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Shang Period Literature

Jul 2, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

Historiographical sources like the universal history Shiji 史記 speak of music played at the court of the king of the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE). Yet the texts of songs are not preserved.

The Confucian Classic Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs" includes a chapter on odes of the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), which were played during ceremonies at the Shang court, and later at that of their descendants in the in the regional state of Song 宋. Five of these hymns are preserved (ch. Shang song 商頌). Most of them consist of four-syllable verses and have end rhymes. They praise the martial spirit and the virtue of the dynastic ancestors. The songs were quite probably accompanied by various types of drums, soundstones, bells, and flutes and visualized by dancers.

The five hymns were certainly compiled in the transmitted shape during the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE), but might contain Shang-period material. The influence of Zhou thinking can be seen in the concept of the Heavenly mandate (tianming 天命), which was unknown in the Shang world, and the stress of virtue and moral conduct, which does likewise not play a role in oracle bone inscriptions.

Even if some Chinese scholars do so, we will not regard the oracle bone or the short Shang-period bronze vessel inscriptions as an expression of literature, but rather as documentary texts.

Poetry

The ode "Complete" (Nei [!] 那) was used for the sacrifices to the dynastic founder Tang the Perfect 成湯. It describes how the Shang king, with the help of sacrificial music and dances, invites the spirit of the dynastic founder to descend and bestow his favours throughout the year.

自古在昔,
先民有作。
From of old, before our time,
The former men set us the example;
溫恭朝夕,
執事有恪。
How to be mild and humble from morning to night,
And to be reverent in discharging the service.
Note: Translation according to James Legge.

"The meritorious ancestor" (Liezu 烈祖) was used for the sacrifices to King Zhongzong 中宗 (i.e. Tai Wu 太戊, trad. r. 1637-1563). It describes the offerings presented on the altar to invite the king's spirit, to bless the dynasty eternally with wealth and good health, happiness without limit.

我受命溥將。 We have received the appointment in all its greatness,
自天降康,
豐年穰穰!
And from Heaven is our prosperity sent down,
Fruitful years of great abundance.

"The dark bird" (Xuanniao 玄鳥) was performed during the sacrifices to King Gaozong 高宗 (i.e. Wu Ding 武丁, trad. r. 1324-1266 BCE). It narrates the story how the dynastic ancestor was conceived, and how his descendant, the "martial Tang", was appointed by the Supreme Ancestor, and "regulated the boundaries throughout the four quarters" (gu di ming wu Tang, zheng yu bi si fang 古帝命武湯,正域彼四方). After the foundation of the dynasty, Tang wielded a stable rule, and the lords came from far away to deliver their tributes. The ode concludes,

殷受命咸宜,
百祿是何!
That Yin should have received the appointment [of Heaven] was entirely right;
[Its sovereign] sustains all its dignities.

The ode "Long had appeared" (Chang fa 長發) was used for the grand quintennial di offerings (da di 大禘, see suburban offerings). It narrates the rise of the Shang dynasty from a small regional state and vassal of the Xia kingdom 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE). The ancestors finally, "the favour of the [Supreme] Ancestor did not leave [Shang], and in Tang [the Perfect] was found [the subject for its] display" (di ming bu wei, zhi yu Tang qi 帝命不違,至于湯齊).

何天之休,
不競不絿。
So did he receive the blessing of Heaven.
He was neither violent nor remiss,
不剛不柔,
敷政優優:
百祿是遒!
Neither hard nor soft.
Gently he spread his instructions abroad,
And all dignities and riches were concentrated in him.
何天之龍,
敷奏其勇。
So did he receive the favour of Heaven.
He displayed everywhere his valour,
不震不動,
不戁不竦:
百祿是總!
Unshaken, unmoved,
Unterrified, unscared:
All dignities were united in him.

All these sentences are four-syllables long, and bear a common rhyme ([球,旒],休,絿,柔,優,遒 /ĭəu/, and [共, 厖], 龍,勇,動,竦,總 /ĭwoŋ/) over no less than seven verses.

The ode continues with praising the spirit of the "martial king" Wuwang 武王 (i.e. Cheng Tang) which caused Heaven to enthrone him and to send him a minister who would support him. The importance of the last verse is stressed by its overlong size (5 instead of 4 syllables).

