CHENGDU is known for its rich cultural heritage and fiery cuisine. It’s also a city with the heart of poet. Visitors to the city can’t miss the variety of couplets at most historical sites and tourist attractions, some of which are often-quoted lines by Chinese. Each couplet tells a story.
Every year Wuhou Temple, which is dedicated to a nobleman, receives hundreds of thousands of visitors. They come to the old hall to pay homage to Zhuge Liang, prime minister of the Shu Kingdom of the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280) and a symbol of wisdom in Chinese culture.
Some admirers pay special attention to the couplet that hangs at the entrance of the memorial hall. Many scholars believe the couplet epitomizes the Chinese philosophy toward state management.
The couplet reads: Win the world not by military exploits but through winning people’s hearts; make wise policies by evaluating the situation and reviewing past lessons.
Chinese antithetical couplets (duilian or yinglian), are considered an important cultural heritage. Each couplet usually has two lines of verse known as the “head” and the “tail.” The composition requires the mastery of literary skills since the two lines have a one-to-one correspondence in their metrical length, and each pair of characters must have certain corresponding properties.
Couplets are profound yet concise, using one character per word in the style of classical Chinese. Some couplets are often displayed for special occasions such as weddings or during Spring Festival. They are usually seen on the sides of a main gate or as hanging scrolls in an interior.
Most historical sites and tourist attractions in Chengdu feature a famous couplet.
One of the most admired couplets in Chengdu is found at the Du Fu Cottage Museum — dedicated to the memory of Du Fu, a great poet during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The couplet was written by Gu Fuchu some 160 years ago during the reign of Emperor Xianfeng in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The couplet reads: Lonely am I as we live in years far apart, and poets are ill-fated in such a wonderful world; an exile were you too but your name is long remembered, as I visit this cottage in moonlight and gentle breeze.
Many scholars consider Chengdu the home of the Chinese couplet. The first recorded yinglian was made in the city, although the exact origin of the form remains a mystery and may have begun years earlier.
Legend has it that Meng Chang, the second emperor of the Shu Kingdom, with Chengdu as its capital, wrote a couplet in the year 965 to celebrate the Chinese New Year. It reads: Prosperity follows as the New Year comes; the festival begins spring that will last long. It was written several months before his kingdom was conquered by the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Throughout history, Chengdu has been one of China’s economic and cultural centers. As a prosperous city, a cultural movement flourished and the city often provided shelter for people when other parts of the country were in chaos.
Chengdu is the birthplace of great writers like Sima Xiangru, Yang Xiong and Yang Sheng’an in ancient times. In the modern era, the famous writers Bai Jin and Li Jieren were from Chengdu. This literary history has attracted other famous wordsmiths including Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Dongpo and Lu You.
There are still some memorial halls dedicated to these literary giants around the city.
Yang Sheng’an (1488-1559) recorded the top score in the imperial examination when he was young and is regarded as the most erudite scholar of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
At Guihu Park there is a hall dedicated to Yang. A statue of the scholar stands and a collection of his works are exhibited. A couplet in the park praises him and his father, also a famous scholar, and the beauty of their hometown. It reads: Respect to the father and the son, whose virtue and achievements will long shine in history; praise to the land of fragrance, where the lake offers beautiful sights all year round. The “land of fragrance” refers to Xindu, where thousands of osmanthus trees perfume the air when the flowers bloom in autumn. The lake refers to Guihu Lake, where the memorial hall stands nearby.
Chengdu proudly remembers the great people who have contributed to the land. A couplet in Dujiangyan City, where one of the greatest irrigation systems in the world was built and still benefits Sichuan, is a tribute to Li Bing, who sponsored the project.
The couplet reads: Profound is his wisdom in managing water, and people in the vast area owe to his achievement; great is the project for promoting productivity, and the Land of Abundance benefits from the project.
The city’s cultivated tradition has influenced ordinary people, illustrated by their use of hanging couplets.
One of the best known examples is the couplet at Panchanshi Restaurant. Dating back more than 90 years, the restaurant’s couplet speaks of the basic approach to Chinese cooking. It reads: No vegetable excels in taste over the plain-flavored cabbage; only pork enjoys the most popularity among meat of all kinds.
Tan Jihe, a well-known historian and archaeologist, told Chengdu Daily that couplets are a distinctive artistic form that evolved from ancient Chinese poems and phrases. It can be used for numerous occasions. In ancient China, it was also a common present among scholars and poets.
“A wide range of topics can be included in a couplet,” Tan added.
“Some can be written to express one’s concerns for people and country, and some can be a light-hearted summary of the poetic landscape. Couplets have the power to inspire people.”