The collected poems in the Classic of Poetry are
understood to have originally been sung to
music—the title is sometimes translated as the
Book of Songs—and the canonical statement on
poetry in the preface is closely bound with a dis-
cussion of music’s nature and function:
Feelings emerge in sounds; when the
sounds have patterning, they are called
tones. The tones of a peaceful age are se-
rene and happy, indicating its government
is well-run; the tones of a chaotic age are
bitter and angry, indicating its government
is off course; the tones of an age going to
ruin are filled with sadness and brooding,
as its people are in difficulty.
The difference between sound (sheng) and
tone (yin) is the presence of patterning. The
cawing of birds and the whistling of wind, or the
sobbing at a funeral, may be considered sounds,
but a dirge sung at the funeral belongs to tones.
Music is both nature (based in feelings) and culture (with patterning). Even more important,
music is closely associated with words—that is,
song lyrics. It’s also associated with governance.
An old legend about ancient kings articulates
this unique belief in the political—not just aesthetic or philosophical—importance of music.
According to the story, the kings would send their
officers to the villages, collect the songs of the
common folk, and bring them back to the court,
believing the songs to be signs and symptoms
that can tell the king about the mood of his people. If it is happy, the king can rejoice with them;
if it is distressed and resentful, the king must
either reform his government or face certain ruin.
This legend was believed—and is still be-
lieved by many—to be the origin story for a
section in the Classic of Poetry called “Airs” ( feng).
This section contains 160 poems, categorized
into fifteen different regions representing the
feudal domains of Zhou dynasty China. These
poems occupy a position in Chinese literary
tradition similar to the Homeric epics in the
Western tradition. They show how music mani-
fests the condition of the empire and can in turn
impact it: each geopolitical region has its own
music; the king, ruling from the political center,
listens to all of them and, if he is wise, knows
how to interpret them and govern accordingly.
These songs of “Airs” are lively ballads that
supposedly originated among the common folk.
They were the popular songs of their day and
feature ordinary men and women singing of
love, the pain of separation and abandonment,
romantic longing, the toil of the fields, the hard-
ship of travel, and the homesickness of soldiers
on prolonged military campaigns. Though many
were as likely to be created by court musicians
as by peasants and soldiers, it is the belief about
their folk origin that matters.
In Confucianism, music is regarded as one
of two cruxes for living a civilized life. The other
crux is rites. These are seen as theoretically diver-
gent: rites separate people by creating social dis-
tinctions, while music harmonizes a community
to bring people together; rites keep people civil
but risk alienating them from one another, while
music unites people but risks turning them loose
and dissolute. Both are seen as fulfilling impor-
tant roles in maintaining the social order, and the
Confucian ideal is a perfect balance of the two.
On a practical level, however, music and
rites are often joined together in the performance of ritual music, which fills the other
two sections of the Classic of Poetry—odes and
hymns performed at state rituals, including sacrifices made to Heaven and Earth and to ancestors and dynastic founders. This music is grave
and solemn, representing grand historical events
in formal, stilted language.
There is a tension between serious ritual
music and lively popular music in the content of
the Classic of Poetry, just as there was always tension between the two in social life in traditional
China. The Marquess of Wei, the lord of a feudal
domain in the Zhou, was said to have once fallen
asleep during a performance of ritual music but
woke up to the playing of popular music. He
was deeply embarrassed upon being called out
by his disapproving ministers, who saw the marquess’ involuntary reaction as an indication of his
moral failings and inadequacy as a ruler. Herein