FECUND Picnic on literature 热风 Julie Curates China

Julie Curates China 热风

Julie Curates China appears every Wednesday in Hoje Macau


A song/The fishhawk. Julie O’yang contemporary calligraphy. Read more in the note.

Why did the First Emperor of China burn poetry?


Emperor Qin, aka the First Emperor of China, is world famous for two things: he built the Great Wall and he burnt books. The first book he burnt is 《诗经》, the Book of Songs. Why? Not because of the abundant sexual content explicitly depicting our ancestors’ frequent thrusting and moaning in rice fields. 

The Book of Songs is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, comprising 305 works dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC. Many of the songs are believed to be written either by women or from the perspective of a female persona. Originally, the classic contained 3000 songs. Confucius, who officially compiled it, cut 90 percent and personally selected 300 or so songs to be studied and memorized by scholars in China and neighbouring countries over two millennia. “300” is therefore also the approved version, which Confucius felt best conformed to Confucian Ritual and good manner.

Compared to ancient Egyptians, Greeks or Romans who favoured businesses and affairs of gods, heroes and their wars, Chinese poets who wrote the Book of Songs were less curious about the higher beings and completely ignored them. The Chinese rather sang about the ordinary people who lamented about their real everyday life and social injustices.

Can this difference be explained in some way? Perhaps because the ancient Greek and Roman societies were mainly city states and the citizens and aristocrats wanted entertainment; stories about heroes and their sweethearts and how the meddlesome gods and wicked ghosts (Egypt) got them end up in wars after wars. 

It seems that the Chinese have never found beauty in wars. Instead, the anonymous, and mostly female, poets chanted about the (dismal) life in this world and sought hope. We could imagine that the life along the Yellow River was so harsh and unsympathetic that it kept the Chinese mind down-to-earth, straightforward, and practical.       

Emperor Qin found it hard to tolerate this openness and honesty. He was extremely sensitive towards any kind of criticism after he unified China under one roof and was aware of the eroding power of the seemingly innocent songs about the ordinary existence in his brand new empire. But Emperor Qin forgot that songs are stubborn. After he burnt the last copies, the songs were chanted by mothers to daughters and sons and forever carried on.

The Book of Songs are still read today in spite of or thanks to the aggressive method of an authoritarian ruler from more than 2000 years ago.


Note: The fishhawk

The fishhawks sing gwan gwan
on sandbars of the stream.
Gentle maiden, pure and fair,
fit pair for a prince.

Watercress grows here and there,
right and left we gather it.
Gentle maiden, pure and fair,
wanted waking and asleep.

Wanting, sought her, had her not,
waking sleeping, thought of her,
on and on he thought of her,
he tossed from one side to another.

Watercress grows here and there,
right and left we pullit.
gentle maiden, pure and fair,
with harps we bring her company.

Watercress grows here and there,
right and left we pick it out.
gentle maiden, pure and fair,
with bells and drums do her delight.

Written c. 600 BC or earlier, The fishhawk is the first song from The Book of Songs.

julie 超辣

Determined dreamer. Published author in English, Dutch, and Chinese. Former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) captain turned artist entrepreneur and screenwriter. She survived the Cultural Revolution as a baby. In the 1990’s she left for London and has lived and worked in free exile ever since. Her work covers a wide spectrum. As journalist, she creates content covering a range of topics on contemporary China from an insider perspective. In 2008, during the Beijing Olympics, she hosted a 5-episode talk show TV China for Netherlands’ national broadcaster and discussed China’s media landscape with media stars and experts from both China and the Netherlands. From 2013-2016 she was the Editor-in-Chief of the English/Chinese bilingual magazine XiN 新, focusing on today’s China shaped by consumerism. O’yang contributes a weekly column to Hoje Macau on contemporary Chinese art and culture. Her English language book titles include: Butterfly, a historical crime love story set in the Second World War. Since May 2016 O'yang has been collaborating with Flemish photographer Filip Naudts on an art project, which has resulted in the photo novel The Picture of Dorya Glenn. Julie works from the Netherlands and Denmark.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.