Geoffrey Sampson


Voices from Early China

The Odes Demystified


Possibly the earliest work of literature in any still-living language, the Chinese Book of Odes (in Chinese, 詩經, Shi jing), is a collection of several hundred poems written in the centuries immediately after 1000 BC — that is, approaching three thousand years ago. (Not having an encyclopaedic knowledge of world literature, I am not quite sure whether any other living language possesses an older literary monument — I don’t know of one.)

In 2006 I published a little book containing translations of a few dozen of the shorter poems in this work: delightfully human songs about various aspects of love, many or most by women poets. My publication was organized in a parallel format: on one side were renderings into modern, unstuffy English, and on the other the Chinese originals spelled out as they sounded when they were written — full of rhyme and alliteration which vanish when the poems are read in modern Chinese pronunciation, because three millennia of sound-changes have largely eliminated them. (This second aspect of the book has only been possible to produce in recent years, as our knowledge of the history of the language has deepened.) One Chinese reviewer of that book was kind enough to write (his bold-face):

After 3,000 years the Shijing is at last readable in English. This is the only readable translation I have found, certainly the only one that makes these ancient poems enjoyable to read.

To me there is a magic about hearing meaningful, human messages from such a distant past – a time when the city of Rome had scarcely or not yet been founded, and China was on the cusp of transition from cruel barbarism to high civilization. And the magic is all the greater when we can not only understand what the poets were saying but hear the speech-music with which they said it. So now, in this book, I have produced a complete translation of all 305 poems (which cover a much wider variety of themes than those in my 2006 book), together with an introductory chapter setting the poems in the context of the society of the early Zhou dynasty and discussing their literary technique, a map identifying their many geographical references, an alphabetized glossary showing the meanings of each Old Chinese word used in the poems, and more.

I discuss the nature of the task I undertook in setting out to produce this book, and some of the editorial issues that arose, in the inaugural number of a new journal, Classical Literature.

Some media comment on the new book:

It makes the Odes fun and quite easy to read, bilingual poems, splendid translations and very good notes … very, very good.
— Luxi on “What are the best things you read in 2020?”, in

… looks like an excellent read and contribution to the literature … the attention to detail on the Tolkien-esque map is quite fantastic
— Tomsima, on same thread

… an English translation of the Odes, along with the original Chinese texts and more importantly the pronunciation from some 3,000 years ago, must have long been yearned for. Sampson’s new book accomplishes this … The strengths of the book are manifold. Not only does it introduce some of the most important classical texts of ancient China to Western readers in a readable and pronounceable way, it also popularizes historical linguistic results by integrating them into a non-academic publication.
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

— rated 5 stars on by “Lhamo”

To give you a flavour of the book, here is Ode 155:

Tu-whoo! 鴟鴞
Tu-whoo, tu-whoo! You have taken my chicks,
don’t destroy my nest!
I cared for them, I devoted myself to them: my brood, you should have pity for them.

Thi-waw, thi-waw! Kuts tsoc ngàyc tzuc. 鴟鴞鴟鴞 既取我子 
ma mhayc ngàyc lhit. 無毀我室 
Ùn se, gun se; louk tzuc tu mrunt se. 恩斯勤斯 育子之閔斯 

While the weather was still fair I tugged those mulberry roots free,
twining them to make window and door;
now, you base folk, do any of you dare look down on me?

Làc thìn tu muts um wac, thret payc sàng dàc, 迨天之未陰雨 撤彼桑土 
driw-miws louc gàc. 綢繆牖戶 
Kum nac gràc min, wùk kàmp moc lac? 今汝下民 或敢侮予 

It was my claws that grasped the dandelions I pulled up;
the straw bedding I gathered has left me with a poorly beak.
Are you telling me that I have not earned the right to my own nest?

Lac nhout kit ka, lac shac ròt là; 予手拮据 予所捋荼 
lac shac rhouks tzà, lac khòc tzout dà. 予所蓄蒩 予口卒瘏 
Wat lac muts wuc lhit krà? 曰予未有室家 

My feathers are worn, my tail is frayed.
My high perch is perilous, shaken by wind and rain.
All that is left for me is to make alarm calls.

Lac wac dzaw-dzaw, lac muyc syaw-syaw. 予羽譙譙 予尾消消 
Lac lhit gyaw-gyaw, pum wac shac phyaw yaw.      予室翹翹 風雨所飄搖 
Lac wi um hyàw-hyàw. 予維音嘵嘵 

In the guise of an owl, a wife complains about her husband throwing her out while keeping their children.

Among the Chinese commentators there has historically been disagreement about whether the metaphorical bird was an owl or some other, unknown species. But the Old Chinese thi-waw seems so close to tu-whoo, the standard English rendering of the call of the female tawny owl (tu-whit is the male’s call), that the identification is hard to doubt. Why the bird metaphor, which might seem frivolous in the context of the woman’s tragic human situation? Could she have been reminding the man of a carefree, fluffy nickname from courting days?

xvi + 429 pp.

Voices from Early China is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, who show a substantial sample extract on their website. Copies of the book are available directly from the publishers (visitors from my website can claim a 25 per cent discount on purchase price by quoting the coupon ODES25 on the Cambridge Scholars site), or from Amazon.

ISBN 978-1-5275-5212-8

Geoffrey Sampson

last changed 28 Nov 2023