What's a Chinese couplet?
The text on the bed is written in traditional, cursive script which can be difficult for many modern readers of Chinese to understand.
Text flows in the common traditional way in columns from the top to bottom, right to left. The text forms two five character lines of text called a couplet. Chinese couplets are a type of literary form that doesn’t have an English equivalent.
Couplets have three main features:
• Words in the first half of the couplet complement and contrast with the second half of the couplet. A simple English example would be: ‘I am partial to pepper: she is fond of salt’. ‘I’ opposes ‘she’, ‘am’ matches ‘is’, ‘partial to’ complements ‘fond of
• The two halves of the couplet should share the same sentence structure and their tonal structures should complement each other so that it sounds harmonious when read aloud.
• Chinese couplets don’t need to rhyme. They can be written in literary Chinese or any of the regional Chinese languages or even in a combination of both. This bed’s couplets are in literary Chinese which is generally considered more elegant. Couplets are rich in meaning and literary allusion.
In order to understand the meanings and feelings expressed by the couplet you need to:
• Translate the sometimes multiple meanings of each of the characters and words in the couplet
• Understand what meanings are formed when these words are read together as phrases in the couplet
• Appreciate how words and phrases in the couplets might be references to other literary words which also bring deeper meanings to the couplets meanings.
I’ve not been able to discover the source of the first couplet but the second is drawn from a long Tang dynasty poem by Dufu/Doufu. Books of couplets were published and were common at the time this bed was made.
Ely Finch, 2014