Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
Issue illustration


Current Issue:
Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003

Site Map


QLRS sections
Short Stories
Extra Media
The Acid Tongue
QLRS general

About Us
Contributors' Notes
Mailing List
Site Map


Guan Ju, the Song of Songs, and the Language of Love
Ng Teng Kuan digs into some of the world's earliest love poetry

By Ng Teng Kuan

“The Guan-ju is perfection. Now in its relation to man, the Guan-ju above is like Heaven; below it is like earth. Mysterious and dark is the virtue it hides; abundant and rich the Way it puts into practice. Its transformations are like those of the supernatural dragon. It is complete in its brilliancy and order. Oh great is the way of the Guan-ju! It is that which connects all things and on which the life of human beings is dependent.”

“The entire universe is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs are the Holy of Holies.”

These panegyric pronouncements, respectively made by Confucius and the Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph, demonstrate the deep reverence that the Chinese and the Jewish had, and still do have, for these two poems – poems that to a large extent serve as the quintessential love songs within their corresponding scriptural traditions. Their greatness, however, cannot be confined to their particular literary, cultural or historical contexts; thus more than embodying of the poetic principles of the Shi Jing and ancient Chinese verse, “the associations represented in Guan Ju,” as Arthur Cooper affirms, “belong to the universal language of the human mind”. Upon a close examination of the common motifs within Guan Ju and the Song of Songs, we will witness how these similarities reveal the necessarily metaphorical underpinnings that lie at the heart of their enduring poeticism. This will, in turn, lead us to consider not only the implications of the poems’ allegorical significance, but also the very nature of the language of love itself.

Let us begin with a concise consideration of the form and genre of both poems, which will provide us with a framework to appreciate the workings of the metaphorical within them. As the first and most important ode in the Guo Feng section, Guan Ju can be read as either a first or third person narrative; traditional interpretation, such as that of the later Mao School of the Latter Han dynasty (25 – 220 A.D.), views the personae as noble King Wen and Tai Si, a daughter of the House of You Xin. The structural progression of the poem begins with a statement of the male persona’s longing for an ideal beloved in the first stanza, depicts the withholding of fulfillment in the second, and concludes with an eventual realization of these desires in the third stanza.

Likewise, the Song of Songs is traditionally accepted as an epithalamium in celebration of King Solomon and his Shulamite bride, in this respect uniting it with Guan Ju as apotheoses of the amatory lives of wise kings. Taking place in the form of a dramatic interchange, the quasi-narrative pastiche of the Song of Songs flows between, as Robert Gordis limns, alternating states of praise, yearning, sorrow, joy, and fulfillment. Turning to an analysis of the poems themselves, we will see how in spite of their disparate structures they employ many remarkably similar poetic elements, which hint ultimately at the intuitive veracity of Francis Landy’s proposition that “lovers can communicate through the world, through metaphor”.

Guan Ju begins with the onomatopoeic cry of ospreys on an isle in the river, evoking an immediacy that draws us into a vignette of natural beauty while conjuring a sense of pastoral tranquility. Right after this, the central refrain of the poem is introduced: yao tiao shu nu, which James Legge translates as “modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady”. Despite the accuracy of explanation, Legge neglects the crucial blush of connotation brought to mind by the euphonic turn of phrase in the original: the gentle and demure quietude of an intensely feminine loveliness, ripe with suggestion and possibility. When these free-flighted birds are regarded as symbols of speculative infinity, the fact that they should have chosen to roost on this particular islet intimates the attainable nearness of a state of connubial bliss. Coupled with the water imagery indicated by the river in the first stanza, the floating duckweed – which serves as the central trope for the young lady – amidst waters imparts a discreet sense of nascent lushness.

What we observe at work here simultaneously are the Bi (metaphorical, comparative) and Xing (allusive, evocative) methods of poetical composition: contemplation upon this beloved is aroused or emoted by physical phenomena, but at the same time the latter themselves become figures for the beloved within this process. The conflation of the present and the future ideal is further achieved by the rhyme of jiu, zhou, and qiu, and probably that of cai and nu which in several extant dialects are pronounced with an “oi” ending. Yet the imagistic and assonantal associations at work here operate with a certain lightness, without the interpretive strain that often accompanies the use of conceits. Enhanced by the inherent compactness of classical Chinese verse, it proves difficult to distinguish – nor are we inclined to – the real and the imagined. We cannot be utterly certain, to begin with, that the poet actually beholds the ospreys, the islet, and the duckweed, and it is equally plausible that they exist simply within the mind’s eye. And while the stanzas do indicate some form of thematic development and progression, the poem does not provide us with enough to conclusively observe a narrative per se.

In a similar way, the Song of Songs presents a sense of narrative openness, conveyed through the polyphonic (to borrow Mikhail Bakhtin’s apt term) medley of intermingling consciousnesses. Upon a tableaux of naturalistic richness, the voices of the Shulamite, the Beloved, and the Daughters of Jerusalem (alongside their kith and kin) melt into one another in lively fluidity. As Landy astutely points out, “there is no ‘story’ in the Song... only a set of anecdotes, hovering between reality and dream, that exemplify the relationships of lovers”.

The lovers relate to each other in chiefly metaphorical terms, which echo with slight variation the three primary motifs in Guan Ju that we have listed thus far. For instance, the Beloved refers to the Shulamite’s “dove’s eyes,” who in turn uses “my dove” as a term of endearment for him; as a pair of tender “lovebirds,” they parallel Zhu Xi’s interpretation of the ospreys as a figure of right, conjugal happiness. Moreover, he praises her as “a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon,” images that conjure an overwhelming verdancy and abundance. Perhaps most striking would be the way in which the Shulamite likens herself to “the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys,” recalling the translations of William Jennings and Arthur Cooper which transpose xing cai as “waterlilies”.

But the figurative and the literal naturalism of the poem are rendered indistinct through their associative propinquity. Even as we are provided with concrete cues of the actual milieu, such as when the Shulamite meditates on how her “beloved has gone to his garden, ...to feed his flock,” the fact that we see in the next verse that “he feeds his flock among the lilies” tells of how the physical itself is suffused with an equally real presence of a sensuous metaphoricity of the body. As it is, the use of the metaphorical is not grounded simply upon aesthetic or technical reasons; rather, it seems necessary for articulating the otherwise ineffable experience of love in the fullness of all its emotional, spiritual, and sexual implications – and it is the latter that notions of decency or propriety leave most unutterable. Hence “the elaborations of the metaphor,” as Robert Alter incisively observes, are essential for conveying this fullness, providing “a way of being at once sexually explicit and decorous through elegant double entente”.

[Page 1 | Page 2]

QLRS Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003


About Ng Teng Kuan
Mail the editors

Return to Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003

  Other Essays in this Issue

Female Sexuality in a Clairol Ad and its Reception by its Hong Kong Audience
By Amy Lai.

A Letter from Another Sports Fan
By Miguel Jaime Ongpin.

Drink Deep, Or Taste Not the Pierian Spring
By Toh Hsien Min.

Related Links

Confucius profile
External link.

Guan Ju and Sexual Restraint
External link.

Akiba ben Joseph profile
External link.

Song of Songs text
External link to Bartleby.

Song of Songs, with Explanation and Reflection by Mme Guyon
External link.

Song of Songs as Erotic Love Poetry
External link.


Return to QLRS home

Copyright © 2003 The Authors
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | E-mail