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An Ancient Love Song

A brief look at a famous ancient Chinese love song


An Ancient Love Song

A brief look at a famous ancient Chinese love song


Reading classical Chinese poetry is an art so complicated it has long been considered academic. There is an undeniable amount of skill needed to fully understand the nuances and deep meaning of this ancient art form, if full understanding is even possible. However, that is not to say that the poetry can’t be appreciated by all. In fact, many of the now renowned and celebrated poems were originally folk songs, designed to be enjoyed by the common people and shared together. Here we take a look at one of the more famous love songs, “Guan Ju” (《关雎》).

Shijing (《诗经》, Classic of Poetry) was one of the first collection of songs and poems, and altogether contains around 305 works from the 11th to 7th century BC. The first of these are called 国风 (guo feng, literally “Airs of the States”), which uses shorter lyrics and simple but graceful language. Many of the poems are written in couplets, and create art through the unique way that only Chinese characters can. “Guan Ju” is one of China’s oldest poems, having been dated to around the 7th century BCE, and is made up of three stanzas, each with four to eight lines.

Although now considered “Classics”, it is worth remembering that these pieces have gained this reputation because they were deeply embedded into Chinese culture in a down-to-earth way, they celebrated emotion and depicted vivid scenes. They were bursts of expression, not a formal composition, and the rules regarding form and structure did not in the slightest limit imagination or fluidity. Little is known about the original intention of the poet, but through history it has come to be intrinsically linked to celebration. The simple but emotive style can be seen in “Guan Ju”.

A rough translation of the song might be as follows:


The osprey sings out on an island in the river
The soft and graceful lady is a good partner for the gentleman.

The flowering water cress grows high and low, she plucks them from left and right
Night and day, he seeks the soft and graceful lady,
If he looks for her but cannot find her, then day and night he longs for her
Longing, longing for her, he turns from side to side.

The flowering water cress grows high and low, she plucks them from left and right
He plays the qin and the se to please the soft and graceful lady.

The flowering water cress grows high and low, she plucks them from left and right
He plays the bells and the drums to please the soft and graceful lady.

*the qin and the se were ancient Chinese instruments.

There are, of course, multiple other possibilities for translation, as Chinese characters often say little but imply a lot. Word function is often flexible, and wordplay very common. Therefore it is often not clear exactly which meaning the poet intended you to choose, which of course is part of the fun. The whole piece might be sung for entertainment with an accompaniment of a drum beat, or an ancient Chinese zither. Over the years it has sometimes been sung at weddings, to add to the merriment.

Interpretations of the “Guan Ju” have sparked debate amongst scholars throughout history. These have ranged from theories suggesting it is aiming for political criticism, to those arguing it contains a message of moral instruction. The interpretation that came to dominate however was by the Mao school, which saw the poem to be praising a queen, whose picking of water cress plants are analogous to her preparing for her rituals. The pure young lady is a suitable choice for a respected lord.

Whether this was the original intention or not, the song has become an iconic one and earned its place as a significant piece of Chinese culture. Examples of “Guan Ju” being played with a bit of a more modern accompaniment can today be found on Youtube. Despite Classical Chinese poetry seemingly a difficult topic to get your head around, I hope some people might take a chance to listen. There is also much more Classical poetry to explore and enjoy, what will you find?


For more poetry, see China’s Greatest Poets. Or for something more unexpected – try Prostitutes and Poets.