The Origin of Couplets

Text: Kelvin U, Debby Seng | Photo: Jack Ho, Debby Seng | Issue 86 My UM February 2019

Zhu Shoutong, associate director of the Centre for Chinese History and Culture, professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, and executive vice president of an association of Chinese calligraphers from Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, mainland China, and overseas, is well-versed in the couplet culture. He is also in the habit of writing couplets for the Lunar New Year, because it adds to a festive atmosphere and creates an intellectual ambiance around the house. During our interview, Prof Zhu wrote a couplet to wish My UM readers all the best in the New Year.

Prof Zhu writes a couplet to wish My UM readers all the best in the New Year

Prof Zhu explains that the predecessor of spring couplets were peach wood charms, which were believed to have the power to keep away evil spirits and ghosts. According to ‘Treatise on Rites’ in The Book of the Later Han, peach wood charms were made of peach wood. They are six inches long and three inches wide, inscribed with the names of two gods Shen Cha and Yu Lei, to keep away evil spirits and ghosts. Prof Zhu says, ‘Chinese people have always held words in awe. Legend has it that Cang Jie, the god believed to have created the words we are using now, heard ghosts weeping at night after he created words during the day. You can tell from the legend that words were held in the highest esteem. “Showing respect to paper with words on it” has always been part of the Chinese folk culture, for the same reason: being in awe of words. People in ancient China wrote and pasted words on their doors as a way to keep away evil spirits and ghosts, because they had utter confidence in the magical power of words.’

Peach wood charms is the earliest form of couplets (source: internet stock images)