Study the Book of Songs

子曰:「小子!何莫學夫詩?詩,可以興,可以觀,可以群,可以怨。邇之事父,遠之事君,多識於鳥獸草木之名。」
Confucius said: “Little ones, why don’t you study the Book of Songs? The Book of Songs can inspire your imagination, provide a vehicle for self-contemplation, make you more sociable, and voice a complaint more effectively. At home it enables you to serve your father; further afield it helps you serve your lord. You can also learn the names of many birds, animals, plants, and trees from it.”

子謂伯魚曰:「女為周南召南矣乎?人而不為周南,召南,其猶正牆面而立也與?」
Confucius said to his son Boyu: “Have you studied the first and the second parts of the Book of Songs? Anyone who hasn’t studied the first and second parts of the Book of Songs will remain stuck as if standing with their face to a wall.”

Perhaps one day after finishing off the Analects, I will have a crack at the Book of Songs (詩經/shījīng), though given my current rate of progress I’ll probably have to wait until my next lifetime.

The Book of Songs was essential reading for the aspiring young scholar in Confucius’s time, and not just for the reasons that he mentions above. It also formed the basis of the formal language used in court and diplomatic language, as I wrote here. No wonder Confucius tells his son Boyu: “Anyone who hasn’t studied the first and second parts of the Book of Songs will remain stuck as if standing with their face to a wall.”

The first two parts of the Book of Songs (周南/zhōunán) and (召南/zhàonán) hat Confucius refers are about the relationship between a husband and wife. Some commentators speculate therefore that Confucius recommends these to Boyu because he is about to embark on marriage and a family life.

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