the story of Han Qi, which supposedly recounts events of 526, that the patrician courtiers of early Classical China had not only memorized these songs, but had learned how to use them to convey subtle messages in ritually heightened settings, such as court diplomacy. The poems were, in this way, essential elements of Classical culture.  

In this regard, the poems function on at least three levels for us:  (1) The poems, read in their original contexts, capture some facet of early Chinese social, religious, or moral life, often facets of everyday life (love, courtship, marriage, farming, war) which we know little about from other sources. (2) Each poem was taught and learned with a culturally sanctioned interpretation, known to all who recited or heard the poem. Understanding a poem means knowing something about its canonical interpretation. (3) Each poem was used in certain specific types of contexts -- some were performed as parts of set rituals at court, ancestral temple, or village hall; others were employed as more often for the type of discursive interplay that we see in the Han Qi tale.  

In class, we will be concerned principally with (1) and (2). In class, we will look at a number of the poems closely, in order to answer questions of the type posed on p. 4 (especially #1 and 3, though you should think through all five questions as you prepare; please also give attention to the remarks about Granet's theories on p. 19). 

We will contrast the straightforward reading of the poems that we will do with the culturally sanctioned interpretations that constrained the way these poems were read during the Classical era. These readings, which often map the meaning of a poem against the background of the legendary history of sage rulers, gave the poems a highly politicized moral slant. These interpretations are now preserved in "prefaces" which appear before each poem in the Book of Poetry. To view the prefaces for the poems in the reading, please link to, print out, and bring to class the supplementary handout Early Interpretations of the Book of Poetry.