Have you ever seen the red papers or lanterns with beautiful Chinese characters that are hung up on house doors during the Chinese New Year? They are called 对联 (duì lián, couplets) or 春联 (chūn lián, spring festival couplets/New Year Scroll.) It is said that people use them to stop the monster Xi from robbing houses for food. On the red papers or red lanterns, people write down their New Year wishes through beautifully written verses.
[caption id="attachment_2007" align="alignright" width="200"] Lanterns with 对联 during Chinese New Year. Photo courtesy of Marufish. [/caption] Through time, these Spring Festival Couplets have become well-known folk art; but do you know that 对对联 (duì duì lián, conversing in the format of couplet verses) had long been a popular leisure activity for Chinese literati for thousands of years? Finally in the Song Dynasty (AD960-1279), people thought, “why don’t we write these beautiful verses on the lanterns?” They even made them into riddles, and since then 对灯联 (duì dēng lián, responding to the verses written on the lanterns) and 猜灯谜 (cāi dēng mí, guessing the riddles) have become the most favored activities during the Lantern’s Festival.
对灯联 requires a lot of skills. The rhymes are as witty as tongue twisters, while the connotation can be as deep as a poem. There are many anecdotes around it, and the most famous one talks about the famous politician and poet in ancient China – 王安石 (wáng ān shí.) Do you remember the idiom 一举两得 (yī jǔ liǎng dé, to kill two birds with one stone)? This is a story that perfectly illustrates the idiom. On his way to the capital to take the national exam, Wang Anshi passed a town where a wealthy family was trying to marry off their daughter through a lantern couplet. Whoever could come up with the verse that corresponded with the lantern couplet could marry their daughter with much fortune.
[caption id="attachment_2008" align="alignleft" width="175"] Wang Anshi. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons[/caption]
The verse goes:
zǒu mǎ dēng ，dēng zǒu mǎ ，dēng xī mǎ tíng bù
(Lantern of horse, with horses running; turn off the lights; stop the horse.)
Wang Anshi couldn’t think of the answer, but remembered the verse by heart. When he get to the examination, guess what? One of the tests was to come up with a verse that goes well with the following verse:
fēi hǔ qí ，qí fēi hǔ ，qí juǎn hǔ cáng shēn
(Flag of tiger, with tigers flying; roll up the flag; hide the tiger.)
“Isn’t this the perfect match to the lantern couplet I saw on the road?” Thought of Wang Anshi to himself. He then responded the verse of tiger with the verse of horse; and on his way home, he answered the verse of horse with the verse of tiger, and married the beautiful daughter. Now he was recruited to work for the Emperor AND had a beautiful and smart wife.