A Study of Four Classical Chinese Poems

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One subject that seems salient in the four classical Chinese poems included in the reading is social status. I use this term loosely because in "The Charcoal Seller" and "On the Birth of His Son" social status is probably best understood by the western designation of social class, but in "Woman" and "Mei Yao Ch'en" social status is better understood as part of gender relations. However, I think that the more generalized designation of "social status" is appropriate in approaching these four poems, because of the way it illustrates the Confucian concept of "ren," usually translated as "goodness" or "virtue". This is very different, however, from most western notions of "goodness" or "virtue" because in Confucianism the concept is defined in terms of social relationships: for Confucius, there were five specifically-defined social relationships in which one should exhibit "ren". These are the relations of a parent to a child, of an older sibling to a younger sibling, of a husband to a wife, of an older person to a younger person, and of a ruler toward a subject. In other words, relationships which might risk a potential power imbalance are governed by right rules of conduct. In these terms, we can see the workings, or failings, of the socially-defined "ren" in these four poems. This is most clear and obvious in "The Charcoal Seller" (Waley 1919), which demonstrates the failure of "ren" in the final category, the virtuous or right relationship between a ruler and his
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