Haiwang YUAN

A decorated doorway of a house in southern China. Duilian, poetic couplets, line the two sides of the door to bring good fortune. Over the door the round mirror and other charms scare away evil spirits. The decorative panels are painted with still life, landscape, and calligraphy. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Duilian (antithetical couplet, or two lines created in opposition to each other) is a Chinese literary form that follows rigid rules and has a capacity for great variety. While writing duilian requires a high level of literary skill, matching the first line of the couplet with the second can be very entertaining.

Couplets are used in many cultures, such as the English sonnet, the Arabic qasida, and the Chinese lüshi (regulated verse). A couplet is a pair of lines of rhymed verse, usually having the same meter. It can be used either alone or as part of a poem. Duilian ??, nicknamed duizi, is an antithetical couplet peculiar to the Chinese culture and made possible by the special properties of hanzi, or Chinese characters, which are tonal and single-syllabic.

Duilian must satisfy a series of rigorous requirements in addition to rhyming and metering. Firstly, the juxtaposed lines of a duilian must have exactly the same number of Chinese characters and be punctuated in the same place. Secondly, the corresponding characters in both lines must have the same parts of speech. That is, a notional word must correspond to a notional word (such as noun and verb), and a function word must match a function word (such as a conjunction or preposition). Thirdly, level and oblique tones of the corresponding characters must not be the same. By convention, the first line must end with a character with the oblique tone while the second ends with the level tone. Lastly, not only are the meanings of both lines related, but the meaning of each matching character must be related as well. The following is an example of a duilian that meets all the requirements.

H?i (sea) kuò (vast) píng (allows) yú (fish) yuè

Ti?n (sky) g?o (high) rèn (enables) ni?o (bird)
f?i (fly).

The meaning of this duilian is “A vast sea allows fish to jump as freely as the deep sky enables birds to fly.” The connotation is “The only limit is oneself.”

There is no limit to the length of a duilian. It can be eight characters short or hundreds of characters long. The longer it is, the more difficult it is to write. The most famous is the 180-character duilian found in the Da Guan Garden of Kunming in Yunnan Province, China. Duilian is also found in Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam due to cultural diffusion.

Origin and History

Prototypes of couplets appeared in China as early as 3,000 years ago. Dui’ouju (antithetical sentences) of the Shang (1766–1045 BCE) and its subsequent dynasties, pianliju (parallel and ornate sentences) of the Cao Wei (220–265 CE) and the following dynasties, and gelüshi (metered poems) of the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) all had a part in nurturing the growth of duilian.

Duilian became chunlian, or Spring Festival couplets, with the intervention of the early Chinese belief in the exorcizing power of the peach tree. Liji (Classic of Rites), one of the five classics of Confucian canon, compiled in the first century CE, first mentioned the use of the peach tree to expel evil ghosts at a funeral. According to mythology, a huge peach tree on an island extended its branches a few thousand miles to the gate of a cave where devils lived. Under the tree were two god generals named Shen Shu and Yu Lü. Whenever they caught a devil hurting people, they would tie it up and feed it to a tiger. From the Zhou Dynasty (1045–256 BCE) on, Chinese began to hang a peach-wood board a few inches long on each side of their doors. Written records of the Tang Dynasty show that these boards were called taofu (peach signs). Later, the names of the two god generals were written on the wood boards and their images were drawn on them. From this practice, there came the tradition of worshiping God of Gates—a practice that still persists today in rural China.

At the same time, the evolution of the purportedly potent peach-wood board took another turn with duilian (antithetical couplets) inscribed on it. This transformation was attributed to Meng Chang, King of Later Shu of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907–960 CE). He wrote a couplet on the wood boards, which reads, “A New Year welcomes more happiness; A good festival greets a long spring:”

X?n (new) nián (year) nà (receives) yú (more)
qìng (happiness);

Ji? (fine) jié (festival) hào (calls) cháng (long)
ch?n (spring).

Though not a perfect antithetical couplet, it was allegedly the start of duilian in Chinese history.

Credit for putting duilian on paper is given to Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE). It is recorded that after he chose Jinling (today’s Nanjing) as the site of the dynasty’s capital, he decreed that all his subjects put up paper duilian (known as chuntie at the time) on their doors so that he could have the fun of inspecting them from door to door.

Types of Duilian

The name of a duilian has to do with where it is used: Yinglian is hung from the principal column of a hall; menlian, or mendui, is pasted on the door; and zhongtanglian is suspended in a parlor. As far as the occasion is concerned, helian is used for congratulation; zenglian, for eulogy; wanlian, for mourning; and chunlian for the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year. Usually pasted vertically on the doorframes, chunlian is also menlian (door couplet) in nature. And chunlian is always complemented with a four character hengpi (horizontal scroll) pasted on the beam over the door. It serves as a summary of the couplet.

In terms of its artistic quality, there are about a dozen kinds of duilian. Diezilian has the same character occurring continuously; fuzilian has the same character repeating itself every other character(s); dingzhenlian has the first character of the second line repeating the last of the first line; qianzilian embeds some proper nouns, such as the name of a person or a place; chaizilian has compound characters split into individual characters that form them; yinyunlian employs homophones, homographs, and words of assonance; xiequlian contains a lot of humor; wuqingdui has rigorously antithetical lines not at all related to each other in meaning; and huiwenlian is like a palindrome, meaningfully readable from either end.

Duilian and Knowledge

The creation of a good duilian requires great learning and wisdom. It also brings enjoyment to the creator as well as the reader. There are many anecdotes and legends like this:

When one of China’s greatest scholars, Ji Xiaolan (1724–1805) was young, he had an unpleasant private teacher whose surname was Shi (stone). One day, Xiaolan pulled out a brick from a wall and hid a sparrow in the hole, feedin
g it between class meetings. When the teacher found his secret, he killed the bird and replaced the brick in the wall, where he inscribed a line of verse:

“Xì (thin) y? (feather) ji? (domestic) qín (fowl) zhu?n (brick) hòu (behind) si? (die),” meaning “A fine-feathered domestic bird is dead behind a brick.”

Seeing the dead bird and the verse, Ji Xiaolan realized what had happened. He added a second line beside his teacher’s:

“C? (thick) máo (hair) y? (wild) shòu (beast) shí (stone) xi?n (front) sh?ng (live),” which means “A coarse-haired wild beast is alive before a stone.”

Seeing this, the teacher was furious, because “is alive before a stone” was a pun for “Master Shi.” Ji Xiaolan argued that he had no alternative but to match his verse word for word, as the rule of writing a duilian required. In his witty and learned way, the young Xiaolan avenged his lost sparrow.

Reading and writing duilian is part of the curriculum of Chinese schools. Providing the second line of a potential duilian to match the first line given is a fun game to play and is a feature of many Chinese entertainment shows, including the annual Chinese New Year celebration TV gala, which is watched by a billion viewers.

Further Reading

Dolby, W. (1989). Chinese couplets, aphorisms, and apothogems: A small dictionary. Edinburgh, U.K.: W. Dolby.

Gong, L. (1998). Zhonghua dui lian da dian. Shanghai: Fu dan da xue chu ban she.

Wuguan, Y. Z., & Xiujing Xu. (1985). Dui lian gu shi xuan. Beijing: Beijing chu ban she.

Source: Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). Duilian. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 650–652. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Duilian (Duìlián ??)|Duìlián ?? (Duilian)

Download the PDF of this article