Sacred Books of the East/Volume 3/The Shih/Introduction/Chapter 2

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Sacred Books of the East, Vol. III, The Shih King
Introduction, Chapter II: The Shih before Confucius, and what, if any, were his Labours upon it by James Legge

Chapter II.

The Shih before Confucius, and what, if any, were his Labours upon it.

Statement of Sze-mâ Khien.1. Sze-mâ Khien, in his memoir of Confucius, says:—'The old poems amounted to more than 3000. Confucius removed those which were only repetitions of others, and selected those which would be serviceable for the inculcation of propriety and righteousness. Ascending as high as Hsieh and Hâu-kî, and descending through the prosperous eras of Yin and Kâu to the times of decadence under kings and , he selected in all 305 pieces, which he sang over to his lute, to bring them into accordance with the musical style of the Shâo, the , the , and the Făng.'
The writer of the Records of the Sui Dynasty.In the History of the Classical Books in the Records of the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 589 to 618), it is said:—'When royal benign rule ceased, and poems were no more collected, Kih, the Grand Music-Master of , arranged in order those that were existing, and made a copy of them. Then Confucius expurgated them; and going up to the Shang dynasty, and coming down to the state of Lû, he compiled altogether 300 Pieces.'
Opinion of Kû Hsî.Kû Hsî, whose own standard work on the Shih appeared in A.D. 1178, declined to express himself positively on the expurgation of the odes, but summed up his view of what Confucius did for them in the following words:—'Royal methods had ceased, and poems were no more collected. Those which were extant were full of errors, and wanting in arrangement. When Confucius returned from Wei to Lû, he brought with him the odes that he had gotten in other states, and digested them, along with those that were to be found in Lû, into a collection of 300 pieces.'
View of the author.I have not been able to find evidence sustaining these representations, and must adopt the view that, before the birth of Confucius, the Book of Poetry existed, substantially the same as it was at his death, and that while he may have somewhat altered the arrangement of its Books and pieces, the service which he rendered to it was not that of compilation, but the impulse to study it which he communicated to his disciples.

Groundlessness of Khien's statement.2. If we place Khien's composition of the memoir of Confucius in B.C. 100, nearly four hundred years will have elapsed between the death of the sage and any statement to the effect that he expurgated previously existing poems, or compiled the collection that we now have; and no writer in the interval affirmed or implied any such things. The further statement in the Sui Records about the Music-Master of Lû is also without any earlier confirmation. But independently of these considerations, there is ample evidence to prove, first, that the poems current before Confucius were not by any means so numerous as Khien says, and, secondly, that the collection of 300 pieces or thereabouts, digested under the same divisions as in the present classic, existed before the sage's time.

3. i. It would not be surprising, if, floating about and current among the people of China in the sixth century before our era, there had been more than 3000 pieces of poetry. The marvel is that such was not the case. But in the Narratives of the States, a work of the Kâu dynasty, and ascribed by many to Zo Khiû-ming, there occur quotations from thirty-one poems, made by statesmen and others, all anterior to Confucius; and of those poems there are not more than two which are not in the present classic. Even of those two, one is an ode of it quoted under another name. Further, in the Zo Kwan, certainly the work of Khiû-ming, we have quotations from not fewer than 219 poems, of which only thirteen are not found in the classic. Thus of 250 poems current in China before the supposed compilation of the Shih, 236 are found in it, and only fourteen are absent. To use the words of Kâo Yî, a scholar of the present dynasty, 'If the poems existing in Confucius' time had been more than 3000, the quotations of poems now lost in these two works should have been ten times as numerous as the quotations from the 305 pieces said to have been preserved by him, whereas they are only between a twenty-first and twenty-second part of the existing pieces. This is sufficient to show that Khien's statement is not worthy of credit.'

ii. Of the existence of the Book of Poetry before Confucius, digested in four Parts, and much in the same order as at present, there may be advanced the following proofs:—

First. There is the passage in the Official Book of Kâu, quoted and discussed in the last paragraph of the preceding chapter. We have in it a distinct reference to poems, many centuries before the sage, arranged and classified in the same way as those of the existing Shih. Our Shih, no doubt, was then in the process of formation.

Second. In the ninth piece of the sixth decade of the Shih, Part II, an ode assigned to the time of king Yû, B.C. 781 to 771, we have the words,

'They sing the Yâ and the Nan,
Dancing to their flutes without error.'

