Chinese Odes

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Authors born between 1000 and 500 BCE

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The Great Preface

The Plum Tree

In Springtime

The Wind Blows

War Robs Us of Our Wives

A Large Man, So Much at Ease

The Wife of the Marquis of Wei

My Husband is Away on Service

I Pray You, Mr. Chung

The Willows at the East Gate

The Farming Calendar

Admirable Guests

None Equal to Brothers

On Drinking Too Much





  Some of the earliest poetry expressing warm enjoyment of human activities— gathering food, hunting, farming, courtship and marriage, and festivals—is found in the Chinese Book of Odes (sometimes called the Book of Poetry or the Book of Songs). These 305 poems, originating between the 12th and 7th Century BCE, mark the beginning of 3,000 years of Chinese poetry. There is a tradition that they  were first compiled by Confucius, who greatly admired them.

Chinese writing often approaches sensitive subjects in an indirect way. Even with folk songs such as these, the comment in Chinese poetry may be extremely oblique, and the reader is expected to do some work to understand what the poet is saying. This is generally the case where severe punishment (major mutilation, with the option of suicide) is imposed on writers expressing indiscreet thoughts. Thus a poet may express indignation not by referring to an outrage and its  perpetrator, but in terms of some natural phenomenon that fails to live up to expectation, such as a tree that fails to blossom, an unexpected storm or flood, or a starry constellation that disappoints in some way.

Broader aspects of the contents of the Book of Odes are discussed in the preface to this work, which provides a Confucian view of poetry. This is presented here, followed by a few of the odes that illustrate various aspects of the human condition.


The Great Preface

1. Poetry is the product of earnest thought. Thought cherished in the mind becomes earnest; exhibited in words, it becomes poetry.

2. The feelings move inwardly, and are embodied in words. When words are insufficient for them, recourse is made to sighs and exclamations. When sighs and exclamations are insufficient for them, recourse is made to the prolonged utterances of song. When those prolonged utterances of song are insufficient for them, unconsciously the hands begin to move and the feet to dance.

3. The feelings go forth in sounds. When those sounds are artistically combined, we have what is called musical pieces. The style of such pieces in an age of good order is quiet, going on to be joyful―the government is then a harmony. The style in an age of disorder is resentful, going on to the expression of anger―the government is then a discord. The style, when a state is going to ruin, is mournful, with the expression of retrospective thought―the people are then in distress.

4. Therefore, correctly to set forth the successes and failures of government, to move heaven and earth, and to excite the spirit to action, there is no readier instrument than poetry.

5. By poetry the former kings regulated the duties of husband and wife, effectually inculcated filial obedience and reverence, secured attention to all the relations of society, adorned the influence of instruction, and transformed manners and customs.


6   The Plum Tree


Though plums are dropping from the tree,

Two thirds of them remain!

For men who look for one like me

Now might be the time


The plums are dropping from the tree;

Two thirds of them are gone!

For men who look for one like me,

Now truly is the time.


All plums are from the plum-tree gone;

My basket has them here.

O that the men who long for me

Would whisper in my ear!



7    In Springtime


In the wild a deer lies dead,

wrapped around with strong white grass.

There is a young woman full of spring,

And a fine young man would make her blush.


In the forest of scrubby oaks,

In the wild a deer lies dead,

Bound around with strong white grass.

There is a young woman like a gem.


Go slowly, she  says, gently, gently;

Do not move my handkerchief;

Do not make my pet dog bark.



8    The Wind Blows


The wind blows and its blast is fierce.

He looks at me and smiles,

But dissolute and scornful words,

Convey the smile of pride.

In the center of my heart I grieve.


The wind blows, raising clouds of dust.

Kindly he seems willing to be with me;

But he neither comes nor goes.

Long, long, I think of him.


The wind blew, and the clouds went on;

Before a day is gone, the clouds are back.

I awake, and cannot sleep;

I think of him, and gasp.


Nothing but clouds and darkness now,

And the thunder mutters over all.

Wide awake and far from sleep,

I think of him, my heart a cloud of pain.



9   War Robs Us of Our Wives


Hear the roll of our drums!

See how we strut, brandishing weapons!

Others work the fields or fortify the city;

We alone march to the south.


We followed the lead of Sun Tsze-chung,

Achieving peace with Ch'in and Sung,

But he did not lead us back to our fields,

And so drove sadness into our hearts.


Here we stay; here we stop;

Here we lose our horses;

And we have to seek for them,

Among the trees of a forest.


To our wives we pledged our word.

We held their hands―

We were to grow old with them:

Together for life or for death,

No matter what the end.


Alas for our separation!

We have no prospect of life.

Alas for our promise!

We cannot make it good.



10   A Large Man, So Much at Ease


He has raised his hut by the stream in the valley,

—That large man, so much at his ease.

