Color in The Book of Songs


Men perceive the world about them in many groups of sensations, each group associated with one of their facul­ties, of sight, hearing, and the like. For the majority of men, color is the most obtrusive, along with shape, size, and texture, of those sensations they receive through their eyes. When men attempted, in the earliest times, to describe the sensations of color, vocabularies of color developed and became systematized. In literature men often set down in writing their perceptions of the physical world and where these descriptions of nature occur, so will words for color. Such is the case with The Book of Songs (Shī Jīng 詩經), where color words add considerably to the imagery. Since there is no evidence that the ancient Chinese were physio­logically any different from us in their color sense—that is, they presumably saw colors in the same way we do—the only factor which inhibits a free appreciation of the use of color in the imagery of The Book of Songs is an imperfect understanding of its language of color and the nature of the objects to which particular colors are attributed. This short survey of the color vocabulary of the Songs will, I hope, demonstrate that there is actually little to keep us from a full appreciation of its appeal. It will also con­tribute to a more thorough understanding of the general structure of imagery in the Songs.[1]

We should ask, what color words are used and denoting what colors? Do they strike us as realistic and fresh in application? Or is there a notable conventionality to their use? How complex is the imagery of color? Can we speak of a symbolic use of color? Finally, what can be said of the general impact of the color vocabulary in terms of its place in the poetic art of The Book of Songs? But before discussing the color words which are to be found, certain remarks should be made on a problem which will continually confound our analysis. It will become clear that there is no easy line between words which are used independently to denote color and words which, while incorporating color in their meaning, are inextricably associated with a concrete object or objects. Examples of the latter are the rich vocabulary for horses in the Songs (see Appendix). The vocabulary of a language constantly changes, as words grow more complex through meaning extensions. What might once have been a metaphorical application of a word becomes, through repeated use, part of its intrinsic meaning. The great Danish linguist Otto Jespersen stressed that possibly the greater part of a language's vocabulary has evolved in this fashion. Over the ages many metaphors once fresh are now dead. He cited as an example the English sen­tence, “He came to look upon the low ebb of morals as an outcome of bad taste,” where the underscored words were all originally metaphorical.[2]

Within the color vocabulary of a language this process has the effect of turning words of once totally concrete significance into abstract color words, and vice versa, color words can become normally applied substantively to objects themselves. Examples of the former constitute the majority of all color words in all languages, although since the metaphors were often applied in the extremely remote past (mankind has undoubtedly consciously appreci­ated color for longer than he has recorded his impressions of it) it is frequently difficult to determine with any great certainty what the original meaning of many color words might have been. But just as it is clear etymologically that English “red” is akin to “blood” and “green” to the verb “to grow,” in Chinese the graph (chì “red”), in its earliest form depicting “man” and “fire” , suggests a link between chì “red” and “fire,” and the graph (qīng “green-blue,” archaic graph ) with the upper half the same as shēng “to grow,” provides a strong indication of their early association as well.[3] In Chinese as in English many attributive color words were originally only pigments or dyes. Chinese zhū “red,” lán “blue,” “green, “ hóng “red” and others are of this type. Examples of the latter process, whereby an abstract color word acquires a substantive use through meaning extension are English “greens” meaning vegetables of green color, “Reds” meaning Communists, “blues” meaning a type of music, or “whites” and “blacks” meaning respectively people of white and black skin color (although there is more at work here than simply extension of meaning, including a remarkable generalization and conventionalization of every shade from very pale pink to very dark brown into two categories); and Chinese huáng “a bay horse” as used in the Songs, Mao Nos. 78, 134, 179, 297, 298.

I have tried to include for consideration all those words which, on the basis of their actual use in the Songs, appear to be independent words denoting color at the time of its composition (see Table I); but I have included as well those words which were very nearly independent and abstract color words, as indicated by their use (see Table II). I have excluded those words which seemed to have no life of their own in denoting only the aspect of color. As far as the imagery of The Book of Songs is concerned this is quite arbitrary and a total picture of its color imagery would certainly demand consideration of all situations which assail our sense of color. Thus I leave out of consideration situations such as the second stanza of Shí Rén 碩人, No. 57, which in almost every line evokes a color image through explicit or implicit similes and metaphors, but without using a single color word:

Hands white as rush down,

Skin like lard,

Neck long and white as the tree grub,

Teeth like melon seeds,

Lovely head, beautiful brows.

