The Classic of Poetry or The Book of Songs is a poetry collection of a variety of poems using vivid images of nature, agriculture and used extensive metaphors to give history lessons, to teach readers what Zhou society was like and tell folk tales about marriage, love, birth, death and many more real-world topics.
The Zhou Dynasty
The Zhou people overthrew their former allies the Shang in 1045 B.C.E. The power shifted to the Zhou by the new power referred to as “Heaven” because The Shang’s moral worth was thrown out the window and the rulers became tyrants and didn’t care about the people they ruled over. Zhou’s first rulers King Wen and his son King Wu were deemed moral rulers as a result of their conquest. The notion of rulers having to be morally just is reminiscent of the type of rule that the early sage rulers and the Zhou ancestors did. The sage rulers valued virtue and just being a decent human being like the Zhou did.
The Classic of Poetry
The Classic of Poetry consist of 305 poems each separated into three parts, “Air of the Domains”, “Odes/ Elegances”, and the “Hymns.” The poems were selected by the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius. Confucius praised the poems and felt that they served his belief that political order should be constituted by people being decent people and contributing to society. One of the ways these poems helped people contribute to society was to use poetry to give them a voice to critique bad rulers. These critiques in lyrical form helped influence society to speak out against abuse of power and to help keep the ruling order fair and just. There are many poems I could share with you on this post, but I have selected three specific poems. All three of these poems have an overarching theme of the role of women in Ancient Chinese society. I believe these poems give us a good look into the lives of Ancient Chinese women and how they too were oppressed.
XXIII. Dead Roe Deer
“A roe deer dead in the meadow,
all wrapped up in white rushes.
The maiden’s heart was filled with spring;
a gentleman led her astray.”
In this poem, the speaker is a young maiden who comes across a dead deer after being seduced by a gentleman. The author of this poem seems to make a distinct connection between the deer and purity. The dead dear is a metaphor for the maiden’s purity being tarnished since previously she had been seduced into a sexual encounter by this gentleman as evidenced by “a gentleman led her astray.” It’s also good to note that the “white rushes” seem to represent purity since the color white symbolizes purity in some cultures. All this to say that in this poem, purity or virginity seems to be an important aspect of the culture since the connection of virginity being tarnished is a literal dead deer. Since virginity is highly valued in Zhou society, that would mean that women would most likely have not been allowed to have sexual relations before or outside of marriage therefore reflecting that Zhou society had specific roles and rules for women. The author of this poem is anonymous so there’s no telling if this poem is an outside point of view from a male individual or a female individual criticizing and mocking the rule. But it does give modern readers a glimpse into how Zhou society regarded women in the circumstance of purity.
“Watercress grows here and there,
right and left we pull it.
Gentle maiden, pure and fair,
With harps we bring her company.”
In this poem, the speaker talks about a young man tossing and turning about a young girl he wants. The speaker seems to be another individual, that individual being a royal wife to the young man who is a Zhou king. The royal wife in this poem seems to be not very bothered by the prospect of her husband desiring another young woman. The royal wife’s indifference must be quite the surprise for modern readers but it’s not surprising in the historical context. It was very common in ancient Chinese society where men could be married to more than one wife. The royal wife being perfectly fine with this seems to be the behavior society would expect of women since muti-marriages were a common occurrence. The author for this poem is not known so it’s unclear whether the author is female or male. Whether it was written by a male or female it would add some interesting context to how society views the role of females.
LXXVI. Zhongzi, Please
don’t cross into my garden,
don’t break the sandalwood planted there.
It’s not that I care so much for them,
but I dread others will talk much;
Zhongzi may be in my thoughts,
but when people talk too much——
that too may be held in dread.”
In this poem, a woman tries to discourage her lover, Zhongzi, from infiltrating her house and entering her bedroom for some fun times. It’s very apparent in this poem that sex before marriage is a big no no in Zhou society. The woman, knowing her parents, her brothers, and society would disapprove of their intimate interactions, she tries to fend off her lover and explain to him why they can’t be intimate with each other as evidenced by the line- “but when people talk too much— that too may be held in dread.” This poem is yet another example of society deciding the role of women. Women must be pure, and they can’t have sexual relations before marriage. If they’re found out, not only will all of society dishonor them but so will their whole families. It’s safe to say that women had their own struggles to deal with in ancient Chinese society.
In conclusion, Ancient Chinese women shared the same struggles women from other cultures have had in the past. These poems show modern readers their struggles, but they also show many other things like moral lessons and historical events. Confucius picked out these poems himself and I wonder if he picked these poems to reflect his philosophy and his views on the world. If so, I wonder what his views were on women.
Puchner, Martin, Akbari, Suzanne, Denecke, Wiebke, Fuchs, Barbara, Levine Caroline, Lewis, Pericles, Wilson, Emily, editors. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume A, Fourth Edition. W.W. Norton & Company 2018. (p. 1314-1321).
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