Leading up to spring festival, you probably noticed that your some of your neighbors' doorways were decorated with red paper banners. These banners feature Chinese couplets printed in black or gold and are pasted in doorways before the new year and taken down afterward, creating a festive atmosphere for the holidays.
Generally, you will see two banners hung vertically and one hung horizontally above those. In the center of these three, you might see a large character, 福 (fú), which represents good fortune. The vertical banners are printed with couplets known as 春联 (chūnlián), and they are one kind of the more general Chinese couplet (对联/duìlián). The horizontal banner at the top features a 对联.
The history of the Chinese couplet can be traced back thousands of years, and like Tang-dynasty poetry, Chinese couplets are considered to be subtle and deep. Couplets follow a set structure: Each consists of two lines of verse, the "head" and the "tail," which correspond with each other in part of speech, phonology and syntax, word for word and phrase for phrase. The themes of the verses suggest good luck and wishes for happiness.
In ancient China, those who wished to become officials for the emperor were required to take a couplet-writing exam. In such exams, the first line (the head) would be provided, and the examinee would be required to write the second line (the tail) according to his wit—and, of course, to the rules of couplet writing.
A few common rules for Chinese couplets:
1. The number of characters used in each line must be identical.
2. The part of speech must be the same. For example, if the first word in the first line is a noun, then so must be the first word of the second line. Noun for noun, verb for verb, adjective for adjective.
3. The meaning should be relevant. If the first line is about good luck, so should the second line.
4. The sounds must be coordinated.
These are the basic rules; there are some other small details that people may not be so strict with these days.
Here's an example:
yìfānfēngshùn nián nián hǎo, wànshìrúyì bù bù gāo
(Best wishes year after year; fly higher step by step.)
Let's see if it follows the above rules. The first part of the first line (一帆风顺) is an idiom, and the first part in the second line (万事如意) is also a idiom. Also, they both have similar meanings—all the best, hope everything works out in the best way. 年年 means year after year, 步步 means step after step. 好 is an adjective that means good, and 高 is also an adjective, and it means high—and the two characters rhyme.
All correct, right? Subtle? Absolutely. We've got something even better.
There is one super classic and subtle Chinese couplet—a "character for character" couplet. The whole couplet is only two characters. The first line is墨 (mò/ink), and the second line is 泉 (quán/springs). No clue what that means? There is no obvious connection between ink and springs. But take a look at the characters themselves: 墨 consists of two components, 黑 (hēi/black) and 土 (tǔ/soil), and 泉 consists of two components, 白 bái and 水 shuǐ. 白 and 黑 are both colors, and total opposites. And 土 and 水 are both part of the five elements held by the ancients and used in traditional Chinese medicine.
There are numerous well-known couplets in Chinese. I'll leave some them here, so grab your e-dictionary and enjoy digging the subtlety and beauty in them! And maybe you can come up with some English couplets better than "Study hard, work hard, make money more and more. Eat well, sleep well, have fun day by day."
shū shān, xué hǎi
shuǐ dǐ yuè, jìng zhōng huā
Dōng nán xī běi, chūn xià qiū dōng
áoxiáng yīwànlǐ láiqù jǐqiānnián
Qǐnéng jìnrúrényì dàn qiú wú kuì wǒxīn
Wǔhúsìhǎi jiē chūnsè, wànshuqiān shān jìn dé huī
This article by Lucvy Wang was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 62.