Spring Couplets: Ushering in the New Year in Style


2014 / 2月

Sam Ju /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

At Chinese New Year’s people hang up spring couplets to provide some bright red festiveness, as well as to show off the aesthetic beauty of the calligraphy. In recent years handwritten couplets have been undergoing a transformation. No longer stodgy and staid, these calligraphies are increasingly appreciated by young people. They securely hold the top spot among the handicrafts that engender New Year’s spirit.

On January 18, two weekends ahead of New Year’s Eve, before even 9 a.m. a crowd is lining up at the Tai­pei Confucius Temple for an event in which New Year’s couplets are brushed and handed out to members of the public.

Its plaza holds 20 some-odd tables, with a line of ten to 20 people in front of each. The crowd includes grandparents and young couples with five- or six-year-old kids, all of whom come for an ample dose of New Year’s spirit.

At 10 a.m. sharp the calligraphers, all members of the ROC Society of Calligraphy Education, take their positions. They may not be great masters, but they hold solid skills and are quite experienced. Many have been coming to the event for more than 20 years.

From peach wood amulets

The practice of writing New Year’s couplets evolved from the use of peach wood amulets during the Five Dynasties era. Artists would paint images of the Daoist deities ­Shetu and Yu­lei on boards of peach wood. These would be hung at the gateway of a house to welcome good fortune and repel evil. Symmetry was already highly emphasized.

According to legend, during the Ten Kingdoms era Meng ­Chang (919–965), the emperor of Later Shu, wrote on a peach board: “At New Year’s there is a surplus to celebrate; may the festivities presage a long spring.” It was the first recorded example of a celebratory couplet written for Chinese New Year’s. Later, Zhu Yuan­zhang (1328–1398), the first Ming emperor, would embrace the habit, thereby planting seeds for the custom to take root throughout China.

Lin Mao-­hsien, an associate professor of Taiwanese literature at National Tai­chung University, explains that couplets, though uniformly conveying auspiciousness, often vary depending on profession and locale.

For instance, in hopes of an abundant harvest, farmers might put up, “The courtyard basks amid splendorous sounds of a gentle spring, as peace pervades fields of abundance.” Meanwhile, a merchant, hoping for positive cash flow, might instead choose, “Grasses grow with vigor during spring’s three months, as the river delivers its nurturing bounty from far away.”

Different strokes for different folks

When you face a couplet, the first line (on the right) is described as being on the “dragon side” and the second line (on the left) is described as being on the “tiger side.” In his book Ringing Out the Old Year and Welcoming In the New, author Yang Hua­kang describes four main principles for the creation of couplets: using the same number of characters on each line, creating parallel structures, employing phrases with complementary meanings, and achieving a suitable rhythm, usually with the first line ending in an “oblique” tone, and the second line ending in a “level” tone. (This distinction is an important part of the rhyming schemes used in classical poetry. The level tone is one of the four tone classes of Middle Chinese. The other three—“rising,” “departing” and “entering,” are together called the oblique tones. Characters with the level tone in Middle Chinese generally have a high level tone [first tone] or high rising tone [second tone] in modern Mandarin.) By following those simple guidelines, it’s easy to come up with couplets on your own.

A breakfast joint specializing in baking sesame-seed coated cakes, for instance, might hang up, “At the sound of firecrackers, my cake is the largest. Peach amulets are hung in 10,000 households: Let’s see who has the most sesame seeds.” Using exaggeratedly boastful language while maintaining an appropriate cadence only adds to the festiveness.

Because Taiwan long ago entered the ranks of industrial societies, many citizens now live in cramped high-rise apartments with restrictions on what they can hang outside their front door. Consequently, shorter calligraphies have come into fashion. These include four-character calligraphies such as “The money rolls in” or single characters for “Spring” (春—chun) or “Good Fortune” (福—fu) which are placed upside down to convey the idea that spring or wealth has arrived (“upside down” is a homonym for “arrived” in Mandarin). Four characters that mean “ushering in wealth and prosperity” (招財進寶—zhao cai jin bao) are also frequently combined into one character.

Lin stresses that selecting characters for a couplet demands consideration of the characteristics of the site. For instance, farms are suitable places for “All six types of livestock flourish,” but putting the same line in a bedroom would suggest that the resident couple would give birth to animals. “Full” is well suited for granaries or cash boxes, signifying that a household will lack for neither food nor money, but if you hung it in a bathroom, it would convey an image of overflowing sewage pipes.

