+ About the Speakers

Legends of the Zhou and the Nature of Chinese Society

The Han Dynasty Codification

"The Great Preface" and Five Notions about Poetry

Individual Voices in the Book of Songs


Early Literature in China and Greece Compared

Robert Oxnam :: People in China were composing the poems in the Book of Songs at approximately the same time Homer was writing his epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in eighth-century Greece. While the roots of the Western literary tradition lie in epic and drama, those of the Chinese literary tradition lie in lyric poetry.

Stephen Owen :: Certainly, the fact that Chinese poetry begins in lyric is of complete importance. This is the highest, you know, in the West, of course, you know the notion of minor poetry originally means short poetry. So the lyric has always been the stepchild of the great genres of epic and drama; whereas in China, it is clearly lyric poetry or relatively short ballads become the norm. That's the real heart of the tradition. And when people look back to what could they do, what important thing could they do, like what was done in the past, it was not writing an epic or play, but it was being able to write lyric poetry.

Robert Oxnam :: The ancient Chinese collection, the Book of Songs, served the early Chinese in much the same way as the Greek epics served the ancient Greeks.

Stephen Owen :: The Homeric epics were sort of the bonds that held together these Greek city-states, which were usually fighting among one another, had very different customs, but Homer was considered their cultural past. It was the way you created unity out of the people.

And the Classic of Poetry**, which comes together around 600 BCE and circulates among the feudal lords, becomes the way the scattered Zhou states, these feudal states, are able to think about their past. But, unlike Homer, which is really one voice, one class, you know sort of the male warrior, the nice thing about the Classic of Poetry is that it is all these voices thrown together that represent Zhou society — the ritual poems, the war poems, women, the courts of the various princes, the common people — all of it sort of comes together to create this sort of complex vision of Zhou society.