Chengdu: A City of Couplets and Poetic Life

Authors: Go Chengdu


The fact is that at most of the historical sites and tourist attractions you can find famous couplets, some of which are often-quoted lines…
Every year the Wuhou Shrine (Shrine of Marquis Wu) in the south of downtown Chengdu receives hundreds of thousands of visitors from home and abroad, who come to the old hall to pay homage to Zhuge Liang, the Prime Minister of the Shuhan State of the Three Kingdoms Period (220 AD-280 AD) and the symbol of wisdom in the Chinese culture.

Some of the admirers pay special attention to the couplet that hangs at the entrance of the memorial hall which, as many scholars believe, epitomizes the Chinese philosophy of state management.

The couplet reads: win the world not by military exploits but by winning people’s heart; make wise policies by judging the situation and by reviewing past lessons (能攻心则反侧自消,自古知兵非好战;不审势即宽严皆误,后来治蜀要深思).

Chinese antithetical couplet, called dui-lian (对联in Chinese), is considered an important Chinese cultural heritage. Each couplet usually has two lines of verse, the “head” and the “tail”, and 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 ideally profound yet concise, using one character per word in the style of Classical Chinese and some types are often displayed during special occasions such as weddings or during the Spring Festival. They are usually seen on the sides of the main gate or as hanging scrolls in an interior.

The couplet in Wuhou Shrine is not the only example of the rich cultural tradition of Chengdu, and the fact is that at most of the historical sites and tourist attractions you can find the finest compositions, some of which are often-quoted lines.

One of the most admirable couplets in Chengdu is found at the Du Fu Cottage Museum (dedicated to the memory of Du Fu, a great poet of the Tang dynasty, 618-907), which was written by Gu Fuchu some 160 years ago during the Xianfeng reign of the Qing dynasty. 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 (异代不同时,问如此江山,龙蜷虎卧几诗客;先生亦流寓,有长留天地,月白风清一草堂).

In fact, Chengdu is known as the birthplace of the Chinese couplet as the first recorded Du-lian was made in the city, although the origin of the literature form still remains unknown and may have begun years earlier than the now recognized “First Du-lian”. Legend has it that Meng Chang, the second emperor of Later Shu State, with Chengdu as its capital, wrote a couplet in the year 965 to celebrate the New Year “prosperity follows as the new year comes; the festival begins spring that will last long (新年纳余庆;嘉节号长春)”, just several months before his state was conquered by the Song dynasty.

In history, Chengdu was one of the economic and cultural centers in China. Endowed with excellent natural environment, the city for the most of time in history enjoyed long prosperity and this in turn helped promote the cultural development, and it was quite often that the land provided the shelter for people when other parts of the country was in a chaotic state. While the birthplace of local great writers, such as Sima Xiangru, Yangxiong and Yang Sheng’an of the ancient times and Bai Jin and Li Jieren of the contemporary times, some of the literary giants in the Chinese history, including Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Dongpo and Lu You have left impression on the culture of the city. There are still some sites around Chengdu where memorial halls are preserved for the memory of these master minds.

Yang Sheng’an (1488-1559) was a native to Xindu District in northern Chengdu. He came first in the imperial examination when he was young and is regarded as the read-all and most erudite scholar of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). At the Guihu Park in Xindu a hall dedicated to his memory was built, where the 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 once the Prime Minister of the central government) and the beauty of their hometown: 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 the year round (宛在水中央,聚千古名士忠臣人两个;生成香世界,看满湖春风秋月花四时). The “land of fragrance” refers to Xindu, where thousands of osmanthus trees are planted in the town to perfume the air when the flowers come out in autumn, while “the lake” refers to the Guihu Lake, where the memorial hall stands nearby.

At the Yanhuachi Park in western Chengdu’s Chongzhou City is the shrine of Lu You (1125—1210) of the southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). Lu You, coming from Zhejiang province in eastern China, served at his official post in Chongzhou City and traveled extensively for many years in Sichuan. He is the most prolific great poet in history and wrote a large number of poems about his life and in the praise of the sceneries of Sichuan. At the gate to the memorial hall in the park hangs a couplet that reads “the man comes far from his hometown and is cut off from his relatives, but he finds understanding and appreciation in this remote place; his shrine adjoins the Confucius Hall and receives equal worship, and people come to pay homage to the ancient sages (天府度重关?迢递音书,从来海内存知己;名园邻圣域,参差祠庙,每到池边仰古贤)”.

Chengdu never forgets the great people who made contributions to the land. A couplet in Dujiangyan City ― where one of the greatest irrigation systems in the world was built and still benefits the land of Sichuan ― is an admiration to Li Bing, the sponsor of the great project: 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 (六字炳千秋十四县民命食天尽是此公赐予;万流归一汇八百里青城沃野都从太守得来).

The city’s cultivated tradition has also exerted strong influence to the daily life of ordinary people, which is illustrated by the fact that many shops, especially the time-honored ones, have couplets hung under the shop signs. One of the best known examples is the couplet at the Panchanshi Restaurant. The restaurant, not far from the city’s commercial city, has a history of 90 years. One would be very much impressed with game of jeu de mots (use of homophones) of the couplet which to some extent tells about the basic views of the Chinese cooking: no vegetable excels in taste over the plain-flavored cabbage; only pork enjoys the most popularity among meat of all kinds (百菜还是白菜好;诸肉还是猪肉香).
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