Oh, the sweet smile dimpling.

The lovely eyes so black and white.[4]

True, it is a description of wealth and beauty, yet the reading of but a few poems at random would reveal that to include all such would be a monumental task. I prefer to think that we can still profit from taking a more limited point of view. Finally, while treating white, black, and all shades of grey in between as colors, since whatever their special optical characteristics, they have a psychological, and thus literary, significance as colors like any other, I have not attempted an analysis of all terms of brightness and darkness. Since they are linked to the passage of night and day, and to the passing of the seasons, they fall more naturally under the concept of time in the Songs.

It is time to say something about the colors themselves. As defined above there are about 20 true color words, in addition to nine quasi-color words in The Book of Songs, which occur altogether over 160 times in 80 different songs. From a statistical point of view some comparisons will be fruitful. A study of color in Homer's Odyssey and Iliad showed that there were some 695 occurrences of some 20 different color words. Since there were a total of 27,800 lines between the two works, about one color word occurred to every 40 lines.[5] A comparative study of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf indicated a much more sparing use of color. Sixteen color words appeared only 39 times in a total of 3183 lines, averaging to one in every 82 lines. Now the Songs are over twice as long as Beowulf (according to my cal­culations, there are a total of 7439 lines in the 305 poems in the anthology) while falling far short of Homer in length. Using the same measuring rod, there is about one color word to every 47 lines in The Book of Songs, which puts it fairly close to Homer in the frequency with which abstract color words are mentioned. The two tables below set out the environments is which each color word occurs. I have wherever possible associated an object with the color so that the reader can easily get a notion of the choice of objects to which each color is attributed. The English words are not meant so much as translations as, rather, fairly accurate indications of the colors which are at­tributed to various head nouns and of the character of the objects to which the head nouns refer. Numbers in parentheses are the number of poem and stanza in consecutive order of the Mao text of the Songs.

Table I. Color Words

1. bái () white

___ rushes máo (23/1,2; 229/1)

___ rocks shí   (116/1,2,3)

___ forehead diān (126/1)

___ dew (129/1,2,3)

___ banners pèi (177/4)

___ colt (186/1,2,3,4)

___ flower huá (214/3; 229/1)

___ clouds yún (229/2)

___ pig's trotters (232/3)

___ birds niǎo (242/3)

___ scepter guī (256/5)

___ horse (284)

___ bull (300/4)

2. white (bright)

___ brow yáng (47/2)

3. jiǎo  white (bright)

___ sun (73/3)

4. gǎo white (undyed)

___ coat (93/1,2)

5. white (plain)

___ silk (18/1,2,3; 53/1,2,3)

___ earplugs chōng’ěr 充耳 (98/1)

___ coat (116/1,2; 147/2)

___ cap guān (147/1)

___ leggings (147/3)

6. huáng yellow-brown

___ bird niǎo (2/1; 32/4; 131/1,2,3; 187/1,2,3; 230/1,2,3)

___ horses (3/3)

___ lining (of a coat) (27/1)

___ skirt cháng (27/2)

___ fallen mulberry (leaves) sāng (58/4)

___ (noun - a bay horse) (78/2; 134/1; 179/6; 297/1; 298/1)

___ earplugs chōng’ěr 充耳 (98/3)

___ thread (154/3)

___ (said of hair of aged) (172/5; 246/7,8; 300/4,7;302)

___ flower huá (214/2,3)

___ fox furs hú qiú 狐裘 (225/1)

___ flowers of bignonia tiáo zhi huá  苕之華 (233/1)

___ plant cǎo (234/1)

___ “flood” (liquid in spoon) liú (239/2)
___ crop mào  (245/5)

___ bear (261/6)

7. zhū red

___ trappings fén (57/3)

___ leatherwork kuò   (105/1)

___ lappet (116/1) )

___ stitching xiù (116/2)

___ (noun - a pigment) (154/3)

___ greaves (178/2; 189/8)

___ tassels yīng (300/4)

___ strings qīn (300/4)

8. chì red

___ fox (41/3)

___ greaves , (151/1; 179/4; 222/3)

___ shoes (160/1; 261/2)

___ panther bào (261/6)

9. tóng red

___ flute guǎn (42/2)

___ bow gōng (175/1,2,3)

10. shì red (painted?)

