BMCR 2018.09.11

The Homeric Epics and the Chinese ‘Book of Songs’: Foundational Texts Compared

, The Homeric Epics and the Chinese 'Book of Songs': Foundational Texts Compared. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018. 509. ISBN 9781527504004. £70.99​.

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I must confess that I was initially surprised by the topic of this book, a grand comparison of the Greek Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, with the Chinese Shijing, or Book of Songs. I teach comparative courses on the civilizations of ancient Greece, Rome and China, and I’ve always found a natural and obvious point of comparison between Greek lyric poetry and the roughly contemporaneous Book of Songs. The problem is that the extant Book of Songs contains 305 poems, whereas Greek lyric poetry of the Archaic Period is a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing, existing only in very fragmentary form, that is, as quotations or paraphrases in later, surviving sources. With these fragments, analysis and interpretation is difficult since we don’t usually know whether they represent complete poems, what came before and what after, and the themes and organizing principles of the collection from which each fragment came. However, one can make illuminating comparisons of various themes common to the two poetic traditions, comparing and contrasting Greek and Chinese attitudes to love, war, politics, and social and ethical values.

The editor of this collection, Fritz-Heiner Mutschler, a German professor of Classics who spent five years teaching at Beijing University, has chosen instead to compare the Book of Songs to the two great epic poems of Homer. The key to this choice can be found in the subtitle, “Foundational Texts Compared.” Mutschler maintains that the Book of Songs and the Homeric epics were each central to the development of their respective civilizations in profound ways. He claims that these texts belong to “a class of privileged texts in which a culture finds the valid expression of its worldview and in the communicative representation of which it confirms this worldview and at the same time itself. Given this situation, it seemed timely to compare the two text corpora… systematically and exclusively, in order to test out how far this kind of direct full-scale comparison could enhance our understanding of their particular characters and perhaps even contribute to a deeper understanding of the cultures to which they belong.” (p. 4)

This book is the product of a conference of international scholars on this topic that Mutschler organized in 2014. The format is sensible and consistent. Part I, titled “The History of The Texts And Of Their Reception,” is further subdivided into sections on the origins of the texts, the evolution of scholarly study of the texts in antiquity, and the roles played by the texts in their respective cultures. Part II, “The Texts As Poetry,” is subdivided into sections on form and structure, contents, and values. In each section there are separate chapters written by experts on the Greek and Chinese texts, followed by a comparative chapter. The volume begins and ends with the editor’s introduction and conclusion. I found the chapters written by the experts on Greek and Chinese literature to be balanced and informative, even for subjects where I already have some familiarity (such as Margalit Finkelberg on “The Formation of the Homeric Epics,” or David Schaberg on “Cultural Roles of the Book of Songs ”). But the real action is in the comparative chapters, which bring out both the many striking similarities between ancient Greek and Chinese civilizations and the sometimes powerful differences that underlie the different trajectories taken over the ages by East Asian and “Western” civilizations.

What one cannot do, of course, is meaningfully compare the two genres – the lengthy Homeric epics, with the protagonists living and dying by a “heroic code,” the graphic and gruesome scenes of combat, and the complex metrical and formulaic features that made possible the oral composition and preservation of the text, and the relatively short poems of the Book of Songs, presumably composed by a diverse array of anonymous poets, and ranging widely in subject matter, from the folksongs of ordinary men and women to the self-aggrandizing pictures of elite life, and finally to the origin legends and religious rituals of the Zhou court. Many scholars have wondered why ancient Chinese civilization did not seem to produce (or, in any case, to preserve) something like heroic epic. Even in those poems that deal with warfare, there is little or no description of the fighting; the glory of victory really goes to the general and the king, and the soldiers mostly complain about tyrannous officers, harsh conditions, and long periods of service away from home. It’s quite different from, for example, the poems of the Spartan Tyrtaeus, where the soldier’s choice to take risks and to die earn him eternal glory and gratitude from the community he is protecting. This difference has much to do with the different political structures in Greece and China, and here, as so often, we run into the contrast between the Greek focus on the individual and the Chinese emphasis on the community as a whole.

My initial concern that we are comparing apples and oranges was disarmed by the seriousness and ingenuity with which the authors of the comparative chapters approached this difficult task, and the thought-provoking results achieved. For instance, in comparing the origins of the several texts, Beecroft emphasizes that each text started out as orally composed and performed, that the two societies—necessarily unable to know about the earlier stages of oral traditions— generated mythical accounts of their coming into being (the blind poet Homer creating the Greek epics, and the philosopher/teacher Confucius editing the Book of Songs by selecting three hundred poems from a corpus of three thousand), and that they were long preserved through oral performance and probably fixed in written form later than we think. Gao and Liu distinguish an earlier phase in both societies of free-lance commentary and a later stage of state-supported scholarship (in China the Imperial Academy, in Greece the Ptolemies’ support of the Museum and Library in Alexandria), leading to the development of standards of interpretation and criticism. But they also point out that the Homeric epics were often performed at public festivals, whereas parts of the Book of Songs played an important role in the rituals of the Zhou court. For these reasons the Homeric poems became Panhellenic, that is, shared by Greeks everywhere, whereas the Chinese text was largely confined to the North China plain, while different poetic traditions were arising in the Yangzi River Valley. Zhang notes that the Homeric epics and the Book of Songs each became central to education, but whereas Homer was cited and discussed in the intellectual sphere by poets, historians and philosophers, the Book of Songs came to play an important role in the political and diplomatic dealings of the Chinese states, with the astute government agent able to quote and interpret the poem appropriate to a given situation. Mutschler, in dealing with the contents of the poems, observes the ubiquity of warfare and fighting in the Homeric epics, in contrast to the much wider range of human experiences revealed by the Chinese collection, and contrasts the military heroes of Homer with the political agents of the Zhou Dynasty. He further notes that Homer concentrates on members of the elite, while the Book of Songs touches on a wider spectrum of society and the larger role played by women. He also contrasts the anthropomorphic gods of Homer and their interventions in human affairs on behalf of their favorites with the more abstract and aloof Chinese deities who tend to be concerned with the welfare of society as a whole. Huang and Yan, in dealing with the values propagated by the poems, choose to focus on ideals of leadership and rule. Against very different political backdrops—multiple “kings” with various limits on their power in the late Dark Age and early polis society of the Greeks, absolute monarchy in Zhou dynasty China—they detect both commonalities and differences. In both societies the good leader shows concern for his people and an ability to solve problems and resolve disputes with fairness and justice. On the other hand, Homeric leaders are primarily military leaders, but Chinese rulers are not primarily lauded for their military prowess and actions. And while the Homeric heroes look to the gods for personal assistance, the Chinese monarch is the intermediary between his people and the gods. Finally, in the concluding chapter, Mutschler lays out a number of promising directions for future comparative research.

It should be clear that I think this book makes a significant contribution to comparative ancient Greek/Chinese studies. While relatively little has been done in this field outside the areas of philosophy and science, recent years have seen a growth in interest. 1 One hopes that this collection will stimulate further comparative work in the literary sphere. Comparative Greek and ancient Chinese historiography is another rich vein waiting to be mined. The challenge is, of course, that scholars trained in one civilization must dare to immerse themselves in the other. Mutschler has provided a model through the organization of both the conference and the volume that issued from it, by bringing together experts in each tradition to provide a base for the comparative scholars who can then illuminate both civilizations simultaneously.


1. Most recently G. E. R. Lloyd and Jingyi Jenny Zhao (eds.), Ancient Greece and China Compared (2018).