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111 | 2012
Annuaire du Collège de France 2010-2011
Résumé des cours et travaux 111e année
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Authorship and the Shijing | Fate and Heroism in Early Chinese Poetry

Martin Kern
p. 887-890

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Authorship and the Shijing

1The production and reception of traditional Chinese literature has been marked by strong assumptions about authorship. Literature, especially poetry, has been understood as fundamentally autobiographic and “expressive”, that is, as a manifestation of an individual author’s personal ideas, emotions, and intentions in response to particular experiences. While this is largely true for the poetry especially from the early third century onward, it does not apply to the songs from the pre-imperial period, in particular the 305 songs canonized in the Classic of Poetry (Shijing). Despite the efforts of Han dynasty and later commentators to assign specific historical circumstances and authors to the composition of the Shijing songs, traces of authorship within this canonical anthology are extremely scarce, appearing in just a handful of the 305 songs.

2Curiously, the most visible statements on authorship in these songs are not in the “Airs of the States” (guofeng) that speak intensely, and often emotionally, of personal experience. Instead, they are found mostly in the “Major Court Hymns” (daya) that arose within the ritual institutions of the Zhou royal court. In particular, songs 259 (“Song gao”) and 260 (“Zheng min”) both conclude with a statement that “Jifu made a recitation” in order to influence a named historical figure. These two songs are understood as compositions by Yin Jifu (“Overseer Jifu”), a high Western Zhou official and military leader from around 900 BC who is briefly mentioned also in other sources. In each song, the final quatrain that mentions Jifu as the “reciter” is taken to define the entire text as Jifu’s personal expression. In addition, since Han times the next two songs in the Shijing – 261 (“The Jiang and the Han”) and 262 (“Han yi”) – have been likewise attributed to him. While the authorship of songs 261 and 262 was questioned by later imperial scholars, that of “Song gao” and “Zheng min” remains universally accepted.

3A close analysis of the four texts raises doubts about Jifu as the author of any of the four songs. With regard to “Song gao” and “Zheng min,” one observes: first, in both songs, the concluding claim about Jifu is formally distinct from the preceding text, separated by a different rhyme; second, in each song, the concluding claim about Jifu as “reciter” (not to mention author) is not related to anything else in the preceding lyrics; third, the songs have no coherent voice but are composite structures of different voices and idioms, including direct royal speech, proverbs, language from administrative documents, poetic phrases found elsewhere in the Shijing, and narrative prose; fourth, while each text is a composite structure of such different voices, the two texts are also considerably different in nature and do not suggest a common author; fifth, both songs show a number of parallels especially to “The Jiang and the Han” and “Han yi”, two texts that are even more densely modeled on administrative documents; sixth, while quotations of “Song gao” and “Zheng min” abound in early texts, these quotations never include the final quatrains; seventh, no early reference to the texts mentions Jifu as author; eighth, when Jifu is mentioned in other sources, he appears as a military leader but never as an author of texts; and ninth, self-referential notions of authorship are exceedingly rare in Shijing – and in pre-imperial sources altogether – suggesting that authorship was not an integral property of such poetry.

4Taken together, these observations make a compelling case against Jifu as the author of “Song gao” and “Zheng min,” not to mention “The Jiang and the Han” and “Han yi.” But what do they tell us about the raison d’être for the final quatrains in “Song gao” and “Zheng min”? First, it may be that “Jifu has made a recitation” does not refer at all to authorship but to the mere recitation (song) of the text. Second, the final quatrains are most likely later (if still pre-imperial) additions to the two songs: instead of marking authorship, they merely connect exemplary – and highly non-individual – court compositions with the voice of an exemplary official of high status. As such, the final quatrains of the two songs are retrospective constructions of remembrance and interpretation; they reveal how a later audience imagined the performance of ritual communication at the Western Zhou royal court.

