An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shigushi 石鼓詩, the Stone Drum Songs

Oct 6, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

The so-called "Stone Drum inscriptions" (Shigu wen 石鼓文) or "Stone Drum Poems" (Shigu shi 石鼓詩) are texts dating from the late Spring and Autumn 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) or early Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) state of Qin 秦. They were written on drum-shaped stones and center around the hunts of the dukes of Qin, and are therefore occasionally called liejie 獵碣 "hunting inscriptions".

Figures 1-3. The First Stone Drum and its inscription
Foto of the present state (1936) of one of the Stone Drums (poem Qian yi 汧殹). It can be seen that already a large part of the inscription is missing. From Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1936), Shiguwen yanjiu 石鼓文研究 (Beiping: 1936, repr. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1955). Click to enlarge.
Rubbing of the present condition (1936) of the poem, made by Guo Moruo.
Reconstruction of the original inscription on the base of older rubbings, with one critical note by Guo Moruo. Translation of the song see below.

The original stones were detected near Fengxiang 鳳翔, Shaanxi, during the Tang period 唐 (618-907, at that time called Sanzhi 三畤 in the district of Tianxing 天興), and are today owned by the Palace Museum in Beijing (Gugong Bowuyuan 故宮博物院), but in a badly weathered condition. The "drums" have a height of about 90 and a diameter of 60 cm. On each one of the stones a poem was inscribed, composed in four-syllable verses, and as one coherent textual cycle. The original text of all songs was about 700 words long, but only 272 are today still legible, and on some stones the inscription has wholly disappeared. The words are written in large seal script (zhouwen 籀文, also called dazhuan 大篆) in the native style of Qin, where this type of script survived longest. The stone inscriptions are thefore very important for the history of the Chinese script as well as for the history of Chinese literature.

The inscriptions of the stones were first mentioned during the Tang period, and people began commenting on the inscriptions and copying them. The best rubbings of the inscriptions were produced during the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126), called the Shiguzhai Xianfeng version 十鼓齊先鋒本, Zhongquan version 中權本 and Houjin version 後勁本. They survived in the collection of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) scholar An Guojiu 安國舊. The Republican archaeologist Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892-1978) has reproduced the Xianfeng version with supplements from the two other versions. They were published in his book Shiguwen yanjiu 石鼓文研究 (Beiping 1936).

Table 1. The Ten Songs of the Stone Drums
汧殹 Qian yi
霝雨 Ling yu
而師 Er shi
乍原 Zuo yuan
吾水 (我水) Wu shui (Wo shui)
車工 Che gong
田車 Tian che
鑾車 Luan che
天虹 (馬麃, 馬廌) Tian hong (Ma biao, Ma jian)
吳人 Wu ren

The style of the poems is similar to the Major and Minor Odes (Daya 大雅, Xiaoya 小雅) in the Confucian Classic Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs", particularly the song Che gong 車攻 "Chariots are strong" (transl. Waley) in that collection. Researchers have named all ten songs or poems according to two words appearing in the first verse. The order of the poems differs from one publication to the other.

Quotation 1. The First Song of the Stone Drums, Qian yi 汧殹
The waters of River Qian are flowing,
rich are its waters, clear and deep.
Catfish and carps* live there,
the gentleman fishes them.
There are small fish in the river passage,
they are rushing into all directions.
[We] catch them with linen cloth, whitish they shimmer,
on the bottom of the creels [we find] delicious fish.
Yellowish and white are the cloth-nets,
[the fish] are caught and trapped.
[We make] plenty of superb broth of them,
cut them into pieces, but they slip away.
𡊺(=汗)𡊺𧽢𧽢。 Water is dripping the the ground, to all sides.
What fish are there?
There are breams and carps.
How to make baskets [to keep them]?
With poplar and willow [twigs].
* The identification of species can only be tentative. ① 小 and 魚 are written as one character. ② 𩺂=鯿=魚+編, ③ 𩹲=魚+縛, ④ 𩸊=魚+帛. These characters are not names of fish, but are huiyi-type characters with the meaning of “to catch fish”, “to trap fish”, etc.
Translation and character identification according to Li Tiehua 李鐵華 (1994), Shigu xinxiang 石鼓新響 (Xi'an: Shaanxi chubanshe). There is also a (more conservative) translation by Mattos (1988), 195-196.

The earliest commentator on the stones, Su Xu 蘇勖 (fl. 642), believed that the stones were created during the reign of King Xuan 周宣王 (r. 828-782 BCE). Later scholars, like Li Sizhen 李嗣真 (d. 696), Zhang Huaiguan 張懷瓘, Dou Ji 竇臮, Xu Hao 徐浩, Wei Yingwu 韋應物 (737-791), Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824) and Zhou Yue 周越 (970?-1028?) followed this opinion. The early Song period 宋 (960-1279) scholar Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007-1072) rose doubts about this statement, but confirmed that the inscriptions were made during the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE). Ma Dingguo 馬定國 (fl. 1138) during the Jin period 金 (1115-1234) believed that the stones were created much later, during the Western Wei period 西魏 (535-556), when Prince Yuwen Tai 宇文泰 (507-556) went hunting to Qiyang 歧陽. Zheng Qiao 鄭樵 (1104-1162), who made a phonetic study on the Stone Drum poems, analysed the shape of the characters and constated that they must date later than the reign of King Huiwen 秦惠文王 of Qin (r. 338-311), but earlier than the foundation of the Qin empire 秦 (221-206 BCE).

Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholars like Wu Yi 武億 (1745-1799) and Yu Zhengxie 俞正燮 (1775-1840) brought forward the idea that the stones were a much later product, from the Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) or even the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534), but this interpretation was not very popular. While the modern scholar Ma Heng 馬衡 (1881-1955) and Guo Moruo are of the opinion that the stones were produced during the late Spring and Autumn period, Tang Lan 唐蘭 (1901-1979) believed that the poems were written in the early Warring States period.

More recent scholars have not only analysed the shape of the characters, but also made studies in the history of stone inscriptions, in order to have a comparative basis, and also the lexicon of the poems, but there is no final conclusion about the exact date. The opinions range from the time of Duke Xiang 秦襄公 (r. 777-766) to Duke Wen 秦文公 (r. 766-716 BCE), Duke Mu 秦穆公 (r. 659-621), Duke Ling 秦靈公 (r. 425-415), Duke Xian 秦獻公 (r. 385-362) or King Huiwen, which makes for a timeframe of four hundred years.

The shape of the characters is in-between the style of the bronze inscriptions (jinwen 金文) and the small seal script (xiaozhuan 小篆), and many characters are similar to large seal script characters listed in the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字. The ductus can be called a forerunner of the small seal script that was developed in the state of Qin and later used as the empire-wide standard script, simultaneous with introduction of the chancery script (lishu 隸書). The characters are all written in the same style, as one piece of artwork. The shape naturally differs from those of later bronze inscriptions, that were also incised in the material, but metal is still different from stone, and the technique of processing was therefore somewhat different.

Another difference to the bronze inscriptions is that the latter were incised in the inner surface, only visible to a small number of persons, very functional, and not easily to work at, while the surface of the stone is easier to treat, and the stone's character as a kind of publicly displayed art object made it more important to create beautiful characters. The shape of the Stone Drum characters is more vidid than that of earlier bronze inscriptions, but on the other hand also more standardized, each character having the same size, and all parts consistently written in the same way.

Early scholars were highly impressed by the Stone Drum inscriptions. Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770), Wei Yingwu and Han Yu 韓愈 wrote poems about them, and Ouyang Xun 歐陽詢 (557-641), Yu Shinan 虞世南 (558-638) and Chu Suiliang 褚遂良 (596-658) were inspired by the stones for their calligraphies.

Li Bingzhong 李秉忠, Wei Canjin 衛燦金, Lin Conglong 林從龍, ed. (1990). Jianming wenshi zhishi cidian 簡明文史知識詞典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 187.
Li Xueqin 李學勤 (1992). "Shigu wen 石鼓文", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Kaoguxue 考古學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 472.
Tang Rangzhi 唐讓之 (1991). "Shiguwen 石鼓文", in Li Mingfang 李名方, Fang Guowu 常國武, ed. (1991). Zhongguo shufa mingzuo jinshang cidian 中國書法名作鑒賞辭典 (Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe), 31.
Zhang Deshui 張德水 (1998). "Shiguwen 石鼓文", in Tang Jiahong 唐嘉弘, ed. Zhongguo gudai dianzhang zhidu da cidian 中國古代典章制度大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 711.
Zhang Xiying 張錫瑛 (1997). "Shiguwen 石鼓文", in Men Kui 門巋, Zhang Yanjin 張燕瑾, ed. Zhonghua gucui da cidian 中華國粹大辭典 (Beijing: Guoji wenhua chuban gongsi), 767.

Further reading:
Chang, Kuang-yuan, John Marney, transl. (1978). "The Stone Drums and the Glory of Ch‘in Culture: The Successor of the Culture of Western Chou", National Palace Museum Bulletin, 13/3: 1-20; 13/4: 1-17.
Han Yu, Innes Herdan, transl. (2000). "Song of the Stone Drums", in John Minford, Joseph S.M. Lau, ed. Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations, Vol. 1, (New York: Columbia University Press/Hong Kong: Chinese University Press), 857-859.
Hsu, C.Y. (1985). "The Stone Drums", Asian Culture Quarterly, 13/1: 87-110.
Mattos, Gilbert L. (1977). "The Time of the Stone Drum Inscriptions: An Excursion in the Diachronic Analysis of Chou Script", Early China, 3: 36-45.
Mattos, Gilbert L. (1988). The Stone Drums of Ch‘in (Nettetal: Steyler Verlag). (Monumenta Serica Monograph Series. XIX)
Pastreich, Emanuel (1994). "Inscription and Image in the Illegible Text: Han Yu and the Stone Drums", Papers on Chinese Literature, 2: 87-107.
Wagner, Donald B. (1990). "The Stone Drums of Qin", Acta Orientalia, 51: 241-256.