___ chariot chē (178/1)

___ madder knee-caps mèi jiā 韎韐 (231/1)

11. chēng red

___ tail of bream fáng yú wěi  魴魚尾 (10/3)

12. green

___ coat (27/1,2)

___ threads (27/3)

___ bamboo zhú (kitesfoot?) (55/1,2,3)

___ (noun - a plant, arthraxon?) (226/1)

___ lashings téng (300/4)

13. qīng blue-green

___ collar jīn (91/1)

___ girdle (ornament?) pèi (91/2 )
___ earplugs chōng’ěr 充耳 (98/2)

___ flies yíng   (219/1,2,3)

14. cāng blue-green

___ Heaven tiān (65/1,2,3; 121/1,2,3; 131/1,2,3; 200/5)

___ flies yíng (96/1)

___ rush leaves jiān jiā 蒹葭 (129/1)

___ (noun - qiōng cāng 穹蒼 “the Concave Blue” i.e., Heaven) (257/7)

15. gōu grey (ashen)

___ (said of face of aged) (172/5; 246/7,8; 302)

16. grey

___ kerchief jīn (93/1)

17. xuán black (dark)

___ horses (3/3)

___ thread (154/3)

___ robe gǔn (222/1; 261/2)

___ plant cǎo  (234/1)

___ bird niǎo (swallow?) (303)

___ king wáng (304/2)

18. black

___ coat (75/1,2,3)
___ headcloth zuǒ (225/2)

19. hēi black

___ crow (41/3)

___ (noun - a black horse) (212/4)

20. zhěn black

___ hair

Table II. Quasi-Color Words

1. bǎo grey (bustard)

___ (noun - a grey dappled horse) (78/3)

2. huáng yellow (horse)

___ (noun - a bay and white horse) (156/4; 297/1)

3. xīng red roan

___ bull (as a kenning) (210/5, 239/4)

4. dān red-rouge (cinnabar)

___ face, as if rouged with (130/1)

5. zhě red-rouge (ochre)

___ face, as if rouged with (38/2)

6. red-flushed

___ face yán (38/2; 241/5; 301)

7. wěi red-flush

___ flute guǎn (42/2)

8. qīng (loan for qīng ) green - verdant

___ bamboo zhú (55/2)

___ leaves of bignonia (233/2)

9. lán blue-indigo

___ (noun - a plant, a pigment) (226/2)


The tables speak for themselves and I needn't do more than note what seems significant to me in them. There is a reasonable diversity of colors represented from an abundance of light bright colors, white and yellow, through many different reds, green and blue, to dark somber colors and a rich quantity of blacks. Moreover, the objects with which each color is associated seem plausible enough save for one or two circumstances. In the Songs, as in Beowulf and Homer we might expect to find words with blue, green, and brown denotations in plenty since these are the commonest colors of nature, while bright red, yellow, pure white and black and the sort are much more restricted in nature, to flowers, birds, and the like. On the other hand, such colors should predominate in description of the artificial creations of men, primarily clothing, vehicles, and ornaments. (In Homer in addition the sea plays an extraordinary role, altogether lacking in the Songs.) What is interesting then is that, while this color distribution is just what we do find in the Songs, Homer and Beowulf are, on the contrary, surprisingly different. In Homer there is a peculiarly large number of words suggesting red used to describe the sea, with blues quite lacking, and in the case of Beowulf only one of the 16 color words can be said to express true color (geolo “yellow”), all the others expressing shades of grey, dark, bright, pale and other chromatically neutral tones. This, despite the fact that red, blue, and green all have reflexes in old Anglo-Saxon words.[6]

