The composition of antithetical couplets was for a long time a popular pastime in China and one can still see them adorning pavilions at scenic spots, pillars of temples, interior of restaurants, public places and private houses everywhere.
Formerly it was a very common practice to send them to friends or relations on such occasions as marriage or birthday, or as condolences to families of deceased persons.
Even today the practice still prevails in Hong Kong where one may see at funeral services antithetical couplets written on white-cloth scrolls in eulogy of the virtues or merits of the deceased.
In temples and shrines one also finds, beautiful engraved on pillars or long pieces of wood hung on walls, such literacy compositions.
Even in mainland China today, where old traditions were extensively renounced, this art has not died out, and newly composed couplets can be observed in many places serving various purposes.
Antithesis and parallelism in thought and speech, by virtue of their quality of symmetry, are aesthetically satisfying to the human mind. Thus it is not surprising to find these figures of speech embellishing the earliest recorded writings, making the thoughts contained therein the more easily memorized.
The Book of History, for instance, is full of them and it may suffice here just to quote one or two sentences:
“When in doubt whether a person has committed an offense, punish him lightly if you must; when in doubt whether a person has achieved merit, reward him heavily if you can.”
And again, “Complacency invites degradation; modesty reaps benefit.”
The Book of Odes, the Elegies of Chu, various “fu” poems of the Han and the Six Dynasties are rich sources of parallelism and antithesis.
In the time of Ch’i and Liang Dynasties (A.D. 479-556) poets were beginning to attach greater importance to tone-harmony, antithesis and parallelism. It was not by accident that Liu Hsieh who flourished in this period was able to show peculiar insight into this aspect of literary technique when he wrote:
“Nature, when endowing living things with limbs, does so in pairs. Man’s imagination, in its function, never sees things in isolation. In the creation of rhetorical language, the mind shapes and polishes a hundred thoughts that cluster round it, and by balancing the high with the low, produces antithesis and parallelism without apparent effort.”
It was then that the foundations of “regulated verse”, lü-shih, where laid, which generally speaking, means a poem of 8 lines of 5 or 7 characters each.
As time went on, the form of five-character verse became stricter and was perfected in the hands of Shen Ch’uan-chi and Sung Chih-wen in the early part of the Tang Dynasty.
One of the prerequisites for verse to be qualified as “regulated” is that the four middle lines of an eight-line poem must form two independent couplets.
A poem by Sung Chih-wen will illustrate this point:
“(It was tomb-sweeping time when I was travelling on horseback in late spring, and I was in a state of melancholy. Straining my eyes on the river’s bank, I could not see anybody from Loyang. I, a banished official in the extreme South, think constantly of the wise King in the far North, remembering the old garden (invoking heart-rending sighs) where the willow-leaves are turning green again by day and night.)”
The famous poem “From a Height” by Tu Fu is a good instance of a seven-character eight-line “regulated” verse:
“(The wind is keen, the sky is high; apes wail mournfully. The island looks fresh; the white sand gleams; birds fly circling. Infinity of trees bleakly divest themselves, their leaves falling, falling. Along the endless expanse of river the billows come rolling, rolling. Through a thousand miles of autumn’s melancholy, a constant traveller racked with a century’s diseases, alone I have dragged myself up to this high terrace. Hardship and bitter chagrin have thickened the frost upon my brow. And to crown my despondency I have lately had to renounce my cup of muddy wine!)”
So far, the couplet has always been only part of something else. We are made aware of its first becoming an independent entity by the following story.
Shih Chien-wu a Taoist poet of the T’ang Dynasty was fond of making fun of his one-eyed friend Ts’ui Ku, another scholar. Twenty-nine successful candidates at an imperial examination had a garden party and the two friends were among them.
In the party Shih playfully composed a couplet “Twenty-nine persons passed the imperial examination; fifty-seven eyes were admiring flowers,” thus obliquely hinting at Ts’ui’s deformity by highlighting the discrepancy suggested by the two numbers.
This is probably the first known case of a practical application of couplet-making.
From then on the composition of couplets as a test of wit gradually became a pastime amongst the literacy elite; but it was not until the middle of the five Dynasties (A.D. 907-960) that couplets written on scrolls were first used to adorn parts of buildings.
Meng Ch’ang ruler of Later Shu ordered one of his scholars, hsin Yen-hsun to compose a new-year charm in form of a couplet on scrolls to decorate his bed-chamber door, but the result did not pleased him. So he wrote a couplet himself which was the now well-known
“(The New Year embraces all good luck and gladness; the great festival is named Perpetual Spring.)”
This is the forerunner of what later known as “column couplets” which are normally written or engraved on columns supporting an interior hall or a porch of a building or on pillars of a pavilion or an arch.
King Chung-i of the Wu-Yueh period (895-978 A.D.) was on a visit to Ch’ien-tang River, with Monk Ch’i-ying in attendance. They were admiring the tidal waves at the Pavilion of Green Waves and the King commented on the power and majesty of the approaching waters. The Monk thereupon wrote on the pillars of the pavilion this couplet:
“(Beyond the distance of three thousand li, one strip of water; within a period of twenty four hours, two changes of tide.)”
This was the first “column couplet” ever recorded.
By the time of Northern Sung (A.D. 960-1126) the composition of couplets for occasions such as marriage, death, birthday, and so on, had become a vogue in the higher strata of society.
Perhaps at no time in the history of China had the “spring couplet” been so forcefully popularised as in the reign of the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644).
During the Ch’ing Dynasty (A.D. 1644-1911) the composition of couplets as a social accomplishment was widely cultivated, and the test of a person’s education and wit was often carried out by setting a line for him to match.
A couplet is made up of two component parts which are called the Head and the Tail respectively.
The number of characters of each must be the same but each usually implies a connotation in contrast to the other. Word for word or phrase for phrase, the Head and the Tail must correspond in syntactical arrangements.
Moreover there must be such a variation of the “tone” of words in the two parts so that the couplet will read well; but the subject of “tone” need not detain us here since “tone” cannot be rendered in translation.
Read as a whole, the lines have a force, derived from the antithesis, which it is easy enough to appreciate.
Not too long ago, Chinese children were still taught the art of writing couplets as soon as they had some idea of the four tones.
The initial stage of the training consisted of such exercises as setting single words against each other “antithetically’, like “heaven” against “earth”, “mountain” against “stream” and “river” against “sea”.
After this, the pupil would go on to devising suitable matches to two-character phrases like pairing “white teeth’ with “red lips” and coupling “nine classics’ with “three histories”.
Soon the pupil advanced to combinations of three characters.
With more and more practice, the pupil finally graduated to five-character and even more complicated combinations.
This apparently was intended to help young scholars to think and acquire an ability to write elegantly. The greatest advantage of the antithetical couplet is its concentration. It is easily memorised and usually pleases by the wit or humour it contains.
Indeed, one of the reasons why the oldest specimen of the Chinese language is rhymed and so condensed is that such a style of writing helps one to memorise more easily and accurately – and in those days communication was more often effected by the spoken word than by writing.