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Avian identification of jiu in the Shijing.

Under the best of circumstances, accurate identification of avian images in ancient literature is a challenge. In the Shijing it is virtually impossible. However, avian identification of literary species is within the range of possibility. The clarity with which one may discern literary species may enhance our reading of a poem's imagery. At the very least, a classification may be offered with which other literary species can be compared. For instance, how do the Shijing species compare with the Chuci species? Or, how have the Shijing species evolved, given their metaphorical behavior in Tang poetry?(1)

A more challenging task lies in the classification of different species having identical nomenclature. This is the case with jiu (Old Chinese: *kiog), which occurs in five Shijing poems. Unlike much of the floral and faunal imagery in the Shijing, the jiu is not bound to just one Shijing poem. Usage suggests that it is a generic, rather than a specific name of a bird, much as we assign the tag of "duck" to mallards and teals alike. In common practice, folk etymology attributes to jiu, homophonous with the word meaning "nine," the sense "nine birds," because the left and right components of the graph can be separated out as "nine" and "bird" But this equivalence need not detain us.

Judging from the content of Shijing poems 1, 12, 58, 152, and 196, the jiu bird designates more than one species - viz., the osprey, cuckoo, and pigeon. Varying literary roles are inevitable. The metaphorical power of jiu in Chinese literature has ranged from the auspicious to inauspicious. It is a harbinger of spring, assumes the form of a hawk, and projects sovereign virtue and omens of felicity for courtship and marriage. It also plays the spoiler, invoking sorrow and despair.

All of the jiu birds are arboreal. Three (those in poems, 12, 58, 152, 196) are directly or indirectly connected with the mulberry tree. Two of the cases feature binominal expressions (1, 152) and are exclusive to the Shijing poem in which they appear. In three poems (1, 12, 152), the bird imagery projects auspicious or virtuous omens. In the other two poems (58, 196), sorrow and futility are projected.

When an image was established within the context of a Confucian text, its perpetuation was a matter of no minor import. Thus ratified by literary memory, and impervious to the ways of nature, the image and its associations always have validity. Inconsistent identification, however, can usurp the metaphorical authority of a literary motif. Egregious mistaken identification can diminish the artistic symmetry of an image.

The following is a classification of the jiu literary species in the Shijing. Description of physiology and habitat from the context of the poem and commentaries is provided. Scientific classification and relevant ornithological information are also included.(3)


ju jiu (OC: *tsio- kiog). Glosses: wangju yuying, shuiniao

Modern name: e.

Order: Falconiformes. Family: Accipitridae. Genus: Pandion. Species: Pandion haliaetus.

Literary habitat: fishes in rivers, resides on river inlet.

Physiology: size of kite-hawk (chi).

Vocalization: guan guan (OC: *kwan-kwan).

Omens: projects felicity in courting.

The ju jiu is not connected to the other jiu species. Like the shijiu of poem 152, the jujiu is a hapax legomenon. The image of the osprey preludes a young man's courting a maiden. Not only does the osprey's call have literary significance in invoking emotions associated with courting; it also carries weight in literary memory as the opening cry of the entire Shijing anthology.


jiu (OC: *kiog). Glosses: I. shijiu, jieju, bugu. II. shijiu, jieju, quyu, bage.

I. Cuckoo

Modern name: bugu, dujuan.

Order: Cuculiformes. Family: Cuculidae. Genus: Cuculus. Species: Cuculus canorus (Common Cuckoo).

Literary habitat: lacking in nest-building skills, dwells in magpie nests.

Physiology: brown, size of sparrow-hawk (yao), long tail.

Vocalization: jie ju (OC: *kak-kiok).

Omens: projects virtue in marriage.

Regardless of identification, an auspicious omen is signified by the magpie's preparing its nest for the jiu. Conventional interpretation attributes this to the felicitous occasion of a bride's arrival in her new abode.

Glosses of the jiu and shijiu are cross-referenced for poem 12, in which case the jiu is the cuckoo. In the poem, the jiu bird appears to be practicing "nest appropriation" of a magpie's (que) nest, behavior that is related to brood parasitism. The perception is that the jiu bird is making the magpie a "host." Magpies are common "foster parents" for incubating and rearing cuckoo fosterlings.

II. Myna

Modern name: jia bage, bage.

Order: Passeriformes. Family: Sturnidae. Genus: Acridotheres. Species: Acridotheres tristis (House Myna); Acridotheres cristatellus (Crested Myna).

Literary habitat: dwells in magpie nest.

Physiology: capable of human speech (having human tongue), head and body black, wing tips with white dots.

Vocalization: ba ba (OC: *piat-piat).

Omens: projects felicity in marriage.

Qing scholars cite quyu and vernacular bage as glosses for jieju, thereby identifying the jiu of poem 12 as a myna. It is suggested that the original gloss bugu is a phonological mistake for bage. Unaware of parasitic behavior of the bugu-cuckoo, Qing scholars dismiss the possibility that it occupies magpie nests. I am not convinced that the myna is the appropriate identification in this poem.


jiu (OC: *kiog). Glosses: gujiu, tangjiu.

Modern name: guzhou, banjiu.

Order: Columbiformes. Family: Columbidae. Genus: Treron, Columba (pigeons); Macropygia, Streptopelia (doves).

Species: unspecified fruit-eating bird.

Literary habitat: mulberry tree, eats mulberries.

Physiology: small as a tit (shan que), short tail, grey-green and black.