Among the colors which occur frequently enough that we can generalize about their use, huáng “yellow-brown,” xuán “black-dark,” and to a lesser extent lǜ “green” and chì “red,” are independent with respect to their privileges of occurrence in various environments and can describe a wide range of objects. The other colors are more restricted. A number are applied only to textiles and articles of clothing: “plain-white,” gǎo “white,” “grey,” “black.” Bái “white” is complementary to and gǎo 縞,never occurring with textiles or clothing but otherwise with a wide variety of physical phenomena. It is “white” in the sense of “bright,” while they are “white” in the sense of “plain,” “undyed.” Zhū “red” is used exclusively to refer to articles of ornament or dress, such as leatherwork, greaves, tassels, or stitching. The word even occurs once (in Qí Yuè 七月 No. 154) in its original substantive meaning of a red-colored pigment and it is apparent that, because all the objects to which it is applied are artificially red, it has not progressed far past its original concrete significance. Among quasi-color words lán “blue-indigo,” later to be an important part of the Chinese color vocabulary, appears only once in the Songs (Cǎi Lǜ 采緑 No. 226) and then technically as a plant name rather than a color. It too has not achieved independence. It is included here because it alternates in incremental repetition with lǜ “green,” a color word in other instances. Note also that the commonest words of color in later stages of the language, many orig­inating in vegetable dyes not yet developed, do not even occur: hóng “red,” jiàng “red,” “purple.” One quasi-color word, “red-flushed,” well exemplifies the process of meaning extension through metaphorical application mentioned above. Consisting in its written form of two graphs for “red” juxtaposed, it is used to indicate a color of the face, that is, a flush or blush. It is curiously associated with the wàn dance in a number of poems. Karlgren has traced its extensions of meaning through the following chain: “red,” “fire-red,” “fiery,” “angry,” “majestic,” “awe-inspiring,” “brighten,” “ardent,” “bril­liant,” “to manifest.”[7]

We can observe particularly well in the case of huáng “yellow-brown” how flexible the meaning of a word can be in wide application to a variety of objects. Occasionally contradictory connotations can arise in different circumstances. For as huáng evokes a vivid, cheerful image when attributed to flowers or birds, it is responsible for the reverse image when describing sere leaves or wilted plants. Contrast the use of huáng in Chángcháng zhe Huá     裳裳者華 No. 214, where a girl likens her lord to a gay flower as he returns in splendor, with its use in Hé Cǎo Bù Huáng 何草不黃 No. 234, a soldier's lament. Here a soldier on the front feels the mis­ery of constant marching and warfare, and separation from his loved ones, so strongly that all of Nature suffers with him. “What plant is not faded?” he asks rhetorically, and “what day do we not march?” As he has lost his high spirits, the physical world has lost its colorful appeal. A further interesting use of the color huáng is in conjunction with gōu “grey” or “ashen,” as a phrase to describe the changes which take place in the color of one's hair and countenance respectively as he ages. In the three poems in which the phrase occurs, Nán Shān Yǒu Tái 南山有臺 No. 172, Xíng Wěi 行葦 No. 246, and Liè Zǔ 烈祖 No. 302, as well as in Bì Gōng 閟宮 No. 300, where huáng is used alone to describe the color of hair suggesting old age, the connotation of the phrase is by no means pejorative. It is a ripe old age which is anticipated with some pleasure.

It has been in general apparent that the use of color in The Book of Songs is realistic, given the strictures placed on the environments in which certain color words may occur. There is little that is unnatural or surprising. But could there not be certain objects which, when mentioned, occur typically with a color as an epithet? Certainly such a phenomenon occurs with remarkable frequency in Homer, the so-called Homeric epithets. Recall “the wine dark sea,” “the rosy fingered dawn,” or “grey-eyed Athena.” In such cases vivid, interesting color images lose all their power when repeated hundreds of times. They are demonstrably no longer active as poetic images. When we look for a con­ventional association of color word and head noun object in the Songs we fail to find any. Only in the case of cāng “blue-green,” is there a regular association of a color with a particular object, tiān “Heaven.” It is used as an invocation, “O blue heaven:” suggesting as well the remoteness of Heaven. Yet there are situations in which the color cāng is associated with an object other than tiān, for example, in Jī Míng 雞鳴 No. 96, where the buzzing of “green flies” (cāng yīng 蒼蠅) is confused with a cock's crow by a man visiting his lover secretly at night.

