Arthur Waley’s translation of the Chinese classic Book of Songs presents the oldest poetry collection in the world as not only a source of great insight from historical, religious, and sociological perspectives (which it is), but also as an enduring and vibrant work of poetry that still achieves intense resonance 2,000 years after its redaction.
The text is organized traditionally, with the collection’s 300 plus poems portioned first into the “Airs of the States” section (sorted by the different ancient Chinese states from which they were collected), then the smaller “Minor Odes,” “Major Odes,” and “Hymns,” which each deal more with court life in the ancient Chinese empire.
For my money, the “Airs of the States” provides the most compelling communication, presenting rural scenes rife with agricultural and natural imagery as well as a striking amount of humanity and longing. Reading these poems, it is easy to forget that most are over 2,000 years old—the narrators often meditate on lost love, their hopes for their offspring, hopes to improve their lives, and the difficulties that face their offspring. Similarly, much is revealed about the political situation at the time period, as the songs mention palace festivals, arranged political marriages, and military service in great detail. Furthermore, the “Airs of the States” collections betray the interrelationship between the people of each feudal state with their local government as well as their government with the imperial court, at times lauding a state’s contributions to the imperial guard and at others merely content to record gifts given in tribute to the court.
A collection like this would not be of much use without the impeccable level of scholarship brought by Arthur Waley and the additional translations and scholarship of Joseph R. Allen. Each minor subdivision of the text is preceded by a description of the known historical, geographical and political climate surrounding the origins of each collection of poems, which allows for better understanding of exactly why each poet makes the choices they do in terms of subject and message. Moreover, the helpful scholarship clarifies the discrepancies between life in ancient China and in today’s world. Above all emerges a picture of continuous cycle—small states are absorbed by larger ones, which in turn challenge or are defeated by the largest powers, and power is held until circumstances warrant another shift in the political landscape. Almost eerily, though, the concerns of average citizens remain focused on everyday living and the minor roles they play in the grand political dance that happens around them.
Waley’s translation also scores points for reminding us that these poems were also originally sung—though we have no way to know what the melodic components or actual musical accompaniment sounded like, his educated guesses constantly engage the imagination with what this 2,000 year-old evidence might have been like in real life. Although this collection is useful to scholars of Chinese history and religion (the texts are central to the moral philosophy developed by Confucius, for example), I’d argue that there’s no prerequisite knowledge necessary for their enjoyment—the insights to be found in these poems feel fresh as new.