Shijing is a collection of about three hundred poems. 311 poems to be exact, including six poems transmitted only by their titles. This text is often referred to by the roundabout number of poems included in it: Shi san bai, or "the three hundred poems." The date of the poems ranges approximately from 1100 to 600 B.C., and the compilation was done probably around, or slightly before, the time of Confucius. Some have argued that Confucius edited the text, reducing the number of poems from three thousand to three hundred. Although many scholars have been skeptical about the assertion that Confucius had laid his hands on the formation of the text of Shijing, it is true that Confucius thought very highly of the social, political, and didactic functions of the poetry collection. The title by which we know the text, Shijing, however, was not yet attached to the anthology in Confucius' time.
The title has been translated into various English phrases, such as "Book of Poetry," "Book of Songs," "Book of Odes," "Classic of Poetry," etc. Shi in Shijing means poetry, and "the Great Preface" defines it in this way: "Poetry (shi) is where intent (zhi) goes. In the heart, it is an intent; released through words, it is a poem (shi)." Jing means longitude, and by extension, texts of prime importance with canonized status. Therefore, this syllable is reserved for a few revered Confucian texts. Only a handful of texts outside of the Confucian tradition have the syllable in the title. It was toward the end of the Warring States period that the Book of Poetry and five other Confucian classics, such as the Book of Documents, the Book of Rites, the Book of Music, the Book of Changes, and the Spring and Autumn Annals were referred to as "six jing." Of these six texts, the Book of Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals enjoy the honor and the status of a jing, without having the syllable in the titles.
Shijing is divided into three parts: feng (Airs), ya (Odes), and song (Hymns). "Odes" are divided further into "Lesser Odes" (xiaoya) and "Greater Odes" (daya). Therefore, the text is sometimes considered as having four parts, and the first poems of these four parts are called "Four Beginnings." However, the significance of the notion of "Four Beginnings" has never been convincingly explained by any traditions. "Airs" are divided into fifteen sections according to the place of the origin of the poems, and each section is supposed to show the political and cultural characteristics, as well as the social morale, of the state from which the poems were collected.
The name and the identity of the poets are generally unknown. Only about four poems have internal references to the writer, and the authors of five more poems were named in other texts, such as the Book of Documents and Zuozhuan (or "Mr. Zuo's Commentary of the Spring and Autumn Annals"). These references are, however, not always entirely credible. The prefaces to poems often identify the author, but they are often groundless. In short, it is safe to say that the majority of the poems in the anthology are of popular origin and show lyrical expression of the feelings of the people.
Shijing was one of the texts that was burnt by the order of the first emperor of Qin. Therefore, at the beginning of the Han dynasty, there were three new-text schools, Qi, Lu, and Han, and one old-text school, Mao, of the Shijing. However, because the transmission of poetry had relied more on oral performance and memory than written records, it is believed that the four traditions did not have many substantive differences. All three new-texts of the Shijing have been lost, and only Mao's text is handed down to us.