Chinese couplets – not your average rap song ;)

Today, Andrea Nann and I had a phone meeting about The Whole Shebang 2012. She asked if I were writing a new piece for Shebang, something to do with couplets because she had noticed this new page on my site: “splits / twinning / couplets” …… Immediately, I thought of Chinese couplets. I tried to explain what they are to Andrea, but I couldn’t remember all the formal complexities. So hours later, I am now looking it up. And boy, I was not wrong when I insisted to her that Chinese couplets are not like two rappers verbally sparring over rhymes. I love hip hop but Chinese couplets are waaaaaay more sophisticated (read: finicky).

Here’s what good ol’ Wikipedia says (and no, I do not base all my research on Wikipedia, but it’s handy for quick – free – armchair reference):

A couplet must adhere to the following rules:

  1. Both lines must have the same number of Chinese characters.
  2. The lexical category of each character must be the same as its corresponding character.
  3. The tone pattern of one line must be the inverse of the other. This generally means if one character is of the a level () tone, its corresponding character in the other line must be of an oblique () tone, and vice versa.
  4. The last character of the first line should be of an oblique tone, which forces the last character of the second line to be of a level tone.
  5. The meaning of the two lines need to be related, with each pair of corresponding characters having related meanings too.

I feel as if I should repeat / re-explain the rules again.

First of all, you need to understand that a couplet can be written by one person, but there can be a duel or collaboration with another individual. The fun (awesome) thing about competing against another person in a couplet-writing duel is that the rules require the competitor to match the first line as much as beat it.

  1. If I write the first line, you have to match the first line with a line that contains the same number of Chinese characters (i.e. words).
  2. Your line has to mirror the grammatical DNA of my line. Meaning, if my line is made up of “noun verb noun,” your matching line has to follow the same pattern, “noun verb noun”. 
  3. In the Mandarin language, there are four tones for pronounciation. The same sound, e.g. “ma,” can be prounounced according to four different tones, which then change the meaning of the sound “ma” to become different words (characters). The first tone is what is called a level tone. The other three tones are oblique tones. If the first line of our jointly-written couplet features a tonal pattern of “oblique oblique level level oblique,” then the second line must follow the inverse pattern, i.e. “level level oblique oblique level.” You could sort of think of it like iambic pentameter for one line and then the inverse for the next.
  4. Hm, well someone decided that the first line must end with an oblique tone, so that the last line will end with a level tone. Probably the couplet sounds more “finished” or conclusive by ending on a level tone rather than an oblique. But I’m not a native Mandarin speaker so you’ll have to ask someone else to be sure…
  5. This is huge! The reason why it’s called a couplet is because the two lines are linked in meaning. Usually, in all the (limited) examples I know, the two lines are discussing the same thing / theme (though they could be expressing opposite views). But more than just being a pair of lines that deal with one idea or topic, each pair of characters must also have related meanings. It’s like a twin set of twins within. Twin pea pods containing two rows of twin peas. 

It’s nuts, right? And this is all about form — the content is where a whole other level of sophistication comes in. As I said before, the most fun, awesome thing about writing couplets with another person is that your second line has to match the first and be linked in meaning down to the chronological pairs of characters, as well as be your chance to say something really witty or deep that either elevates the couplet as a whole or makes the sucker who wrote the first line look really bad. (All this I learned from years of watching Chinese movies with my father about our famous flying, kung-fu-fighting literati.)

I can’t think of anything quite like it, in terms of other literary games or traditions. Can you?


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