Manual of Morals

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“Many readers accepted the “Great Preface” as the work of Confucius’ disciple Tzu-hsia and thus saw it an unbroken tradition of teaching about the Book of Songs that could be tracked back to Confucius himself.” (Stephen Owen) This introduces the idea that perhaps the Book of Songs was not so much a collection of poems of people’s everyday lives but more of a manual of how the people should live their lives. We all know how much Confucius likes to stick his nose into other people’s businesses.

This idea is shown in the first poem of the Book of Songs, where the virtues of the Queen Consort and King Wen are shown through the process of courtship. The lady is described to be “lovely”, “noble” and “shy”, allowing the man to “seek” and “sought” her. This emphasizes the idea that women should be ladylike and not scandalous by seeking the attention of men themselves. The man is also described to “grieve” when he is unable to get her – this shows how courtship should be a investment on the man’s part as well. These poems “influences” and “stirs” readers, “by teaching it transforms them” (Stephen Owen). The readers learn of these proper values and actions through the Book of Songs. “A program of moral education [is] implicit in the structure” (Stephen Owen).

This is interesting because instead of an “inner inform[ing] the outer manifestation” – the text is a reflection of the everyday lives and values of the people, it is the “outer [that is] used to shape what lies within” (Stephen Owen). People who read the Book of Songs are meant to naturally internalize correct values highlighted in the text.

This idea becomes even more interesting when we take into consideration that the Book of Songs is meant to be read by people of all social classes. It becomes “moral education” for all. The impact of it is debatable: people can either start to have a uniformed moral code of conduct, or perhaps, people perform accordingly to their social classes since the text includes poems of the ideal values of people of all social classes.

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