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Chinese couplets are normally written on vertical strips of red paper in the best calligraphic style one can muster. The first (called upper) line is posted on the right side of the front door. The second (called lower) line is posted on the left side of the front door. The couplets should correspond with each other phonologically, syntactically and semantically word for word and phrase for phrase. In the past time, children would be given this kind of test or practice.
Chinese scholars would set up the tools and compose auspicious couplets for friends, relatives, and the public. A Calligrapher would prepare to write by first grinding the dry ink with water on an ink-stone, and masterfully move the brush over red paper to produce powerful and clean strokes, forming elegant characters. The themes of the verses can be anything, for businessman, it will be some special words for earning more money; for usual families, it will be good fortune, and luck, longevity, and male offspring.
Just as translating any Chinese poem, Chinese couplets can be very difficult to translate while conveying the same degree of wit, precision and conciseness, i.e., to reflect the intelligence that went into composing it, the aptness conveyed through the same brevity without losing accuracy.
Here's two couplets which according to folklore arose from a feud between two families in a small town in Jiangnan (Southern Yangtze River).
In the town, there were two prominent families: the Zhu clan and the Xiang clan.They were always competing to outdo each other. One day, the Zhū family constructed an ancestral hall. Not wanting to lose out, the Xiang family commissioned one too. On the day of opening, the Zhu family posted a pair of couplets on both sides of the gate to the hall. That is:
Liang Chao Tian Zi; Yi Dai Sheng Ren
Transliteration: Two dynasties heaven's son; one generation sage people
translation : Sons of Heaven from Two Dynasties', Sage of an Era
In China, the emperor was called the Son of heaven, This was a very witty couplet for the clan, basking in reflected glory of having two dynasties established by founders with the surname of Zhu, as well as one having one sage with the same surname :
1. Zhu Wen founded Later Liang Dynasty during the Five Dynasties Era.
2. Zhu YuanZhang founded the Ming Dynasty.
3. Zhu Xi from Southern Song Dynasty was one of the most influential thinkers of Neo Confucianism, considered as a sage by followers and scholars in later eras.
The Xiang family could not think of anything to counter the couplet and had to secretly seek for advice from numerous scholars outside their town. Finally, a humble teacher from a village narrated two historical stories which they were able to use. The following day, this pair of couplet appeared by the gateway to the Xiang's ancestral hall.
Peng Tian Zi Fu; Wei Sheng Ren Shi
Transliteration: Cook heaven son father; as sage people teacher
translated: cooked the father of Son of Heaven; as teacher of a sage!
This alluded to two historical incidents.
1. During the Chu-Han rivalry for supremacy, Xiang Yu once captured the father and the wife of his rival Liu Bang, and threatened to throw the father into boiling oil if Liu Bang did not yield. Though Xiang Yu eventually did not do so, Liu Bang did become the Son of Heaven, and the story became widely known in China.
2. Confucious, probably the most renowned sage in Chinese history, once studied etiquette rites from a man named Xiang Tuo.
The Xiang's couplet matched the Zhu's couplet point-for-point and clearly came out tops.
Spring couplet is a special type of Chinese couplets. In addition to the upper and lower couplet on the right and left door post, propitious words (normally four characters) also pasted across the lintel at the top of the door. Spring couplets are used only during the Chinese New Year as part of its celebration. While other Chinese Couplets is permanent, Spring couplet is a temporary decoration to be placed on the entrance of the house, somewhat akin to Halloween and Christmas decorations. Those poetic couplets of calligraphy are written with fragrant ink and express the feeling of life's renewal with an happy, hopeful, uplifting message about a better New Year to come.
Example: a spring couplets themed with coming spring.
Chinese Pinyin:Cross: Da di hui chunUpper: Dong qu shan qing shui xiuLower: Chun lai niao yu hua xiang
Transliteration:Cross: Whole Earth Returns SpringUpper: Winter gone mountain clear water sparkles Lower: Spring comes bird sings flower fragrant
We can note that word for word, the upper and lower lines are antithetical, yet the meanings are complementary and content of the message is hopeful and uplifting.
Here is another example, revealing same witty intelligence in composing a couplet for a butcher.
According to folklore, the first Ming Emperor Zhu YuanZhang was an ardent promoter of couplets, and encouraged every family to compose and post couplets on their doorways during the Spring Festival. On the first day, he toured the capital city and was satisfied to see couplets on every doorway of the households, posting seasons' greetings, or best wishes for the respective professions, but there was one exception. Zhu Yuanzhang inquired and learned that the head of the household was an uneducated man who made a living by castrating piglets. The man was unable to find anyone to compose a suitable couplet for him. On the spot, the emperor composed the bellow couplet for him:
Shuang Shou Pi Kai Sheng Si Lu; Yi Dao Ge Duan Shi Fei Gen
Transliteration: Two hands cleave open life death road, One knife cut right wrong root
Translation: Use two hands to separate the life and death road; use a knife to get rid of the cause of trouble
According Buddhism, sex or other desire is the main cause of trouble; Philosopher Mencius said, food and sex is human nature. So does the piglet. The man castrated piglets is helping them completely get rid of the cause of trouble before the ever realized it, he blocked the life and death road, and stopped the infinite life and death circle for pigs.
Later, Zhu YuanZhang was informed the household did not post the couplets on their doorway. Upon inquiries, the household said when they discovered it was the emperor himself who composed it, they posted it inside their family hall to occupy a place of reverence.
In addition to pasting couplets on both sides and above the main door, it is also common to hang calligraphic writing of the Chinese characters for "spring" and "wealth." Some people will even invert these drawings since the Chinese for "inverted" is a homonym in Chinese for "arrive," thus signifying that spring and wealth have arrived.