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Chinese Couplets

The Chinese couplet refers to two complementary poetic lines adhering to certain rules, often written on red paper or carved on wooden uprights for appreciation.

A form of Chinese literature, the couplet varies in content and style, and can be poetic and calligraphic art. Some couplets express people's earnest love to their motherland, some describe the beauty of the nature, and some convey a maxim or best wishes for the coming year.

The History of Chinese Couplets

Chinese couplets originated in the Five Dynasties (907–960), and became ubiquitous in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1636–1912) dynasties, in China and Vietnam, North Korea, Japan, and Singapore. It was a custom to hang peach wood charms on gates of homes to drive away evil spirits during the Spring Festival since before the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BC). Couplets are now used in a similar way.

It was said that the earliest couplet was written by Meng Xu (919–965), king of Houshu State (934–965) during the Five Dynasties (907–960), and it reads: "The New Year enjoys surplus celebrations; happy holiday sounds invoke lasting spring blessings." 新年纳余庆,嘉节号长春

Xīnnián nà yú qìng; jiā jié hào cháng chūn.

The couplet became popular in the Northern Song Dynasty (690–1127), which is fully reflected from the last lines of the poem Spring Festival Eve by Wang Anshi (1021–1086). It reads "At countless homes a new day dawns; old peach wood charms are replaced with new." 千门万户曈曈日,总把新桃换旧符

Qiān mén wàn hù tóng tóng rì; zǒng bǎ xīn táo huàn jiù fú.

Couplets were written on red paper instead of peach wood in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), and since then  to write couplets has been regarded as a mark of the cultured life of scholars.

Classification of Chinese Couplets

Writing couplets for Spring Festival
Generally speaking, the couplet has three forms: the spring couplet, hall couplet, and column couplet.

The spring couplet is written in black ink on red paper, one half affixed vertically each side of a door as a Spring Festival decoration, and usually expresses best wishes for the coming year.

The hall couplet, also known as a hanging scroll in Chinese culture, is usually put up in the center of the main hall of each household.

The column couplet is usually carved on the columns of architecture.

Characteristics of Chinese Couplets

It's believed that the Chinese couplet evolved from the traditional Chinese metrical poem, and became more flexible. Characteristics of couplets are listed below.

The couplet has two equal-length lines, however the number of characters in each line can be from four to seven or more. Seven is most common, then five. The first line and the second line have inverse (or identical) tone patterns (each Chinese character is spoken as a syllable with one of four tones) — usually not closely followed. Corresponding characters must have the same lexical category (noun-noun, verb-verb, etc.). Many don't follow this very closely. The last character of the first line is of an oblique tone, and its counterpart in the second line of a level tone. This is often followed.

Classic Chinese Couplets for Appreciation

Chinese people have written numerous excellent couplets, passed down from one generation to another. Below are some for your appreciation.

  • 海阔凭鱼跃,天高任鸟飞


    Hǎi kuò píng yú yuè; tiān gāo rèn niǎo fēi.

    A wide sea lets fish jump; a high sky lets birds fly.

  • 书山有路勤为径,学海无涯苦作舟


    Shū shān yǒu lù qín wèi jìng; xué hǎi wú yá kǔ zuò zhōu.

    A mountain of books has a way and diligence is the path; the sea of learning has no end and hard work is the boat.

  • 路遥知马力,日久见人心


    Lù yáo zhī mǎlì; rì jiǔ jiàn rénxīn.

    Distance tests a horse's strength; time reveals a person's heart.

  • 一帆风顺年年好,万事如意步步高
  • Yīfānfēngshùn niánnián hǎo, wànshìrúyì bùbù gāo

    Smooth sailing with each year; success with each step.

  • 天增岁月人增寿,春满乾坤福满门

    Tiān zēng suìyuè rén zēng shòu; chūn mǎn qiánkūn fú mǎnmén

    Heaven adds time and people get older; spring fills the world and blessing fills the door.

  • 长长长长长长长,长长长长长长长


    Zhǎng  cháng zhǎng cháng zhǎngzhǎng cháng; cháng zhǎng cháng zhǎng chángcháng zhǎng.

    'Grow long, grow long, continue to grow long;

    always growing, always growing, continually growing.' (attributed to a grower of beans)