Alone he sleeps, and wakes, and talks.

He swears he will never forget this joy.


He has raised his hut in the bend of the hill,

—That large man, with such an indifferent air.

Alone, he sleeps and wakes, and sings.

He swears he will never pass from this spot.


He has raised his hut on the level height,

—That large man, so self collected.

Alone, he sleeps and wakes, and sleeps again.

He swears he will never tell of his delight.



11    The Wife of the Marquis of Wei


Large she was and tall,

In an embroidered robe, a simple garment over.

The daughter of the marquis of' Ts'e,

The wife of the marquis of Wei,

The sister of the heir-son of Ts'e,

The sister-in-law of the marquis of Hing,

The viscount of T'an her brother-in-law.


Her fingers were like blades of young white-grass;

Her skin was like congealed ointment;

Her neck was like the tree-grub;

Her teeth were like melon seeds;

Her forehead cicada-like;

her eyebrows like antennae of the silkworm moth;

What dimples, as she artfully smiled!

How lovely her eyes, with tile black and white so well defined!


Large was she and tall,

When she halted in the cultivated suburbs.

Strong looked her four horses,

With the red ornaments so rich about their bits.

In her carriage, with pheasant feather screens,

she proceeds to court.

Time to leave early, men of great office.

Do not make the marquis fatigued!


The waters of the Ho, wide and deep,

Flow northward in majestic course.

The nets are dropt into them with a plashing sound,

Among shoals of sturgeon, large and small,

While the rushes and sedges are rank about.

Splendidly adorned were her sister ladies;

Martial looked the attendant officers.



12    My Husband is Away on Service


My husband is away on service,

I know not when he will return.

Where is he now?

The fowls roost in their holes in the walls;

And in the evening of the day,

The goats and cows come down,

But my husband is away.

How can I but keep thinking of him?


My husband is away on service,

Not just for days or months.

When will he come back to me?

The fowls roost on their perches;

And in the evening of the day,

The goats and cows come down to home;

But my husband is away on service.

Oh if he be but kept from hunger and thirst!



13    I Pray You, Mr. Chung


I pray you, Mr. Chung,

Do not come leaping into my hamlet;

Do not break my willow trees.

Do I care for them?

No, but I fear my parents.

You, O Chung, are to be loved,

But the words of my parents

Are also to be feared.


I pray you, Mr. Chung,

Do not come leaping over my wall;

Do not break my mulberry trees.

Do I care for them?

No, but I fear the words of my brothers.

You, O Chung, are to be loved,

But the words of my brothers

Are also to be feared.


I pray you, Mr. Chung,

Do not come leaping into my garden;

Do not break my sandal trees.

Do I care for them?

No, but I dread the talk of people.

You, O Chung, are to be loved,

But the talk of people

Is also to be feared.



14 The Willows at the East Gate


On the willows at the east gate,

The leaves are very luxuriant.

The evening was the time agreed on,

And the morning star is shining bright.


On the willows at the east gate,

The leaves are dense.

The evening was the time agreed on,

And the morning star is shining bright.



15 The Farming Calendar


With the spring days the warmth begins,

And the oriole utters its song.

The young women take their deep baskets,

And go along the small paths,

Looking for the tender mulberry leaves.

As the spring days lengthen out,

They gather in crowds the white southernwood.

That young lady's heart is wounded with sadness,

For she will soon be going with one of our princes as his wife.


In the seventh month the Fire Star passes the meridian;

In the eighth month are the sedges and reeds.

In the silkworm month they strip the mulberry branches of

their leaves,

And take their axes and hatchets,

To lop off those that are distant and high,

Only stripping the young trees of their leaves.

In the seventh month, the shrike is heard;

In the eighth month, they begin their spinning—

They make dark fabrics and yellow.

Our red manufacture is very brilliant,

It is for the lower robes of our young princes.

In the fourth month, the small grass is in seed.

In the fifth, the cicada gives out its note.

In the eighth, they reap.

In the tenth, the leaves fall.

In the days of our first month, they go after badgers,

And take foxes and wild cats,

To make furs for our young princes.

In the days of our second month, they have a general hunt,

And proceed to keep up the exercises of war.

The boars of one year are for themselves;

Those of three years are for our prince.


In the ninth month, they prepare the vegetable gardens for

their stacks,

And in the tenth they convey the sheaves to them;

The millets, both the early sown and the late,

With other grain, the hemp, the pulse, and the wheat.

"O my husbandmen,

Our harvest is all collected.

Let us go to the town, and be at work on our houses.

In the day time collect the grass,

And at night twist it into ropes;

Then get up quickly on our roofs—

We shall have to recommence our sowing."


In the fifth month, the locust moves its legs;

In the sixth month, the spinner sounds its wings.

