Oct 21

The folklore behind a Chinese antithetical couplet

Written by DJ on Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 at 8:23 pm
Filed under:-mini-posts, culture, language | Tags:,
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The NYT just posted a report on how Cantonese is being “swept aside” by Mandarin in Chinatowns of North America. This post has nothing to do with that story.

Chinese class

The photo above is used by the NYT to illustrate a New York Chinese School classroom scene. Those vertically arranged Chinese characters shown in the background are the first half of a 对联 (Chinese antithetical couplet). And there is an interesting story behind the couplet.

This story has been attributed to a number of famous Chinese luminaries in history. One of the more popular versions is based on 苏轼 (Su Shi), a writer, poet, artist, calligrapher, pharmacologist, and statesman of the Song Dynasty.

The story goes: Su one day paid a visit to a Buddhist monastery in plain dressing. The head monk didn’t pay much attention to this seemingly ordinary guest. So he causally offered “坐” (take a seat) and told the junior monk “茶” (tea). After a bit of conversation, Su asked for the pledge book and wrote down a generous sum. This caught the attention of the monk, who offered again “请坐” (please take a seat) and ordered “上茶” (bring the tea). Su smiled and signed his name on the pledge book. Recognizing that the guest was the famous Su Shi, the monk immediately jumped up and said “请上坐” (please take the top seat) and turned to the junior monk “上好茶” (bring out the good tea).

Afterward, the head monk asked Su to leave behind some calligraphy for the monastery. So Su wrote an antithetical couplet:

坐,请坐,请上坐 (seat, please seat, please take the top seat)
茶,上茶,上好茶 (tea, bring tea, bring out the good tea)

The writing in the photo above is the top half of this couplet.

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14 Responses to “The folklore behind a Chinese antithetical couplet”

  1. Steve Says:

    DJ, thanks for this story. To be honest, I learn more about China from hearing tales like this than I do from watching skyscrapers being built. The couplet contains a series of meanings yet is so simply put. I love that aspect of Chinese culture.

  2. pug_ster Says:

    I think it is already happening. Many of the more affluent Chinese who speaks Cantonese already went up the food Chain and are not living near Chinatowns anymore. So many mainland Chinese and in some cases Vietnamese to fill the void. Many of the people who are FOB’s are working in restaurants, supermarkets and

    In my neighborhood, I brought my daughter to a daycare where it is about 50%/50% Cantonese/Mandarin (and that’s considered good number of Cantonese living here.) So it is only matter of time that Cantonese will be considered extinct. I noticed that people who are coming here within the last 15 years are coming from the fujian providence. Personally, I am going take my daughter and son to Chinese schools to learn Mandarin instead of Cantonese.

    On a similar subject, it seems China wants to further simplify more Chinese characters.


  3. Cissy Says:


    I thought only the poor immigrants without language skills and other skills live in Chinatown. A lot of them are even illegal. For them, Chinatown would be the best place to survive.

  4. Rhan Says:

    I like Su Shi 不识庐山真面目,只缘身在此山中 (it’s hard to see the mountain when you in it). A good piece for both the Sino-basher and Western-basher.

    Mandarin is now become too dominant, most kids can’t speak dialect anymore. Is this good or bad? I don’t know. I insist to speak CANTONESE with my family.

  5. Hidari Says:

    Having one common language is good for a country because it promotes national unity. Before in China (still present but at least a little less now), when someone from one region traveled to another region, sometimes in the same province, they couldn’t even understand each other.

  6. Otto Kerner Says:


    The cost of it is the same as its benefit: this national unity disrupts unique local cultures.

  7. Cissy Says:

    The most annoying part is that, the West makes such a big fuss about the issue of Chinese minority culture and language, while never gives a damn about the disruption of local chinese culture and language. Tibetan language has only a 6 million user population, and there are so many resource and tax money being used to preserve their language. While at the same time, the dialects, especially those from the South, are being disrupted by administrative force and propaganda. Those dialects, called dialects for political reason, are actually independent languages from linguistic point of view. Some of them have a user population of tens of millions. Comparing the treatment between minority language(well, only certain privileged minority) and regional dialect/language, the unfairness from Chinese central government and from the West are not too much different.

  8. Otto Kerner Says:

    I think the ideal thing would be for everyone in the world to learn one lingua franca which can be used to communicate with everyone else, and then they can be free to retain their own regional dialects without feeling pressured to give them up in favour of a local lingua franca (most people can handle bilingualism pretty well). In a perfect world, the lingua franca would be Esperanto or some other designed language, but in real life, the way things are going, that lingua franca would probably have to be English.

    Actually, probably no one in the world is in a better position to promote Esperanto than the Chinese government is. If they wanted to make a commitment to it, they could have Esperanto as a mandatory subject in Chinese schools, and then tell the rest of the world, “Hey, if you want to do business in China, you don’t have to learn Chinese [which is supposedly hard], but you can learn Esperanto instead [which is supposedly easy].” The result would be more business getting done in a language which many Chinese people would have an advantage in, rather than in English, where many Chinese people are at a disadvantage. This plan would be even more effective if China was able to arrange to have one or more other English-challenged countries start a similar plan at the same time: Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, certain Middle Eastern oil states, maybe Brazil, or even Russia would be good partners.

    I have no particular fondness for Esperanto; in fact, it has its well-known defects. You could just as well substitute any other “international auxiliary” type constructed language.

  9. Allen Says:

    @Otto Kerner,

    Jokes aside – how many languages do you speak? Is it true that most Europeans master 3-4 languages? How difficult is that? (I haven’t mastered 3-4 languages; my mom say I haven’t even mastered 1.).

  10. Otto Kerner Says:

    I’m actually an American, so I suffered through our country’s abysmally bad public school language education. Besides English, I don’t speak any languages better than I speak Chinese, which is not very well.

    On the other hand, anecdotally, I’ve known a lot of Europeans who had managed to master English to an impressive extent. Even more anecdotally, I knew an African guy who spoke seven languages, five of them just from hanging around in his home country: his mother language, plus the local official language (an African language used for basic education), French (used in higher education, and as a lingua franca in that part of Africa), Arabic for religious purposes, and a local dialect of Arabic spoken by some of his schoolmates (like Chinese dialects, that’s basically like learning a whole different language). Then he studied Chinese as his major in college and he could also get by okay in English, because, well, it’s English. That guy is a genius, but I think most people can handle two languages if the have solid language education and a lot of motivation (i.e. access to global communication).

  11. Bill Chapman Says:

    It was interesting to see the mention of Esperanto here. Your readers may gain from this the idea that Esperanto is something historical or experimental. In fact this planned second language is spoken by a growing population of people across the world. In fact it has had some support from the Chinese government,and I have met a number of Esperanto-speakers fromChina.

    Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

  12. Steve Says:

    Bill, I’m not disagreeing with anything you said, but I’ve traveled pretty extensively around the US and the world and have yet to meet anyone who mentioned they spoke Esperanto. I’m just curious how many on the forum can speak it or know any who do. Anyone?

  13. Brian Barker Says:

    Concerning the comments about Esperanto.

    It’s unfortunate however that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

    After a short period of 122 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, and a languag choice of Google, Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

    Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

    Further arguments can be seen at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  14. Henrietta Says:

    Very nice write-up. I absolutely love this site. Keep writing!

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