In the year 1027 BC, King Wu of Zhou and his younger brother Jidan overthrew the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) by enlisting the help of the slaves and established the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC).
In order to consolidate the new state power, King Wu suppressed the rebellious tribes with the aid of Jidan, proclaiming himself “Son of Heaven” and supreme ruler of the country and its subjects. He then granted what land that did not belong to the state to the various feudal princes, on condition that they obey absolutely all his orders.
At the same time, the Son of Heaven initiated a system of collecting poems, in order to know what the people thought of him and to examine his own statesmanship.
Every spring and autumn, the Son of Heaven would assign and dispatch some officials to collect poems from the feudal states and have them set to music by court musicians before they were presented to him. In addition to this, officials of all ranks were also asked to present poems to the Son of Heaven, mainly to eulogize or to criticize him.
Later, the Son of Heaven gave orders to the musicians to sort out the more than 3,000 poems presented to him. Out of these was compiled an anthology of 305 poems which was given the title Poems or 300 Poems. This is the first comprehensive anthology of poems in China, which was renamed The Book of Songs (or Classic of Poetry) in the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).
Each poem in The Book of Songs was set to music and could be sung. Ancients classified the 305 poems into folk songs, ceremonial songs and sacrificial songs, according to their contents and the style of the music.
Folk songs, which were popular among the people, made up the best part of The Book of Songs, while ceremonial songs and sacrificial songs were used mainly on sacrificial or ceremonial occasions to eulogize the merits and virtues of the Son of Heaven and of his forefathers.
The contents of The Book of Songs reflect, with its wide variety, the political, economic, military and cultural life of ancient China during the 500 years or so from the early years of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BC) to the middle part of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476). It reveals the lives and the feelings of the people at that time.
Some of the poems describe productive labor, some express sentiments against exploitation and oppression, and some denounce wars. There are poems about love, marriage and family life. There are songs for feasting ceremonies, and there are accounts of historic events in the Zhou Dynasty. It can be said that The Book of Songs is a veritable mirror of society in the Zhou Dynasty.
The artistic quality of The Book of Songs is enhanced by the use of narration, analogy and association.
The poem “July,” for example, is about the weather of the four seasons, about the work of a peasant – tilling in spring, harvesting in autumn and hunting and building in winter.
It describes the work of a peasant woman – picking mulberry leaves, raising silkworms, dyeing and weaving and cutting and sewing. It depicts the day-to-day life of the peasants and the banquets of the nobles at year’s end.
Through a step-by-step description of the activities of each month in a year, the poems reveal the social reality of exploitation of peasants by the aristocracy.
Analogy is frequently employed in The Book of Songs. For example, to compare a beauty to white, spotless jade; an exploiter to a rat; or to use a line such as “a single day’s absence is like a separation of three long years” to show the deep longing two lovers feel for each other.
The first poem in The Book of Songs, “The Quacking Osprey,” is about a poet who, happening on an osprey quacking at the riverside for its mate, recalls the beautiful girl he is courting, and describes in the poem the painful, sleepless nights he spends turning and tossing in bed and imaginary scenes of lovemaking and finally marriage with his sweetheart. In the first two lines of the poem, “The quacking osprey, at the side of the river,” is seen as resorting to association.
Folk songs, ceremonial songs and sacrificial songs, narration, analogy and association constitute, as the ancients put it, the six quintessential elements in The Book of Songs. They also represent its main characteristics in terms of content and form.
Confucius was very fond of The Book of Songs. He used to recite the poems from time to time, and used it as a textbook for his pupils. Besides lecturing in his old age in the State of Lu after touring the other states, Confucius also edited the music of The Book of Songs.
In the Han Dynasty, The Book of Songs was formally accepted as a classic of the Confucian school.
The Book of Songs has over a long period of time been highly appreciated and has exerted a profound and far-reaching influence on the development of Chinese literature, especially that of poetry, over a period of more than 2,000 years. It has also served as important historical data for the study of ancient China from the early years of the Western Zhou Dynasty to the Spring and Autumn Period.