Vocalization: extensive vocalization.

Omens: projects despair and futility.

In poem 58, the jiu-bird is depicted eating mulberries, to the deepening dismay of the female speaker in the poem, who sees the symbolic harvest of her marriage destroyed. The early glosses of "pigeon," and some glosses of "dove" (ban jiu), have remained fairly consistent. As both birds are fruit-eating, the identification is very possible. Note that the diets of the osprey and cuckoo are fish and insects, respectively. The cuckoo is especially partial to silkworms and other hairy caterpillars, but not to mulberries themselves. The connection to the mulberry in this poem has contributed to glosses on the jiu as "mulberry jiu-bird" (sang jiu).


shi jiu (OC: *sior-kiog). Glosses: jieju, bugu, daisheng.

Modern name: bugu, dujuan.

Order: Cuculiformes. Family: Cuculidae. Genus: Cuculus. Species: Cuculus canorus (Common Cuckoo).

Literary habitat: lacking in nest-building skills, dwells in mulberry tree, offspring dwell in variety of trees (plum, jujube, hazel).

Physiology: brown, size of sparrow-hawk (yao), long tail.

Vocalization: jie ju (OC: *kak-kiok), bu gu (OC: *pwo-kuk).

Omens: projects tribute paid to unwavering virtue of a parental, sovereign figure.

The presence of the shijiu in the mulberry in this poem has contributed to an extended gloss of "mulberry jiu," intersecting with poem 58 and the mistaken assignment of daisheng as a gloss for shijiu and bugu.(4) Poem 152 is intended to celebrate a ruling lord, and a bird of special breed is required to sing of his true nurturing virtues. Commentators have assigned outstanding benevolent characteristics to the shijiu, specifically for its devotion to parenting. But if the shijiu is the cuckoo, as established by literary history, note that this bird does not raise its own young. Indeed, the shijiu as parent is conspicuously absent from the poem itself. Rather, with stanzaic progression, the shijiu remains in the mulberry but its young dwell in different trees, suggesting that they are raised there by foster parents. This foster rearing signifies the reverent homage paid to the shijiu by other birds - a flattering metaphor of tribute to a ruler.

This case of mistaken identity and interpretation of the shijiu image in the Shijing commentaries calls attention to circumstances in which biological troths can clash with literary roles, sometimes resulting in unintended irony and humor.

Note. The term ming jiu, or "singing jiu," is a common expression. It is used in poem 196 and in multiple cases outside of the Shijing. It is frequently confused with shijiu, since ming and shi are graphically similar. One may argue that shijiu, which appears only in the Shijing, might easily be mingjiu, or "singing pigeon." In this case parasitic behavior is not a consideration and therefore presents no obstacle to the interpretations offered in the commentaries.


(ming) jiu (OC: *mieng-kiog). Glosses: guzhou, banjiu.

Modern name: guzhou, banjiu.

Order: Columbiformes. Family: Columbidae. Genus: Treron, Columba (pigeons); Macropygia, Streptopelia (doves). Species: unspecified songbird.

Literary habitat: not specified.

Physiology: small as a tit (shan que), short tail, grey-green and black.

Vocalization: extensive vocalization (ming).

Omens: projects sorrow and despair.

The poem opens with a small songbird flying away, leaving the speaker in the poem with feelings of distress. The "singing jiu" here is understood to be the same bird as in poem 58, therefore the pigeon or dove. Unlike the other cases, this jiu is limited to a single line of verse, without any distinguishing literary role; any small songbird would fulfill this image.


1 This is a companion essay to C. M. Lai, "Messenger of Spring and Morality: Cuckoo Lore in Chinese Sources," forth-coming in JAOS.

2 This folk etymology is attributed in the Kangxi zidian to the Qinjing (Avian Classic). The passage is not in the extant edition of the Qinjing.

3 Representations of flora and fauna from the Shijing have been offered. For the five poems to be discussed here, see Oka Genpo, Moshi hinbutsu zuko (Naniwa [Osaka]: Shishobo, 1784), la, 2b, 7a, 10a, 14b.

4 The daisheng is the hoopoe but has been mistaken for the cuckoo in Chinese sources. For details, see Lai, "Messenger of Spring and Morality."


Shijing Commentaries

Ma Ruichen (1777-1853), Maoshi zhuanjian tongshi. Rpt.; Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1989.

Qu Wanli, Shijing quanshi. Taipei: Lianjing chubanshe, 1983.

Wang Xianqian (1842-1918), Shi sanjia yiji shu. Rpt.; Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1987.

Zheng Xuan (127-200), Maoshi Zhengjian. SBBY.

Zhu Xi (1130-1200), Shijing jizhu. Rpt.; Taipei: Huazheng shuju, 1980.

On Flora and Fauna

Li Shizhen (1518-93), Bencao gangmu. Rpt.; Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1954.

Lu Ji (3rd c.), Maoshi caomu niaoshou chongyu shu. CSJC.

Qinjing, attributed to Shi Kuang (6th c. B.C.E.). CSJC; rpt., Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1991.

Zhang Hua (232-300), Bowu zhi. SBBY.

On Chinese Ornithology

Cheng Tso-Hsin, comp., A Synopsis of the Avifauna of China. Beijing: Beijing Science Press, and Hamburg: Paul Parey Scientific Publishers, 1987.

Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, comp., The Birds of China. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984.
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Author:Lai, C.M.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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