The Many Voices of Society


The Book of Songs contains a multiplicity of stories and perspectives from a broad range of social classes and occupations in ancient China. When Owen says that this collection of poems tries to “embrace every aspect of its world”, he is correct: we see perspectives ranging from the highest authority down to the working class peasants toiling in the fields.

This range of perspectives is evident even within the first ten poems of the book. One poem describes a romance of aristocrats: “Lovely is this noble lady/Day and night he sought her.” (1, p5) There are many poems concerned with unrequited love or the loss of it—these are pervasive and universal issues in this collection. A traveller’s wife mourns his absence as “Even a shallow basket I did not fill/Sighing for the man I love.” (3, p7) Meanwhile he suffers to get home to see her, as he is “climbing that high ridge/[His] horses are sick and spent.” (3, p7) We see not only a range of social classes represented in The Book of Songs, but also unification evident across classes.

There is also suggestion of unity even between the most segregated groups of society. A woman washing her clothes is described: “Here I sud my shift/Here I wash my dress/…I am going to comfort my parents.” (2, p6) Despite the menial household tasks she must perform, she shows a preoccupation with her parents’ suffering. There is no suggestion that she is inferior in any way because of her social class—she too suffers from emotions that the aristocracy feel. One poem seems to describe a peasant thinking fondly of their ruler: “Happy is our lord/Blessings and boons surround him!” (4, p8) There is clearly an emotional link between the lower and higher stratums—that even though the peasants are suffering, they can find comfort in the fact that their ruler is satisfied.

Thus we can see that The Book of Songs describes a unified, fundamentally human society: one that shares emotions, sufferings, and one that is aware of the existence of other social classes. While the stratification of this ancient society is evident, there is also suggestion of the universality of human emotions and suffering. In this sense, the stratification is softened somewhat. Unlike the Ramayana and the Odyssey, which are “content to listen to the deeds of heroes alone”, (foreword, p xvii) this collection of poem shows a greater inclusiveness of all aspects of the society at the time.

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