But a more convincing indication that no such Homeric epithet is at work here is the fact that the word tiān “Heaven” occurs well over a hundred times in the Songs, normally without any adjective whatever modifying it. Interestingly it appears in only seven poems in the Guó Fēng 國風 “Airs of the States” section of the Songs including 160 poems in all, but in 65 poems out of the remaining 145 poems. conversely appears only in the Guó Fēng section. Clearly there are differences in vocabulary in the sections of the Songs which reflect different periods of composition as well as differences in subject matter and style. It is commonly thought that the Zhōu Sòng “Hymns of the Zhōu State” represent the oldest strata of the 11th-10th centuries, B.C., Dà Yǎ 大雅 and Xiǎo Yǎ 小雅 “Greater and Lesser Yǎ,” a later development from the 10th-8th centuries, B.C., and the presently extant Guó Fēng songs, the latest, 8th-7th centuries, B.C.[8] The uneven distribution of the word tiān could be explained as well by the fact that the sòng sections are more ceremonial in flavor than the fēng , and would hence be more likely to employ tiān.

In fact, when an adjective is employed with tiān, it is more often hào tiān 昊天, Waley’s “High Heaven,” which occurs some 20 times. The words mín , shàng, and huáng are also used to describe tiān, all with very similar and vague meanings. Possibly it was the use of these epithets for Heaven in the Songs that led later scholars to develop a cosmology (or meteorology) which incorporated them. The dictionary-thesaurus Ěr Yǎ 爾雅 states that in spring Heaven (tiān, the sky) is cāng , in summer hào , in autumn mín , and in winter shàng .[9]

Thus far the discussion has been confined to the colors themselves and their relevance to the poetry of the Songs in their literal aspect as simple images. Nothing has been said of the existence of more complex images. Whether or not we can speak of a complex imagery on several levels at all with regard to the Songs is an important question in their appreciation. It is evident that by the late Zhōu and Hàn period the colors had be­come an essential component of the elaborate system of cosmic correspondences which were said to pervade all Nature. The five colors wǔ sè 五色 each corresponded to one of the five directions wǔ fāng 五方, which corresponded in turn to the five tastes, wǔ wèi 五味, the five tones wǔ yīn 五音, the five elements wǔ xíng 五行, the four seasons sì shí 四時 … the list is formidable. The five colors were the so-called five “correct” zhèng colors, qīng “blue-green,” huáng “yellow,” chì “red,” bái “white,” and hēi “black.” Other colors, including “green,” zhū “red,” and so forth, were considered “intermediate” jiān . They should assume an inferior position. According to a complicated protocol, certain colors were appropriate only in certain places or with certain other colors. Hence we find in the Analects Lúnyǔ 論語 the following remark:

A gentleman does not wear facings of purple or mauve, nor in undress does he use pink or roan.... With a black robe he wears black lambskin; with a robe of undyed silk, fawn. With a yellow robe, fox fur.... Lambskin dyed black and a hat of dark‑dyed silk must not be worn when making visits of condolence.[10]

When color had in later times such a complicated cultural significance, when refined men were so conscious of color, might it not be likely that there is more than meets the eye to the use of color in the Songs as well? Are there instances there of color images manipulated with the subtlety of these from the Cháng Hèn          Gē 長恨歌 “Song of Unending Sorrow” of Bái Juyì 白居易, some 1600 years later in the Táng dynasty?



The Western and Southern palaces were strewn with autumn grasses,

Fallen leaves cluttered the steps with red that no one swept away.

The Pear Garden players became white-haired,

And in the Fagara Court, eunuchs and young maids grew old.

