Spring Festival Couplets

Written by current student, Roy Hanney.

This is my third year in China for the Spring Festival or Chūnjié (春节) as it’s known locally. While I have been coming to Omeida Chinese Academy to learn Mandarin for a few years now this is the first time I have been a full time student during Chūnjié (春节) and the first time I have felt properly involved in the experience. The oldest and perhaps most important of the Chinese festivals it falls on the first day, of the first lunar month, of the new year. Just like Christmas in the UK, where I am from, everyone goes home to celebrate with their family. This usually means a mass migration in China and it is not a time to be attempting to use public transport if you want to avoid the crowds.

Among the many customs that are popular at this time of year there is one, the writing of couplets which are then pasted beside doorways, that is most intriguing. You can see these all over China at anytime of the year since people usually leave them up after the festival. But it is at Chūnjié (春节) that they are written and pasted on the doorways.

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Spring Festival couplets are called Chūnlián (春聯) in Chinese and are simply long, narrow red strips of paper or diamond-shaped paper printed with black or gold Chinese characters which are hung in the doorways of homes in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. You can think of the couplets as ‘rhyming’ couplets or short poems. The tradition goes way back in Chinese history to a time when nobles would hang peach wood boards with the names of Gate Gods on them either side of a doorway.

Around 964 CE the emperor Meng Chang asked his scholars to write couplets of auspicious words to celebrate the new year and legend has it that dissatisfied with the scholars work he wrote his own version. However, it wasn’t until the first Ming Dynasty emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (1368 – 1398 CE) ordered all his subjects to paste couplets on their doors that the tradition passed from the nobles to the common people. It seems that Zhu Yuanzhang wanted to brighten up China and create a more festival atmosphere for the Spring Festival.

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Almost every house, shop, office along with businesses everywhere paste up the scrolls on which are written the Chūnlián (春聯) couplets. Actually the couplets are duìlián (對聯) which refers to a type of poetry of which Chūnlián (春聯) are just one example. The papers they are drawn on are red because the Chinese word for red (紅, hóng) sounds like the word for prosperous. Typically the couplet is a happy, uplifting message about a better new year to come.

Such as this one:

Right Hand: 書山有路勤爲徑 (shū shān yǒu lù qín wéi jìng)

The mountain of books has one way and hard             work serves as the path.

Left Hand:     學海無涯苦作舟 (xué hǎi wú yá kǔ zuò zhōu)

The sea of learning has no end and effort makes the boat.

chunlian scrolls

When seen side by side both lines must have the same number of characters, the tone pattern of one line must be the inverse of the other, the last character of the first line must have an oblique tone which forces the last character of the second line to have a level tone. In addition the characters must have related meanings and be of similar lexical category.

We were lucky enough at Omeida Chinese Academy to have a calligraphy teacher attend the school to give us all a lesson in writing Chūnlián (春聯) couplets. Mr Zhu, an experienced calligraphy teacher from the Yangshuo Calligraphy Association came along to the school one evening to demonstrate the technique of writing Chūnlián (春聯) to help us make our own for the school.

The Chinese word for calligraphy is shūfă (書法) which means literally the way or the method of writing. The word is compound of the characters: shū (书) – to write, document & (法) – law, method, way, legislation, enactment. In China shūfă (書法) is not just a basic set of rules or means of writing but also a highly regarded art form. Shūfă (書法) are appreciated for their aesthetic qualities and the characteristics of emotional expression. Mr Zhu demonstrated his techniques for us and encouraged each of us to have a go at writing characters.

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We were each given a brush and a sheet of paper to practice on while Mr Zhu came around and offered advice and helpfully demonstrated the techniques again and again. It seems that even the Chinese students amongst us did not have the skill and dexterity to write the characters with such flourish and creativity. After we had all had a chance to practice Mr Zhu assisted us with the production of our own Chūnlián (春聯) couplets. Needless to say that after such an all too brief introduction our shūfă (書法) was not of a very high standard. Never the less it was a fantastic experience and one that I will never forget.

For me learning to write Chinese characters is a real challenge and having taken shūfă (書法) lessons in the past I can say it has really helped me begin to decode what initially appeared to be just a series of meaningless squiggles. Now I can see the structure and detail in characters even if I still don’t know what they all mean. Learning to hold the brush and move the tip across the paper makes the characters more visceral, you can really feel them which is an important part of shūfă (書法). When writing the characters you need to express emotion, feeling, to include rising and falling, soft and hard, long and short. This is part of the tradition of shūfă (書法) and one of the reasons masters of this art are so highly regarded in China.

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I am also personally fascinated by the history of the characters and love it when the teachers explain how one character or another evolved from pictograms. Or how parts of one character are combined with another to generate a new compound meaning. This renders the strokes and marks in the characters as more than just abstract lines and gives them a history. It also offers yet another way into the complexities of Chinese culture and the Chinese way of thinking which is very much bound up with the stories inside of each character.

Finally, I love shūfă (書法) because it is so absorbing. It takes a lot of practice and commitment to even master the simplest strokes. But this practice carries me away and I love the sense of performance that goes with manipulating the brush. Not to mention the sense of achievement when a character, often surprisingly, looks good and the master says “hao” and you know you did well.

可能你长寿和繁荣

Kěnéng nǐ chángshòu hé fánróng

Roy Hanney – is a university lecturer living and working in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. He practices taiji, qigong and yoga with a particular passion for Chen Style Taijiquan. In his spare time he makes films, authors websites and makes video art. He blogs about his encounters with Qigong and Daoist healing arts at his website: http://www.qigonginchina.com

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