In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Shijing詩經 (Classic of Poetry; Book of Odes)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works and Research Aids
  • European-Language Translations and Annotations
  • Major General Works in Japanese Scholarship
  • Comparative Studies
  • The Han Dynasty “Three Schools”
  • The Shijing in Zuozhuan

Chinese Studies The Shijing詩經 (Classic of Poetry; Book of Odes)
Martin Kern
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0203


The Shijing, or Book of Odes (aka Classic of Poetry, Book of Songs, etc.) is the fountainhead of the Chinese literary tradition. An anthology of 305 undated and anonymous poems that probably arose from the regional courts of the Eastern Zhou period (770–256 BCE) and according to tradition was arranged by Confucius (551–479 BCE), it contains, in this order, 160 “Airs of the States” (guofeng 國風), 74 “Minor Court Hymns” (xiaoya 小雅), 31 “Major Court Hymns” (daya 大雅), and 40 “Eulogies” (song 頌). The poems are customarily believed to have been composed between 1000 and 600 BCE; ancient accounts mention their recitation as texts and performance as musical pieces. Recent finds of ancient bamboo manuscripts show that written versions of the anthology, especially of the “Airs of the States,” existed since at least the fourth century BCE, though no complete anthology including all four sections of the text is documented yet from before the Western Han (202 BCE–9 CE). Numerous short quotations from the poems appear in Warring States period (453–221 BCE), philosophical texts to invoke the weight and authority of tradition. These testimonials mark the Shijing as the single most quotable and most widely known text in Chinese antiquity and as the cultural hallmark of the educated elite. While the “Hymns” and “Eulogies” were performed in the religious and political rituals of the Zhou royal house to recall the glory of the founding and heyday of the Western Zhou (1046–771 BCE), the original context of the “Airs of the States” remains uncertain. Their simple, repetitive structures are often taken as evidence of their origins in folk song, even though the poems have survived only in the writings of the ancient elite. Unlike especially the “Major Court Hymns,” none of the “Airs” offers a sustained narrative, and few contain any historical reference at all; already in antiquity, their semantic ambiguity gave rise to widely different interpretations. At the Western Han imperial court, the Shijing was officially canonized as one of the Five Classics, the core of Confucian learning. Since then, it has attracted thousands of commentaries, subcommentaries, and studies on all of its literary, historical, and linguistic aspects. In recent decades, new discoveries of ancient manuscripts dating from the last four centuries BCE have led to yet another flood of books and articles on the Shijing, in particular from Mainland China.

General Overviews

A standard narrative of the formation, nature, and presence of the Shijing in antiquity is provided in Kern 2010. Allen 1996 presents a literary history of the Shijing and its scholarship from antiquity through the modern period, while O 2001 traces the hermeneutics of the received Mao shi 毛詩, the only surviving school of Han dynasty Shijing transmission and interpretation. Lewis 1999 offers a sweeping historical survey of the nature and functions of the poems from their beginnings in ritual to their canonization and historicization in the early empire. Ma 2006 is a most thorough and comprehensive, but also strictly conservative and positivistic, history of the Shijing in antiquity. Ma 2011 extends this discussion into a historical account of the presence and dissemination of Shijing poetry in Western Zhou ritual, Eastern Zhou diplomacy, and Warring States philosophical texts.

  • Allen, Joseph R. “Postface: A Literary History of the Shi Jing.” In The Book of Songs. Translated by Arthur Waley. Edited with additional translations by Joseph R. Allen, 337–388. New York: Grove Press, 1996.

    Following the author’s hypothesis on the formation of the Shijing from an oral to a written text, the essay surveys the hermeneutic traditions from the Han, Song, and Qing dynasties before concluding with an exploration of Shijing poetics in Warring States and early imperial times. Includes a timetable of major historical moments in Shijing scholarship and a selected, succinctly annotated bibliography of English-language studies and translations.

  • Kern, Martin. “Early Chinese Literature, Beginnings through Western Han.” In The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature. Edited by Stephen Owen and Kang-i Sun Chang, 1–115. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    The standard historical account of the formation of early Chinese literature during the first millennium BCE; on the Shijing, see pp. 17–39.

  • Lewis, Mark Edward. Writing and Authority in Early China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

    In chapter 4 (pp. 147–193) of his magnum opus on early Chinese textual culture, the author offers a sweeping survey of the Shijing poetry from its beginnings in religious ritual to its uses in Eastern Zhou interstate diplomacy, and further to its canonization and historicization in the early empire.

  • Ma Yinqin 馬銀琴. Liang Zhou shi shi (兩周詩史). Beijing: Shehui kexue chubanshe, 2006.

    A systematic proposal for the dating and periodization of the Shijing poems and the historical formation of the anthology. The author takes the poems as contemporary products of the ritual, institutional, and cultural developments during the Zhou, and maps each poem onto a particular historical occasion for its composition. As a strictly historicist and positivist account, this volume represents a standard approach to the Shijing in Chinese scholarship.

  • Ma Yinqin 馬銀琴. Zhou Qin shidai Shi de chuanbo shi (周秦時代詩的傳播史). Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2011.

    A historical account of the presence and dissemination of Shijing poetry in Western Zhou ritual, Eastern Zhou diplomacy, Warring States philosophical texts, and especially Warring States Confucianism; while continuing in the overly positivist manner of Ma 2006, it is useful as a survey of the relevant source materials.

  • O Man-jong 吳萬鐘. Cong shi dao jing: lun Mao shi jieshi de yuanyuan yu tese (從詩到經:論毛詩解釋的淵源與特色). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2001.

    A study of the development, and hermeneutic orientation, of the Mao school of the Shijing, in particular its historicizing tendencies that gradually emerged from the practice of Shijing quotation since Warring States times. Also examines different readings of individual poems and traces and questions the stability of the written text during the Warring States.

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