Within the space of four lines the poet has poignantly recalled the pall which had beset the capital since the death of Yáng Guìfēi 楊貴妃. He links color to the passing of the seasons and the progression from youth to old age. Spring has turned to autumn, the plants wilting and brown; the steps are red with fallen leaves which remain unswept. Luò “fall” harks back to the fall of Yáng Guìfēi from grace, hóng , the red of autumn leaves, to the blood spilled at her murder. Old age overtakes the once youthful palace inhabitants. Hair once blue-black is now white, the youthful maidens, once qīng   , fresh as verdant nature, now decrepit.

Were we to accept the word of the traditional com­mentators, the answer to this question—that is, how complex is the color imagery in the Songs—would be “very.” In a remarkable number of poems which involve color, the commentators are able to read more into the poem through observing the color involved. But in many cases it is simply the social status of those in a poem which is revealed through the color of their dress or the colorful objects with which they are linked. Thus the colors used become clues to aid in identification. And while I don't doubt that, for example, red greaves chì fù 赤芾 were worn only by gentlemen of a certain social position, after reading a large number of poems with this method of clue-location in mind, I am convinced that it is not an intrinsic feature of the poems themselves but rather an introduction of the commentators. Nor do I feel that other of the commentators' interpretations of color are more successful. Take, for example, Lǜ Yī 綠衣 No. 27. Here a green coat and yellow lining and skirt, a lively, fresh image, are associated with a loved one, while in stark contrast with the gloom of grief in the loved one's absence. The commentators, however, take the fact that an “intermediate" color “green" has taken improper precedence over a “correct" color huáng “yellow,” since the coat is over the lining or the skirt, to indicate that protocol has been violated. It is thus a symbol of miscarried justice. Surely here a delicate and tender poem has been overburdened with such an imposing interpretation.

There are nonetheless plausible symbolic interpretations of color. The case of is an example. It regularly appears with the suggestion of pomp and ceremony, espec­ially of mourning. The universal significance of white as a ceremonial color was studied by Paul Fickeler. He called it the holiest and most widely used ceremonial color in the world. “In present day nature religions of Asia, white marks out the scene of shamanistic ceremonies, which in northern Asia is usually a lonely clearing in the birch forest where white hare's pelts and bleached white horse skulls hang, and white or lightly colored animals, mostly horses, are sacrificed.”[11] This is even reminiscent of the song Yě Yǒu Sǐ Jūn 野有死麕 No. 23, where a dead deer in the wilderness is draped with white rushes.

The traditional commentators sometimes do not ex­plain the most pregnant images, such as the enigmatic red bow tóng gōng 彤弓 of No. 175, or white rocks of Yáng zhi Shuǐ 揚之水 No. 116. The latter are apparently symbols of a man’s purity, continuously washed clean by the action of the waters about them. But in the third stanza of the song they become symbols of his tears, as the once clean rocks become speckled. Other complex uses of color imagery are the metaphorical use of xuán “dark” in Cháng Fā 長發 No. 304 to describe the king Qì , the son of Jiǎn Dí 簡狄, who swallowed the egg of a dark bird xuán niǎo 玄鳥 — “dark” suggests his mysterious origins from the dark bird, as well as the subtle depths of his per­sonality; the symbols of adverse fortune in Běi Fēng 北風 No. 41, where nothing black is seen but the crow (mò hēi fēi wū 莫黑非烏), nothing red is seen but the fox (mò chì fēi hú 莫赤非狐); the yellow bird huáng niǎo 黃鳥 in poems of sorrow or hardship (Gě Tán 葛覃 No. 2, Kǎi Fēng 凱風 No. 32, Huáng Niǎo 黃鳥 No. 131, 187, Mián Mán 緜蠻 No. 230) in which a carefree, singing bird hopping or flying about is often contrasted with a person torn by care; yellowed and shrivelled leaves of the mulberry in Méng No. 58, changing from “soft and glossy” in a preceding stanza symbolize the plight of an abandoned wife in that poem.