允也天子!
降予卿士,
But truly did Heaven [then] deal with him as its son,
And sent him down a minister,
實維阿衡,
實左右商王!
Namely Aheng (i.e. Yi Yin 伊尹),
Who gave his assistance to the king of Shang.

The ode "The martial [energy] of Yin" (Yin wu 殷武), performed during the sacrifices for King Gaozong, describes the war against the southern barbarians of Jing 荆 and Chu 楚, and then praises the impartiality of the victor, one of the reasons why he could become sovereign. The verses show the use of parallelism (bu jian 不僭, bu gan 不敢; jue sheng 厥聲, jue ling 厥靈) and repetition of words (hehe 赫赫, zhuozhuo 濯濯) to express intensification. The insertion of a superfluous syllable (5 instead of 4, yi 以) allows to stress an important conclusion:

不僭不濫,
不敢怠遑。
[Our king] showed no partiality [in rewarding], no excess [in punishing];
He dared not to allow himself in indolence:
命于下國,
封建厥福。
So was his appointment [established] over the states,
And he made his happiness grandly secure.
赫赫厥聲,
濯濯厥靈。
Glorious was his fame;
Brilliant, his energy.
壽考且寧,
以保我後生!
Long lived he and enjoyed tranquillity,
And so he preserves us, his descendants.

The hymn ends with the construction of a temple, which was perhaps the occasion for the composition of this song.

Some songs are also found in the universal history Shiji, like Mai xiu ge 麥秀歌 (38 Song weizi shijia 宋微子世家) and Cai wei ge 采薇歌 (61 Bo Yi liezhuan 伯夷列傳). The poem Sanglin daoyu ci 桑林禱雨辭 is a prayer for rain by Tang the Perfect. The story is mentioned in the compilation Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋, and the text of the poem quoted in the book Xunzi 荀子 (ch. Dalüe 大略).

Prose

Eleven prose texts from the Shang period are preserved in the chapter Shangshu 商書 of the Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents”. Also in this case, the final compilation of the transmitted texts might have taken place in the Western Zhou, and is therefore influenced by Zhou thinking. The following chapter describes the literary features of a selection of the Shangshu chapters.

The "Speech of Tang" (Tang shi 湯誓) was made when Tang the Perfect was "charged by Heaven to destroy" the Xia dynasty (tian ming ji zhi 天命殛之). His subjects (zhongshu 眾庶 "the multitudes") complained that they were taken away from their fields to wage war. Yet Tang argued repeatedly that he feared the Supreme Ancestor (yu wei shangdi 予畏上帝) who had ordered him to destroy the Xia, who "exhausted the strength of his people" and "exercised oppression in the cities" (shuai e zhong li, shuai ge Xia yi 率遏眾力,率割夏邑). As a further motivation, Tang promises to reward his followers.

The wording of the text much resembles the ductus of Western Zhou-period proclamations. The king calls himself "little child" (xiao zi 小子) or "me, the one (i.e. lonely) man" (yu yi ren 予一人) in order to highlight his duty to obey to the historical and transcendental circumstances.

In the "Announcement of Tang" (Tang gao 湯誥), the evils of King Jie 桀 of the Xia dynasty are described somewhat more concrete, and Tang's moral obligation to terminate the rule of Xia is once more stressed (tian ming fu jian 天命弗僭 "what Heaven appoints is without error").

The "Announcement of Zhong Hui" (Zhong Hui zhi gao 仲虺之誥), a minister of Tang the Perfect, tried to console the king after he had exiled to Nanchao 南巢 the last, evil ruler of the Xia, King Jie. Zhong Hui repeats the arguments brought up by Tang before: Jie had neglected his people, and Heaven therefore entrusted Tang with sovereignty. The reason for this was Tang’s virtue:

矧予之德,言足聽聞。惟王不邇聲色,不殖貨利,德懋懋官,功懋懋賞,用人惟己,改過不吝,克寬克仁。 The [prince's] virtues became a theme [eagerly] listened to! Our king did not approach to [dissolute] music and women; he did not seek to accumulate property and wealth. To great virtue he gave great offices, and to great merit great rewards. He employed others as if [their excellences] were his own; he was not slow to change his errors. [He was] rightly indulgent and rightly benevolent.