When in Rome…

For the free New Year’s calligraphies at the Tai­pei Confucius Temple, the organizers supplied a total of 3000 calligraphic papers sized to fit seven- or four-character couplet lines, as well as diamond-shaped papers for single-character calligraphies. Apart from the standard red paper, there is also paper sprinkled with gold dust, as well as paper printed with an eave tile pattern.

After the calligraphies are hung to dry in the open air, they are handed over to members of the public. ­Huang Su­zhen, director-general of the ROC Calligraphy Education Society, explains that some people don’t have time to wait. Consequently, in addition to brushing calligraphies that day at the temple, calligraphers also prepare some at home, so that those in a rush can pick them up quickly.

For the many people that want to see the calligraphies brushed for themselves, the calligraphers bring along a list of suitable couplets to choose from. For instance, ­Huang provides a notebook full of brushed examples, such as “With perseverance nothing is impossible; peace at home rises from tolerance.”

“The public is diverse, and everyone likes to be different,” ­Huang notes. “Consequently, when preparing potential couplets you’ve got to appeal to as many tastes as possible.”

What’s more, due to popular demand, ­Huang also provides a notebook full of the most common combinatorial single characters. For instance, the combinatorial character for “Study Confucius and Mencius well” is well suited to hanging in a study in anticipation of exam success. The combinatorial for “seeing money day after day” is used in the same kind of places as “ushering in wealth and prosperity.” Both symbolize uninterrupted prosperity.

On the day of the event, numerous foreign tourists show up to collect some couplets. One woman from an English-speaking country asks if it would be possible to add an English annotation. Consequently, when brushing in Chinese­, “Spring arrives among the people; Happy New Year,” ­Huang also leaves some space to write in English: “Happy New Year.”

“At New Year’s having a lot of fun and making people happy is most important,” says Huang. “There’s no need to be a stickler about tradition.”

New Year’s gets younger and hipper

One of the calligraphers is retired Taiwanese-language singing star Lin Xiu­zhu, age 71, who already has more than ten years of experience at the event. She modestly says that she isn’t a true calligrapher, merely a lover of art who began to practice calligraphy after she turned 50. In recent years she has been enraptured with oil painting, and in her own estimation, “My painting is better than my calligraphy.” Consequently, she humbly asks those taking her calligraphies if they’d like her to give them a livelier feel by embellishing them with additional designs.

Indeed, unlike printed New Year’s couplets, hand-brushed works demonstrate all kinds of delightful variations that provide interest beyond the calligraphy. Most commonly, one can see the year’s Chinese zodiac animal painted somewhere on the calligraphic paper.

For instance, since the coming year is the Year of the Horse, when brushing, “Success comes with the arrival of the horse,” one can use a pictogram for a horse in place of the standard Chinese character, thereby giving the four-character couplet a more contemporary feel.

Lin’s grandson Luo ­Shaoqi, now a fifth-grader, first attended the New Year’s calligraphy event at the Confucius Temple with his grandmother back when he was three. The media immediately dubbed him a “calligraphic prodigy.” Requests for regular, semi-cursive or cursive script don’t faze him this year. The public is particularly curious about him, and he always has crowds gathered around his table. Every time he finishes a calligraphy, the onlookers ooh and ah, but he always maintains his cool.

It takes courage to write New Year’s couplets on a plaza crowded with onlookers. Even if you’re well practiced writing them in your study at home, you may not be comfortable the first time you try to write them outdoors. ­Huang Su­zhen says that the ROC Society of Calligraphy Education doesn’t expect the calligraphers who come to the event at the Tai­pei Confucius Temple to produce perfect work amid all the give and take with the public. The key thing is to ramp up the holiday spirit and festive atmosphere.

Says ­Huang: “Watching so many people line up to obtain New Year’s couplets and seeing so many mainland Chinese tourists purchase and collect calligraphies using traditional Chinese characters, I can’t help but think that the tradition of writing spring couplets has a bright future.”



繁體中文 日文


文‧朱立群 圖‧莊坤儒
























揮毫當天,現場也有不少好奇的國外遊客排隊領取春聯。一位來自英語系國家的婦人希望能夠加註英文,因此,黃素珍寫完「春到人間、新年快樂」後,二話不說,在不破壞中文字書法美感的前提下,在預留的空白處寫上「Happy New Year」。











文・朱立群 写真・荘坤儒

























孔子廟の会場では、興味深そうに見学して春聯を受け取っていく外国人観光客も少なくない。英語圏から来た女性は、英語も書いてほしいと希望したので、黄素珍は「春到人間、新年快楽」という春聯を書き、漢字の美観を損ねないように、空けておいた余白に「Happy New Year」と書き添えた。










X 使用【台灣光華雜誌】APP!