Hark the Timeless Songs! — Selected Poems of Antiquity from The Book of Songs and Songs of the South

Hark the Timeless Songs! — Selected Poems of Antiquity from <em>The Book of Songs</em> and <em>Songs of the South</em>

Ben Wang’s Special Course at China Institute, 2020


10 sessions (20 hours)
September 29 – December 8 (No class on 11/3)
Tuesday, 6:30 – 8:30pm
Tuition: $500 members / $540 non-members
(plus a $30 non-refundable registration fee)
*This class is taught in English.

The Book of Songs

Dated from the 12th century to the 7th century B. C., The Book of Songs is the earliest collection of poetry in world literature. Together with Songs of the South of the 4th century, B.C., they are the parental force of everything that is related to Chinese culture, including poetry and literature, naturally. It is an anthology of 305 songs-turned-poems selected and edited by Confucius (551-479 B. C.). The collection remained a required reading for the literati for more than 2,000 years in China, and not until the turn of the 20th century did it cease to be read as scripture and begin to be appreciated as a collection of poetic compositions.

The Book of Songs is divided into 3 sections: songs, elegancies, and paeans. Within the elegancies, there is the light elegancy and the grandiose elegancy, with the former often overlapping with the songs, whose themes are either love, political satire, or the pain of separation caused by war. The poems written in the style of grandiose elegancy are usually mythological and biographical details of the creators and forefathers of the Yin Shang Period (1600-1100 B. C.).

Though straightforward and natural in style, typical of ancient literature in terms of the immediacy of imagery and pervasive musical quality, The Book of Songs is by no means simple in its modes of expression. The poems are rich in metaphors and similes, both indirect and direct, as well as narrative display, all of which make up the three major writing styles in the book.

Qū Yuán屈原(345-286 B.C.) and/ Sāo: Encountering Sorrow

Born to aristocracy of the State of Chu (circa 650-232 B.C.), Qu Yuan was the first known poet, and one of the greatest, in Chinese literature. Qu Yuan was barely twenty years old when he started serving as a consultant to King Huai of Chu, but his talent and patriotism drew intense resentment from other inefficient and corrupt ministers who slandered him to the king, accusing him vain and boastful. The king heeded their words and sent Qu Yuan into years of exile, during which time Qu Yuan composed Suffering Throes, or Encountering Sorrow (Li Sao), his masterpiece and one of the most influential poems in Chinese culture, as a remonstrance of his loyalty to his king and as evidence of his love for his country. During Qu Yuan’s exile, King Huai was led by his iniquitous ministers to many disastrous ventures, which finally resulted in his becoming a captive of the northern Qin, where he died.

After the king’s eldest son inherited the throne, Qu Yuan was reinstated as a high minister for a brief time. When he refused to discontinue his criticism of the again-corrupt new court, Qu Yuan was once again banished by the new king to the distant South, where he both voiced his disillusion with politics and lamented his own tragic destiny. Finally, aging, physically weakened and heart-broken, Qu Yuan died by drowning himself in the Mi Lo River. Fifty years after his death, Chu was annihilated by Qin.

Li Sao is the representative work in The Songs of the South, a collection of poems written by Qu Yuan and other poets. There is much evidence to suggest that Qu Yuan was a shaman in the service of the king of Chu, but in the commentaries of many Han commentators and scholars, the shaman motifs are allegorized to stand for Confucian values, which led traditional readers to understand the texts in this way. As a repository of Confucian values, The Songs of the South, as how it is represented by Qu Yuan’s Li Sao, stands second only to The Book of Songs in Chinese literature. Together, The Book of Songs and The Songs of the South shine as the fountainhead to all things related to Chinese culture. (By Ben Wang)



Ben Wang: Senior Lecturer in Language and Humanities at China Institute, Co-Chair of Renwen Society of China Institute, retired Instructor of Chinese at the United Nations Language Program.  A published writer on classical Chinese poetry and others, Ben Wang is an award winning translator both from Chinese into English and vice versa; He taught Chinese and translation at Columbia University, New York University, Pace University and City University of New York between 1969 and 1991.

Ben Wang teaches and lectures on the Chinese language, calligraphy, and classical Chinese literature, including the Book of Songs, the Songs of the South; Han, Tang and Song poetry; Yuan and Ming poetic dramas; Story of the Stone of the Qing; classical Kunqu Drama and Beijing Opera; Literati Painting. Ben Wang’s lectures on and translations of Kunqu dramas have been reviewed and acclaimed three times in the New York Times by the Times’ music and drama critic James Oestreich as “magnificent,” “captivating,” and “colorful.”

Since 1989, Ben Wang has lectured (extensively on the above-mentioned subjects)at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Barnard, Williams, U.C. Berkeley, New York University, Bates, Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury, Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. Mary’s College in California, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, United Nations, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, ABC Nightline, the BBC, among other academic and cultural institutions.

Latest publications in English:

  1. Forlorn in the Rain: Translation and Annotation of Selected Classical Chinese Poetry and Others; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: Oct. 2018
  1. A series of 4 books on the Forbidden City in Beijing, China:
    1. We All Live in the Forbidden City
    2. This Is the Greatest Place!
    3. Bowls of Happiness
    4. What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?

    (Published by China Institute and Released by Tuttle Publishing; 2014, 2015, the series has garnered 9 US book awards, as of September 2016.)

  1. Laughter and Tears: Libretti from Highlight Scenes of 26 Classical Poetic Kunqu Dramas; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: 2009.

(January 2019)

6:30 PM - 8:30 PM
Instructor: Ben Wang