There are undoubtedly many more examples. It is at least clear that while the complexity of color imagery in the Songs may not be that of Táng poetry as in the example from Bái Jūyì cited above, it is abundantly rich in its own right. Earlier, it became apparent that there was little notable conventionality of color usage, although certain color words were more or less restricted in their applicability. A full range of color words were used in a plausible and interesting fashion with a great deal of variety and freshness of imagery. Contrast these conclusions with those of a survey of color in English and Scottish ballads.[12] There conventionality of color was an important feature but there was little symbolic use of color whatever.

It remains only to comment upon the function of color in the Songs from a broad perspective. It appears that, as a whole, color is used quite matter-of-factly. There is little description, whether of nature or artifact, for its own sake, If color is mentioned, it is because it is inevitable. Grammatically, the result of this is that color words—and I have every reason to believe it is true of other descriptive words as well—occur primarily in initial position in a line, modifying a following noun, or to a lesser extent in the third slot in a basically four slot line, with a following noun. It is exceptional that a color word be the central fact of a line and the center of its syntactic structure, as in Chángcháng zhe Huá 裳裳者華 No. 214, or Hé Cǎo Bù Huáng 何草不黃 No. 234 , Zhù No. 92, Cǎi Qǐ 采芑 No. 178, or Zhān Bǐ 瞻彼 No. 213.[13] Even when color words are occasionally reduplicated, the result is not so much to emphasize the color as to blur its focus a little. The English and Scottish ballads achieved emphasis through repetition, through comparison, as in “wounds washen as a linen clout,” by compounds in which both elements suggested color, as “milk-white,” “blood-red,” and the like, and through the use of “so” (sae), as in “gelding so grey.”[14]

None of these devices is productive in The Book of Songs. This is no weakness. The fact that the use of color is so straightforward, so matter-of-fact, keeps it from becoming an overwrought imagery. It still contributes significantly to the subtlety of the poetic art of the Songs.

Appendix. A Note on the Equestrian Vocabulary of The Book of Songs.

The exceptional diversity and specialization in the vocabulary for horses in The Book of Songs has led to speculation that many words for horses are survivals from a pre-agricultural, pastoral stage of Chinese culture in which horses played a very prominent role in the life of all the people.[15] Horses are not only differentiated accord­ing to function, age, sex, and so forth, but particularly with regard to their different colors and markings. Xiǎo Xū 小戌 No. 128 and Jiōng No. 297 are good examples of poems which make much of the color differences among horses. If we can rely at all on information contained in the traditional glosses to the Songs, these 20 horse names have the following color significance:

- a bay horse with white spots;

zhù - a horse with the hind left leg white;

- a horse with yellow and white hairs intermixed;

yīn - an iron grey horse

luò - a white horse with black mane;

lóu - a bay horse with black mane;

xuán - an iron-grey horse;

zhuī - a horse with black (?) qīng and white hairs intermixed;

- a piebald horse, greenish-black;

xiá - a sorrel horse, with red and white hairs intermixed;

xíng - a bay horse;

guá - a piebald horse, yellow with black muzzle;

yuán - a bay horse, black-maned, with a white belly;

- a black horse, white-breeched;

tuó - a horse of a greenish-black color, flecked as if in scales;

tiě - an iron-black horse;

- a sleek black horse;

bǎo (sic, cf. ) - an iron grey horse;

huáng  - a bay horse;

huáng - a yellowish-white horse.

But we should beware of alternate graphs for what might well have once been the same word, such as huáng and ; or, the same color word with different signific elements attached to it when it appears in different semantic environments. “a dark piebald horse” and “dark grey,” (referring to textiles) ; gǎo “white (unbleached) cloth” and hāo “a white shrub;” yuán “a bay horse” and yuán “reddish-yellow” (silk)—the last of which does not actually occur in the Songs (but see Ěr Yǎ 爾雅 6.42 for an occurrence)—all seem to be examples of such an alternation.

Arthur Waley's translation of Jiōng No. 297 is so striking that I quote it in full below to show the poetic effect the encyclopedic alternation of these names can produce. He supposes this poem to have been occas­ioned by a gift of horses to the people of the Lǔ state:

Stout and strong our stallions

In the paddock meadows;

Look what strong ones!

