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Many readers will recall Dr. O. W. Holmes verses called an "Ode for a Social Meeting-with slight alterations by a Teetotaler." The following is a specimen stanza :—
"The purple-globed clusters their life-dews have bled;
How sweet is the breath of the fragrance they shed!
For summer's last roses lie hid in the wines
That were garnered by maidens who laughed through the vines." The erasures and interlineations of the "Teetotaler" modify the sentiment, until it takes the following shape:
"The half-ripened apples their life-dews have bled;
How sweet is the taste of the sugar of lead;
For summer's rank poisons lie hid in the wines !!!
For this kind of transformation of meaning, the Chinese couplet offers unrivalled facilities, as a single illustration will show. A Chinese
School-teacher of our acquaintance had a neighbor who was a butcher. Like every one else, he bought a tui tzu to adorn his doors wherewithal, at the New Year's Season. This was the distich which he posted up: 綿世澤莫如為善好。振家聲還是讀書高。 To make sure that successive generations shall be enriched by (Imperial) favor, there is nothing so good as the practice of Virtue; to render one's family famous, the loftiest method is still the pursuit of literature.' In a country where the slaughter of animals is suspended by official proclamation, whenever a scarcity of rain or snow is felt-with a view thus to propitiate by timely concessions the rain-producing Powers-the trade of a butcher is not likely to stand high. The Buddhist notions in regard to the sacredness of animal life, however disregarded, are widely current among the people. For a wicked butcher to put up a couplet of this sort, was regarded by the School-master as a piece of gross impertinence, and he accordingly pasted over three of the characters, emendations of his own, making it read as follows: 綿世澤莫如為惡好。振家聲 ****. 'To ensure the enrichment of successive generations by Imperial favor, no method is so good as the practice of Wickedness; to render one's family famous, the loftiest plan is still that of butchering pigs'!
The difficulty of finding an answering line for the one propounded, is often due to the perceived necessity of matching not merely the tone and meaning of a character, but even its shape. Thus a teacher gave out the following:氷凉酒、一點兩點三點。Ice cold wine-one drop-two drops-three drops.' In this example, the embarassment arises from the composition of the first three characters. Ice () has one dot or point (-), cool () has two (), while wine () has three (). A praeternaturally clever boy of nine years solved
the problem, however, as follows: T†AIN. ‘Lilac flowers-an hundred heads—a thousand heads—a myriad heads'; where the 'head' of the ting (T) character, corresponds to that of pai (1) one hundred, the 'head' of hsiang () is like that of ch'ien (†) a thousand, and the summit of the flower character (#) is identical with that of wan () ten thousand.
The following is another example of the talent of the Clever Boy, who so often comes to the front in Chinese legends and literature.
A certain Official of the rank of Chih fu() was passing through the streets of a city, seated in his chair, when half a dozen boys just let loose from the dismal monotony and the literally 'howling wilderness' of a Chinese school, were making the air ring with their shouts of merry laughter. However in accordance with Common Sense or the dictates of Hygiene such actions may be, they are horribly incompatible with the Chinese code of behavior for budding Confucianists, -"a code for mummies"-which leaves no room for Animal Spirits or for anything but the Proprieties. Among the rest, the Official observed a lad of bright look, and with a handsome face, whose hilariousness was more marked than that of the others, and who was evidently a leader. Halting his chair, the Chih fu had the obnoxious Boy summoned before him, and sternly inquired: "Is this the kind of demeanor which you are taught in your school? To atone for your gross impropriety of action, I shall on behalf of your teacher, beat you ten blows on your hand, unless you make me a couplet on the spot." "Oh,” replied the Lad, "that is easily done," whereupon he uttered the following sentences, the first five characters of which, are a quotation from the Confucian Analects. (Tai Shou, it should be remarked, is a synonym for Chih fu, who also has a sort of nickname, to wit "Two thousand piculs of grain"-in allusion to an ancient fixed revenue attached to his office). Quoth the Boy: *. **=+6*AR. Among six or seven Boys, you are the very worst; among Prefects, with their 200,000 pounds of grain, Your Excellency is the most "The most what?" said the Prefect. "Why do you not finish?" "Because," replied the Lad, "there are two endings-one if you give me a present for my couplet () and one if you do not." "Well," said the Chih fu, "suppose I do give you something-what is the word ?" "In that case, said the Boy, it is Lien" (incorruptible, and otherwise officially virtuous). "And suppose I do not give you anything?" "Why then," said the youth, it would have to be T'an (avaricious, sordid). The Prefect smiled, gave the Boy two thousand cash, and went on his way. It is nearly superfluous to remark that this child was only seven years of age!
A perfectly successful response to a difficult line of a couplet is not simply one which, like the answer to a problem in Euclid, merely satisfies the conditions. For the very highest effect, there is required. an indefinable loftiness of style, which resembles expression in music, and without which even faultless execution leaves an impression of a certain deficit. The difference between these methods, is illustrated in the two following examples. In the first, there was proposed a most unpromising combination: 文學堂、武學堂、文武學堂學文武。 The civil academy, and the military academy; the civil and the military academies are the places in which is learned things civil and military.' To this a youth of brilliant natural gifts responded: 2. XZ PAZ.The eastern pawn-shops, and the western pawnshops; the eastern and the western pawn-shops-this is where they pawn things. Without depreciating the skill with which the ingenious pupil accomplished his task, the discriminating Reader recognizes the fact that pawn-shops afford no suitable antithesis to institutions in which the great art of governing a nation is taught, and he is therefore not in the least surprised to learn that the author of the replydespite his intellectual capacity-died a beggar!