So early, therefore, as the eighth century B.C. there was a collection of poems, of which some bore the name of the Nan, which there is much reason to suppose were the Kâu Nan and the Shâo Nan, forming the first two Books of the first Part of the present Shih; and of which others bore the name of the , being, probably, the earlier pieces that now compose a large portion of the second and third Parts.

Third. In the narratives of Zo Khiû-ming, under the twenty-ninth year of duke Hsiang, B.C. 544, when Confucius was only seven or eight years old, we have an account of a visit to the court of by an envoy from , an eminent statesman of the time, and a man of great learning. We are told that as he wished to hear the music of Kâu, which he could do better in Lû than in any other state, they sang to him the odes of the Kâu Nan and the Shâo Nan; those of Phei, Yung, and Wei; of the Royal Domain; of Kăng; of Khî; of Pin; of Khin; of Wei; of Thang; of Khân; of Kwei; and of Zhâo. They sang to him also the odes of the Minor Yâ and the Greater Yâ; and they sang finally the pieces of the Sung. We have thus, existing in the boyhood of Confucius, what we may call the present Book of Poetry, with its Făng, its Yâ, and its Sung. The only difference discernible is slight,—in the order in which the Books of the Făng followed one another.

Fourth. We may appeal in this matter to the words of Confucius himself. Twice in the Analects he speaks of the Shih as a collection consisting of 300 pieces[1]. That work not being made on any principle of chronological order, we cannot positively assign those sayings to any particular years of Confucius' life; but it is, I may say, the unanimous opinion of Chinese critics that they were spoken before the time to which Khien and Kû Hsî refer his special labour on the Book of Poetry.

To my own mind the evidence that has been adduced is decisive on the points which I specified. The Shih, arranged very much as we now have it, was current in China before the time of Confucius, and its pieces were in the mouths of statesmen and scholars, constantly quoted by them on festive and other occasions. Poems not included in it there doubtless were, but they were comparatively few. Confucius may have made a copy for the use of himself and his disciples; but it does not appear that he rejected any pieces which had been previously received into the collection, or admitted any which had not previously found a place in it.

What Confucius did for the Shih.4. The question now arises of what Confucius did for the Shih, if, indeed, he did anything at all. The only thing from which we can hazard an opinion on the point we have from himself. In the Analects, IX, xiv, he tells us:—'I returned from Wei to , and then the music was reformed, and the pieces in the Yâ and the Sung received their proper places.' The return from Wei to Lû took place only five years before the sage's death. He ceased from that time to take an active part in political affairs, and solaced himself with music, the study of the ancient literature of his nation, the writing of 'the Spring and Autumn,' and familiar intercourse with those of his disciples who still kept around him. He reformed the music,—that to which the pieces of the Shih were sung; but wherein the reformation consisted we cannot tell. And he gave to the pieces of the Yâ and the Sung their proper places. The present order of the Books in the Făng, slightly differing from what was common in his boyhood, may have now been determined by him. More than this we cannot say.

While we cannot discover, therefore, any peculiar and important labours of Confucius on the Shih, and we have it now, as will be shown in the next chapter, substantially as he found it already compiled to his hand, the subsequent preservation of it may reasonably be attributed to the admiration which he expressed for it, and the enthusiasm for it with which he sought to inspire his disciples. It was one of the themes on which he delighted to converse with them[2]. He taught that it is from the poems that the mind receives its best stimulus[3]. A man ignorant of them was, in his opinion, like one who stands with his face towards a wall, limited in his view, and unable to advance[4]. Of the two things that his son could specify as enjoined on him by the sage, the first was that he should learn the odes[5]. In this way Confucius, probably, contributed largely to the subsequent preservation of the Shih,—the preservation of the tablets on which the odes were inscribed, and the preservation of it in the memory of all who venerated his authority, and looked up to him as their master.

  1. In stating that the odes were 300, Confucius probably preferred to use the round number. There are, as I said in the former chapter, altogether 305 pieces, which is the number given by Sze-mâ Khien. There are also the titles of six others. It is contended by Kû Hsî and many other scholars that these titles were only the names of tunes. More likely is the view that the text of the pieces so styled was lost after Confucius' death.
  2. Analects, VII, xvii.
  3. Analects, VIII, viii, XVII, ix.
  4. Analects, XVII, x.
  5. Analects, XVI, xiii.