Fate and Heroism in Early Chinese Poetry

5In his “Letter in Response to Ren Shaoqing” and in his autobiography, Sima Qian (ca. 145 - ca. 85 BC) places himself at the end of a genealogy of heroic authors: given the fateful choice to commit suicide or undergo castration, he chooses the latter in order to complete his work. However, different versions of Sima Qian’s story show a different sequence of events: either Sima Qian was punished because he wrote the Shiji, or he completed the Shiji after, and in response to, his punishment. The same question surrounds the two heroes from the past Sima Qian appropriates most closely as his models: Confucius and Qu Yuan (ca. 340-ca. 287 BC?). For each, we face two or more conflicting accounts regarding the date of authorship of their central texts relative to their timeline of suffering. It is the work that leads to the author’s physical suffering, and it is the author’s body, and the punishment it receives, that enables the work.

6With Sima Qian, Qu Yuan, and Confucius, we encounter the figure of the author-hero who finally, with the early empire, replaces the culture heroes of antiquity. As the ancient sages had “created” (zuo) civilization, authors now “created” their texts. Yet with the sage kings gone, such creation had to occur in opposition to the state. What distinguishes Qu Yuan from both Sima Qian and Confucius is that his story was told in both prose and poetry. Where the narratives speak about Qu Yuan, the poems speak in his own voice. His Shiji biography, patched together from several sources, reveals different narratives of his legend; meanwhile, the poems that Han editors and commentators attributed to him show diverging poetic versions of his story.

7Yet the two figures of poetic hero and heroic poet do not match: where the narrated hero ends his fate in noble solitude, the singing hero wants to be heard, creating and staging the lyric self out of the fated self, and autobiography out of demise. Here, the tragic fate of his life is replaced by the heroic feat of his text. Qu Yuan’s key poems – “Encountering Sorrow” (Li sao), “Embracing Sand” (Huai sha), and “Grieving Recitation” (Xi song) – all contain linguistic markers that address an audience and are performative in nature. If Qu Yuan was alone when drowning himself, he was not alone when composing and reciting “Embracing Sand” moments earlier.

8None of the different versions of the Qu Yuan legend, poetic or narrative, is truer than the others; all must have evolved from continuous retelling and re-performance within the fertile literary imagination of the south. The result is dazzling array of religious, political, mythological, and erotic imagery, a proliferation of meaning (Foucault) that could only be tamed by Han editors and commentators who reduced the text – the many texts within it – to a single purpose and meaning. For this, the Qu Yuan mis en scene in performative poetry had to become the author of this poetry: not poetic creation but poetic creator.

9The fusion of poetic hero and heroic poet echoes across the Chinese tradition. In Han historiography, historical protagonists on the verge of demise suddenly burst into extemporized song. Centuries later, Du Fu (712-770), displaced from his homeland and civilization, gazes over the mythological landscape of the south and recreates the persona of the author-hero. In one of his last poems, “Reflected Sunlight” (Fan zhao), he points back to Qu Yuan but integrates both himself and the earlier model into a larger history of author-heroes. Remembering Qu Yuan, he also recalls Wang Can 王粲 (177-217) who in “Seven Sorrows” (Qi ai shi) had staged himself among the ravages of his own time and who in turn had remembered a poet even more ancient than Qu Yuan, namely, the anonymous author of a song in the Classic of Poetry (Shijing).

10Du Fu recreates the history of trauma as the history of literature, aligning Tang dynasty Chang’an with the capitals of both the Han and the Zhou dynasties some one and two thousand years back, and continuing the voices of poetry past. At the same time, this history of poetry is one of displaced and also involuntary authorship where Du Fu, Wang Can, and Qu Yuan stage themselves not as the sovereign masters of their texts but as voices of the inevitable: in the moment of fate, they cannot but speak the way they speak. Their poetry is heroic because it is the only thing left to them, and ultimately by them.

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Cours et travaux du Collège de France. Annuaire 111e année, Collège de France, Paris, avril 2012, p. 887-890. ISBN 978-2-7226-0156-7

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Martin Kern, « Authorship and the Shijing | Fate and Heroism in Early Chinese Poetry », L’annuaire du Collège de France [En ligne], 111 | 2012, mis en ligne le 22 novembre 2013, consulté le 23 février 2018. URL :

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Martin Kern

Professeur à l’Université de Princeton (États-Unis)

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Collège de France

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