Making Sense of the Odes Speeches as Poetic Commentary in the Guoyu

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Luke Waring



Prior to the emergence of the formalized commentarial traditions of the Early Imperial era (221 BCE–220 CE), the Odes seem typically to have been encountered “in motion” or “in use” as quoted speech in early historical and philosophical works. By studying the way the Odes are used in an understudied text—the Guoyu 國語 (Discourses of the states), probably compiled in the late Warring States era (ca. 475–221 BCE)—this article explores how historical speeches and anecdotes were used as an early form of commentary, variously contextualizing, explaining, paraphrasing, glossing, and interpreting the Odes. Before the invention of comprehensive, systematic commentaries associating each poem with a particular historical context and meaning, texts like the Guoyu provided early readers with guides to understanding and using classical texts, and many of their exegetical forms and strategies anticipate the commentarial traditions of the early empires. This article shows that historical speeches were one way in which early Chinese elites were trained in how to read and use the Odes appositely and sensitively, and that we can think of such speeches as a form of commentary.

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