Tang was by the people even regarded as a kind of saviour: "We have waited for our prince; our prince is come, and we revive!" (xi yu hou, you lai yi su 徯予后。后來其蘇) Zhong Hui admonishes King Tang to continue his virtuous way of rule:

王懋昭大德,建中于民,以義制事,以禮制心。 To make your virtue [still more] illustrious, and set up [the standard of] the Mean before the people. Order your affairs by righteousness; order your heart by propriety.

The "Instructions of Yi" (Yi xun 伊訓) were made by Minister Yi Yin to the young king Tai Jia 太甲 (trad. r. 1753-1721). He reminded the king of the facts how and why the Shang dynasty had come to rule, and urged him to follow the example of his father: "If you be not virtuous, be it in large things [or in small], it will bring the ruin of your ancestral temple" (er wei bu de wang da, zhui jue zong 爾惟不德罔大,墜厥宗).

In the tripartite text Tai Jia 太甲, Yi Yin repeatedly warns the "heir-king" (siwang 嗣王) not to forget the virtuous way of his grandfather (shi nai jue zu 視乃厥祖). Only when the king took some time to contemplate at the tomb of his predecessor, "he became virtuous in the end" (ke zhong yun de 克終允德), and admitted that:

予小子不明于德,自厎不類。 I, the little child, was without understanding of what was virtuous, and was making myself one of the unworthy.
有言逆于汝心,必求諸道;有言遜于汝志,必求諸非道。 When you hear words that are distasteful to your mind, you must enquire whether they be not right; when you hear words that accord with your own views, you must enquire whether they be not contrary to what is right.
嗚呼!弗慮胡獲?弗為胡成?一人元良,萬邦以貞。 Oh! what attainment can be made without anxious thought? what achievement can be made without earnest effort? Let the One man be greatly good, and the myriad regions will be rectified by him.

The text Pan Geng 盤庚 is likewise divided into three parts. It is substantially longer than the other ones and reports of Pan Geng's (trad. r. 1401-1374 BCE) problems to convince his people to transfer the capital again to another place. The text is a good example of rhetoric displayed in prose writings, using various devices to convince his ministers.

The king argues with the result of divination expressing the "commands of Heaven" (tianming 天命). The king spoke to his ministers, reprimanding them not to obstruct the sovereign's virtue and the will of the people by "giving birth to bitter evils for yourselves" (wei ru zi sheng du 惟汝自生毒). Pan Geng makes also use of of proverbs,

若網在綱,
有條而不紊;
When the net has its line,
there is order and not confusion;
若農服田力穡,
乃亦有秋。
and when the husbandman labours upon his fields, and reaps with all his might,
there is the [abundant] harvest.
人惟求舊,
器非求舊,惟新。
In men we seek those of old families;
in vessels, we do not seek old ones, but new.

but he also announces to reward his supporters and punish his opponents.

用罪伐厥死, The criminal shall die the death,
用德彰厥善。 and the good-doer shall have his virtue distinguished.

In the second part of the text, the court is on the way to the new residence, but once more, Pan Geng has to convince the adversaries among his ministers. He plays with the argument that the old kings had always done everything with regard to their people, and even carried out large projects like the change of the royal seat.

殷降大虐,
先王不懷;
When great calamities came down on Yin,
the former kings did not fondly remain in their place.
厥攸作,
視民利用遷。
What they did
was with a view to the people's advantage, and therefore they moved [their capitals].

Charging his opponents with selfishness, he used the parable of a boat:

若乘舟, The case is like that of sailing in a boat;
汝弗濟, if you do not cross the stream [at the proper time],
臭厥載。 you will destroy all the cargo.

Once more, he falls back on the will of his ancestors. If his doing was wrong, they would stop or punish him:

失于政,
陳于茲,
Were I to err in my government,
and remain long here,
高后丕乃崇降罪疾, my high sovereign, would send down on me great punishment for my crime,
曰:曷虐朕民! and say, "Why do you oppress my people?"

