Shi (Book of Songs), or Shi Jing (Chinese:诗经), China's first collection of poems made its debut in the 7th century BC. It included epics, satirical poems, ballads, love songs, battle songs, odes, seasonal rhymes, and work chants. The book appeared a few hundred years before the famous “Epic of Homer” of the ancient Greeks, and marked the starting point of China’s literary development.
Shi Jing includes 305 poems collected over a span of 500 years from the early years of Western Zhou (1046-771 BC) to the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). There are three sections: Feng, Ya, and Song. Feng consists of 160 folk songs from 15 vassal states in the Yellow River region. Ya has 105 festive songs sung in the Zhou court. Song includes 40 hymns and eulogies sung at sacrificial rites to deities and ancestral spirits of the Zhou royal house. These odes recounted Zhou life in various aspects: religious observances, sacrificial rituals, agricultural production, feasts and banquets, political policies, warfare and compulsory labor, as well as romance and marriage.
Most of the works in the Shi Jing are referred to as four-word poems. That means each line in the poem is only four words long. However, other poems range from two to eight words. Common phrases specific to a group were often used, as well as rhymes and alliteration. These tools made the works vivid, varied, graceful and pleasing to the ear. The works in Feng reflected the life of common people. Themes included war, love and slavery. Feng originated from the people and, while it had little polish, it portrayed the varied lives of the Zhou people very well.
Little is known about the writers themselves. Given the content of the poems, they could have been laborers, soldiers, officials and noblemen. The book was compiled and edited by Confucius.
The poems were used for three purposes: sung at ceremonies, used for personal enjoyment, and used to express ideas on social and political issues. Later on, Shi Jing became a popular textbook for the education of the nobility and studying the book was compulsory. Exalted as one of the most important Confucian classics, Shi Jing exerted unfailing influence on later poets in selection of themes, structure, and language use. Teaching the book helped make the languages more eloquent. People would often quote some lines from the book to express themselves. Confucius once referred to the Shi Jing. He said “people can say nothing valuable without studying Shi Jing first”.