Classic of Poetry : The Mandate of Heaven, an Auspicious Marriage, and China’s Longest Dynasty

A Qing Dynasty-era at depiction of Queen Taisi
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By Leo Timm  | 

The “Classic of Poetry” contains the earliest known examples of Chinese literature. While its 300-odd poems, odes, and songs were compiled by the sage Confucius, the lyrics themselves come from different regions and social strata that made up the early Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C.–771 B.C.). Depicted are the lives of men and women, lovers and workers, peasants and rulers.

Confucius (551 B.C.–479 B.C.), who greatly admired the beliefs and customs of the Zhou people and kingdom, collected the works in order to record the ways of the ancients and to guide the scholars and leaders of his own generation toward a path of righteousness.

Though by now less well-known as compared to the later work of the Tang and Song Dynasty poets, the “Classic” holds key value if we are to understand the world in which the great classical philosophers and teachers of ancient China lived.

Even with the sensual and romantic element of the poem, it becomes clear that there are other considerations at work.

The first poem in the “Classic of Poetry”, the “Cry of the Ospreys”, is a romantic work that describes the marriage of the founding Zhou Dynasty monarch, King Wen, to the princess Tai Si.

According to some scholars, this virtuous, auspicious union laid the foundation for 800 years of Zhou rule— the longest reign in Chinese history.

All poems cited in this article are translated from “Book of Poetry”, by 19th-century Scottish sinologist James Legge, and posted on the Chinese Text Project website.

‘Cry of the Ospreys’

Guan-guan go the ospreys,

On the islet in the river.

The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady:

For our prince a good mate she.

Here long, there short, is the duckweed,

To the left, to the right, borne about by the current.

The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady:

Waking and sleeping, he sought her.

He sought her and found her not,

And waking and sleeping he thought about her.

Long he thought; oh! long and anxiously;

On his side, on his back, he turned, and back again.

Here long, there short, is the duckweed;

On the left, on the right, we gather it.

The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady:

With lutes, small and large, let us give her friendly welcome.

Here long, there short, is the duckweed;

On the left, on the right, we cook and present it.

The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady:

With bells and drums let us show our delight in her.

A Ming Dynasty-era of King Wen of Zhou(周文王)

The Union of King Wen and Queen Tai Si

One prominent traditional commentary about “Cry of the Ospreys” can be found in a Han Dynasty literary collection called the “Mao Shi”, which contains notes to works in the “Classic of Poetry”. According to this commentary, the romantic poem, which refers to Tai Si and King Wen’s falling in love and marriage, is meant to expound “virtues of the queen”.

Even with the sensual and romantic element of the poem, it becomes clear that there are other considerations at work.

The duckweed is a sacred plant that traditionally symbolised virtue and was used in ancient Chinese religious rites. The “modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady” refers to a woman of great virtue and refinement in addition to physical beauty.

The various instruments featured in the verses reflect the majestic nature of the union, as the drum and bell were, in those times, only considered fit for ceremonial use by nobles.

As for the ospreys, they were said to take only one mate, and the Chinese looked up to them as a symbol of marital fidelity.

Marital Life and the Virtue of Propriety

As the family is traditionally considered the cornerstone of Chinese society, proper marital relations were taken very seriously. Legend holds that in mythical times, the emperor Fu Xi created the sacred rites of marriage, offering humanity the stability of civilised life.

According to Confucius, upright governance rested upon a foundation of upright conduct between men and women. This ties into the sage’s teachings on the cardinal virtue of propriety (礼

To maintain propriety, Confucius believed that one should not give in to one’s primitive wants and desires. He once described the myriad works in his “Classic of Poetry” in one line: “not lustful in joy, nor self-destructive in sorrow”.

In other words, maintaining moderation was key, and propriety served as a necessary buffer between baser human emotional desires. Propriety was the enlightened reason that could bring stability and harmony.

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