In the seventh month, in the fields;

In the eighth month, under the eaves;

In the ninth month, about the doors;

In the tenth month, the cricket

Enters under our beds.

Chinks are filled up, and rats are smoked out;

The windows that face the north are stopped up;

And the doors are plastered.

"Ah! our wives and children,

Changing the year requires this;

Enter here and dwell."



16 Admirable Guests


With contented sounds deer call to deer,

Eating the celery of the fields.

Here in my  house I have admirable guests;

The lutes are struck, and the organ is blown for them;

The organ is blown till its tongues are all moving.

Baskets of offerings are presented to them.

The men love me, and will show me

the perfect path.


With contented sounds deer call to deer,

Eating the southernwood of the fields.

Here in my  house I have admirable guests,

Whose virtuous fame is shiningly clear.

They show the people not to be mean;

The officers have in them a pattern and model.

I have good wine. My admirable guests drink it,

enjoying themselves.


With pleased sounds the deer call to one another,

Eating the vegetables in the fields.

I have here admirable guests,

For whom are struck the lutes, large and small.

The lutes, large and small, are struck,

And our harmonious joy lives on and on.

I have good wine, to feast and make glad

the hearts of my admirable guests.



17 None Equal to Brothers


The flowers of the cherry tree–

Are they not gorgeously displayed?

Of all the men in the world

There are none equal to brothers.


On the dreaded occasions of death and burial,

It is brothers who greatly sympathize.

When fugitives are collected on the heights and low grounds,

They are brothers who will seek one another out.


There is the wagtail on the level height;

When brothers are in urgent difficulties,

Friends, though they may be good

Will only heave long sighs.


Brothers may quarrel inside the walls,

But they will oppose insult from without,

When friends, however good they may be,

Will not afford help.


When death and disorder are past,

And we have tranquility and rest,

Although they have brothers,

Some reckon them not equal to friends.


Your dishes may be set in array,

And you may drink to satiety;

But it is when your brothers are all present,

That you are harmonious and happy,

with child-like joy.


Loving union with wife and children

Is like the music of lutes;

But it is the accord of brothers

Which makes the harmony and happiness lasting.


For the ordering of your family,

For your joy in wife and children,

Examine these thoughts and reflect,

Is it not truly so?



18 On Drinking Too Much


When the guests first approach the mats,

They take their places on the left and the right in an orderly


The dishes of bamboo and wood are arranged in rows,

With the sauces and kernels displayed in them.

The spirits are mild and good,

And they drink, all equally reverent.

The bells and drums are properly arranged;

And they raise their pledge-cups with order and ease.

Then the great target is set up;

The bows and arrows are made ready for the shooting;

The archers are matched into classes.

"Show your skill in shooting," says one.

"I shall hit that mark", responds another,

"Have another drink from the cup."


The dancers move with their flutes

To the notes of the organ and drum.

While all instruments achieve a harmony,

To please the meritorious ancestors,

Along with the observance of all ceremonies.

When all the ceremonies have been performed,

Grandly and fully, this confers a great blessing,

So that the descendants may also be happy!

They are happy and delighted,

And each of them exerts his ability.

A guest draws the spirits,

An attendant enters again, with a cup,

And fills it—the cup of rest.

Thus we perform the seasonal ceremonies.


When the guests first approach the mats,

They are harmonious and reverent.

Before they have drunk too much,

Their deportment is carefully observant of propriety;

But when they have drunk too much,

Their deportment becomes light and frivolous—

They leave their seats, and wander around,

They keep dancing and capering.

Before they have drunk too much,

Their deportment is cautious and grave;

But when they have drunk too much,

Their deportment becomes indecent and rude—

For when they have too much,

They lose all sense of orderliness.


When the guests have drunk too much,

They shout out and brawl.

They disorder the dishes;

They keep dancing in a fantastic manner.

For when they have drunk too much,

They become insensible of their errors.

With their caps on one side, and like to fall off,

They keep dancing and will not stop.

If, when they have drunk too much, they left,

Both they and their host would be happy;

But remaining after they are drunk,

Does injury to virtue.

Drinking is a good institution,

Only when good deportment goes with it.


On every occasion of drinking,

Some get drunk, and some do not.

Were an inspector appointed,

With a recorder to assist him—

But those drunkards in their vileness

Are ashamed of those who do not get drunk.

They give them no opportunity to speak

       And restrain the rest from greater abandonment.

The sober might say,

 "Do not speak what you ought not to speak;

Do not say what you have no occasion to say.

If you speak, drunk as you are,

You will produce a ram without horns.

With three cups you lose your memories—

How dare you go on to more?"




Adapted from The She King or The Book of Poetry, translated by James Legge. Oxford University Press, 1871.

  Selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000