On the other hand, witness the following:
A. The sound of the wind, the sound of the rain, the sound of the study of books-all these sounds enter the ear.' The usual seven-years-old lad emerges, with the following ambitious response: 家事國事天下事事事關心。 The affairs of a family, the affairs of the state, the affairs of all under heaven-all these affairs concern my mind.' In view of the comprehensive scope of the boy's reply, every one must perceive that he was foreordained to be a Senior Wrangler, or first scholar of the Empire (), which he subsequently became.
Chinese history abounds in instances in which Emperors have proposed lines of couplets, both as a mere recreation, and as a test of literary ability and character. Of the latter, Hung Wu () is an example-the famous founder of the Ming Dynasty. His elder son having died, the heir apparent was the grandson of the Emperor. The younger son of Hung Wu was however spirited and ambitious. The Emperor put forth the following line, to which both his son and his grandson were to furnish a reply. His Majesty's life had been a tempestuous one, from his lonely orphanhood, to his successful leadership of a vast horde of insurgents who rose against the crumbling dynasty of the Mongol usurpers. It was the life of a man on a spirited steed at full speed. These therefore were his words:
. When the wind blows the horse's tail, it shows a thousand
separate threads.' To this sentiment his grandson responded: † ¥E-4&. 'The rain beats the sheep's wool into a mass of felt. His uncle replied in a different key: H. When the sun irradiates the scales of the Dragon, it resembles a myriad points of gold.' Nearly every detail in the antithesis in these two answers is characteristic the rain beating on the pelt of a poor sheep, contrasted with the sun lighting up the horny scales of a fierce Dragon! a single tangled mat of wet wool, opposed to ten thousand luminous sparks of gold! From these data alone, the sagacious fortune teller might calculate the fate of the two lads, of whom the former succeeded his grandfather (taking the title of Chien Wên), being driven from the throne, however, at the end of four years, by his uncle, (with his scaly Dragon), who seized the empire and took the famous title of Yung Lo ().
The great Emperors of the present Dynasty have been distinguished for their couplets. The following proposed by Kang Hsi () is well known:. The stones of Mount T'ai although they seem as if cooked soft, are yet hard.' To which Wang Hsi (ER) replied:. ‘The waters of the Yellow River appear to bubble and boil, but are ice-cold.'
The following is said to have been propounded by Ch'ien Lurg,
and consists in an apparently unmeaning repetition of the name of a certain bridge, called 'The Bridge of the eight directions,' t 八八方。八方橋上望八方。八方。八方。八八方。 The eight direction bridge; the eight, the eight directions; on the bridge of the eight directions, look toward the eight directions. Eight directions, eight directions; the eight, the eight directions!' This line was apparently given out when His Majesty was in his chariot, for his driver promptly replied as follows: 萬歲爺。萬萬歲。萬歲爺前呼萬歲。萬歲。萬 A..‘The lord of ten thousand years; of ten thousand times ten thousand years; before the lord of ten thousand years proclaim ten thousand years. Ten thousand years, ten thousand years, ten thousand times ten thousand years!'
Upon another occasion the same Emperor is said to have been petitioned by a certain Minister, for leave to retire from active employment, that he might go home and care for his aged parents (*). His Majesty gave him a line of a couplet, upon condition of his matching which, his request was to be granted. The following was the line: 十口心思思思思父母。 Ten mouths and one heart constitute reflection; reflecting upon one's village, reflecting upon one's
lands, reflecting upon one's father and mother.'
The Minister, how
ever, could dissect characters even better than the Emperor, and this
was his reply:寸身言謝。謝天謝地謝君王。‘An inch of body and words, compose the expression of gratitude; gratitude to Heaven, gratitude to Earth, gratitude to the Prince.'
There are some mathematical quantities so obstinately incommensurable, as to be incapable of expression in rational numbers, and which are called imperfect quantities-surds. There appear to be certain combinations of characters the antithesis of which are linguistic surds, impossible of expression. The catholicity of sentiment of the Emperor Kang Hsi is well known. What he really believed, it would be hard. to determine. The same may be said of his grandson Ch'ien Lung. Gibbon has remarked of the peculiar condition to which the Roman Empire was reduced in the early centuries of the Christian era, that to the common people all religions were equally true, to the philosopher all were equally false, and to the magistrate all were equally useful. Chien Lung was par excellence a Magistrate. All religions were useful which in any way assisted in keeping in order the teeming millions of a populous empire. And as to which is true? For what, after all,' His Majesty probably said to himself, 'is truth?' And when he had asked the question, he proposed a line of a couplet to illustrate his views on 'Comparative Religions.' The following are the characters: 想忠恕。念慈悲。思感應。三教同心。‘When I meditate upon Sincerity and Reciprocity; when I reflect upon Mercy and Pity; when I consider appropriate Recompense-then I perceive that the three doctrines are at heart one.' Chung () and Shu () are taken to represent the teachings of Confucius, in reference to the passage: 'If one maintains his integrity and practices the reciprocal duties he is not far from the path’(忠恕違道不遠。),Ts'u(慈) Pei (悲) allude to the Buddhist representations of Buddha and Pu Sa, while Kan Ying (M) indicates the Taoist Book of Rewards and Punishments.' It will be perceived that here are nine successive characters all with the heart radical at the bottom. Although this line was proposed more than an hundred years ago, no one has yet matched it.
One other characteristic of certain Chinese couplets, deserves a moment's notice, and it is one to which a feeble and imperfect analogue may be found in English. Those who amuse their leisure by contriving new forms of verbal gymnastics, inform us that a sentence of thirtyfive words may be constructed in which the word "that" can be grammatically inserted eighteen times; or, what is more to the present purpose, that the same word (for no other appears to be endued with the same tautological capacities) may be doubled, trebled, and quadrupled-nay, repeated until it forms a seven-fold cord, and all