With the promise of a better and secure life, Pan Geng encourages his courtiers to follow him to the new capital:

往哉,生生! Go! preserve and continue your lives.
今予將試以汝遷,永建乃家。 I will now transfer you (to the new capital), and (there) establish your families for ever.

Arrived in the new residence, the king once more addresses his courtiers and admonishes them to execute a reign of benevolence and selfishness.

無總于貨寶,
生生自庸。
Do not seek to accumulate wealth and precious things,
but in fostering the life of the people, seek to find your merit.
式敷民德,
永肩一心。
Reverently display your virtue in behalf of the people.
For ever maintain this one purpose in your hearts.

In formal respect, it can be seen that many passages of the text consist of sentences of equal length following each other, like the three 3-syllable phrases in the parable of the boat, or several 4-syllable phrases in sequence (paragraph "do not seek to accumulate wealth"). Parallelisms with equal wording can be found (□□□舊,□□□舊, or 用□□厥□,用□□厥□, or □于□,□于□), as well as the rhetorical figure of repetition (生生, used three times in the text), anapher (multiple use of 永 "for ever" throughout the text) or antithesis (men vs. vessels).

Divinatory texts

How much of the text of the Classic Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes" predates the Zhou period, cannot be said. Usually oracle bones are seen as the sole divinatory technique of the Shang dynasty, yet it is known that the Shang also used a technique including trigrams or hexagrams. The divinatory handbook Guicang 歸藏 began with the hexagram kun 坤, the earth. The language of the Zhou-period Yijing appears very archaic and might include stylistic element of Shang-period language.

A collection of fragments of texts from the Shang period, as quoted in various books, is found in Yan Kejun's 嚴可均 (1762-1843) collectanea Quan shanggu sandai Qin wen 全上古三代秦文. Quite a few of them are quotations of dialogues between a sovereign and a minister, and thus not really literature.

Mythology

The mythology of the Shang period also belongs to its literary heritage. The most important tale is the founding myth of the dynasty, which says that Jian Di 簡狄, the mother of the dynastic ancestor Xie 契, daughter of the family Song 娀氏 and secondary consort of Emperor Di Ku 帝嚳, once went bathing with two friends and discovered how a black bird (usually believed to be a swallow) laying an egg, which she ate. Jian Di became pregnant and gave birth to Xie.

Historiographers believe that the black bird was a kind of totemic symbol of the Shang people, just like other birds which were used as identification marks by many northeastern peoples. The story might also symbolize a unification of the Goddess of the Sun (rishen 日神) and a daughter of the Earl of the Yellow River (He Bo 河伯).

The story is mentioned in the hymns of the Shang in the "Book of Documents", the elegies Lisao 離騷 and Tianwen 天問 and the Qin-period 秦 (221-206 BCE) compilation Lüshi chunqiu, as well as in the annals of the Shang dynasty in the universal history Shiji.

Another often-cited story is how King Wu Ding 武丁 found his counsellor Fu Yue 傅說. The king once had a dream in which he saw a wise man who would become his trusted advisor. Albeit his entourage advised the king that this had just been a dream, Wu Ding sent out heralds to search this person, and eventually detected the man: It was a poor man living in a cave. The king recognized the man from his dream and appointed him chief counsellor.

The story is mentioned in the history Shiji and several other Han-period writings as an example of how a humble person can rise to a prominent position.

A less famous story relates to a pre-dynastic ancestor of the Shang, Wang Hai 王亥. A story in the book Shanhaijing 山海經 (ch. Dahuang dongjing 大荒東經), says that in the kingdom of Kunmin 困民, there was a certain Wang Hai who held two birds in his hands, the heads of which he was eating. Once, Wang Kai was driving his cart into the land of Lord You Yi 有易. The latter killed Wang Hai because he had an illicit affairs with You Yi's wife. Wang Hai's son Shang Jia 上甲 desired to take revenge, but the Earl of the River 河伯 helped You Yi to flee and establish a new kingdom elsewhere.

Source:
Liu Dimin 劉棣民 (1994). Zhongguo yuangu ji sandai wenxue shi 中國遠古暨三代文學史 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe). (Zhongguo quanshi, bai juan ben 中國全史,百卷本)