There is piefoot and brownie,

Blackie and bay,

Fine horses for the chariot.

O that forever

We may have horses so good.


Stout and strong our stallions

In the paddock meadows;

Look what strong ones!

Brown and white, grey and white,

Chestnut, dapple-grey,

Sturdy horses for the chariot.

O that for all time

We may have horses of such fettle!


Stout and strong our stallions

In the paddock meadows;

Look what strong ones:

Scaly coat, white with black mane,

Roan with black mane, darkie with white mane,

Fleet horses for the chariot.

O untiring

May these horses breed!


Stout and strong our stallions

In the paddock meadows;

Look what strong ones!

Grey and white, ruddy and white,

White-shank, wall-eye

Powerful horses for the chariot.

O without slip

May these horses sire![16]


[1] A useful physical study of color is R.M. Evans, An Introduction to Color (New York, 1948); of color in lit­erature: Sigmund Skard, The Use of Color in Literature: A Survey of Research (American Philosophical Society, 1946) ; an early attempt at analyzing color in Chinese literature was that of V. von Strauss und Torney, "Bezeichnung der Farben Blau und Grün im chinesischen Altesthum," Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 33 (1879), 502-08. As a text of the Songs, I have used the edition with the syncretic commentary of Zhū Xī, Shī Jīng Jí Zhù 詩經集注 Zhū Xī 朱熹 ed. (Hongkong, 1964). Bernhard Karlgren's glosses, Glosses on the Book of Odes (Stockholm: Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1942, 1944, 1946), and the Harvard-Yenching concordance to the Songs (Harvard-­Yenching Institute Sinological Series, Supplement No. 9, A Concordance to Shih Ching [Peiping, 1934]) have also been of particular help.


[2] Otto Jespersen, Language, its Nature, Development, and Origin (London, 1922), p. 432.

[3] Bernhard Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa (Stockholm, 1957), Nos. 793, 812.

[4] I have generally followed the translations of Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs (New York, 1937) , except where I feel it does not convey the sense of color in the orig­inal. This is his No. 86, p. 80. He has, of course, made explicit the color simile in several instances where it was implicit in the original. It seems to me a point of contention whether the metaphor of, for example, “moth eyebrows” (é méi 蛾眉) in the fifth line is "alive" or "dead" in this earliest use in Chinese literature.

[5] Florence E. Wallace, "Color in Homer and in Ancient Art," Smith College Classical Studies, 9 (1927), 10-15.

[6] Wallace, p. 69.

[7] Karlgren, GSR, No. 779.

[8] 8 W. A. C. H. Dobson, The Language of The Book of Songs (Toronto, 1968), pp. xx-xxiv, summarizes the linguistic evidence. Professor S. H. Chen, under whose guidance I conducted this study, observes that while this dating is generally true, certain conventions in the Guó Fēng hark back to as old or older periods of composition than the other sections of the Songs.

[9] Ěr Yǎ 爾雅 8.1.

[10] Arthur Waley, The Analects of Confucius (London, 1938), p. 147. (X,6) (That this chapter was inserted in the text later has no bearing here.)

[11] As quoted in Edward Schafer, “Mineral Imagery in the Paradise Poems of Kuan Hsiu," Asia Major, New Series, 10 (1963), 90. Guān Xiù, incidentally, must represent an acme in the use of color in Chinese poetry. Professor S. H. Chen has noted with regard to the color "white" that already in the poetry of Qū Yuán 屈原 white has no special significance and a multitude of diverse color images abound.

[12] William E. Mead, "Colour in the English and Scottish Ballads," An English Miscellany presented to Dr. Furnivall (Oxford, 1901), pp. 321-34.

[13] The same is apparently true in Homer. See Wallace, p. 49.

[14] Mead, p. 332. Note that Waley often has recourse to the last of these in his translations.

[15] R. A. D. Forrest, The Chinese Language (London, 1948), pp. 77-78.

[16] Waley, Songs, No. 252, pp. 274-75.