Spring Festival Couplets, called ‘chunlian’ in Chinese, are also known as Spring Couplets or Chinese New Year Couplets. It is the most common and important custom when celebrating Chinese New Year. This tradition is widely kept both in modern cities and rural areas of China.
What are Spring Festival Couplets?
With black or golden characters written on red paper, Spring Festival Couplets are composed of a pair of poetry lines vertically pasted on both sides of the front door and a four-character horizontal scroll affixed above the doorframe. Pasting couplets expresses people’s delight during festival time and their wishes for a better life in the coming year.
The first line (upper scroll) and the second line (lower scroll) have parallel structures and antithetical meanings. The two lines should have an equal number of characters, while their meaning must be related, yet contrasting. There must be a one-to-one correspondence between the two lines. The tone pattern is emphasized, but rhythm is not important. The horizontal scroll is a four-character phrase that sums up the meaning of the two lines.
Legend and History
Spring Couplets originated from Taofu, an inscription on boards made from peach trees in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BC). According to legend, in the ghost world, a rooster perching in a big peach tree will crow at dawn to call all the traveling ghosts back. In front of the entrance of the dark world, there are two guards named Shentu and Yulei. If the ghosts harm any people at night, the guards will kill them and serve them to a tiger for breakfast. People believed that peach trees can scare and subdue evil things, so they hung peach boards in front of the doors with the guards’ names written or inscribed on them.
During the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD), the wood board was replaced by paper, and people focused more on bright wishes for the future. The custom became popular during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD). When Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang traveled for inspections, he found those pairs of scrolls interesting. In order to advocate and promote this cultural activity, he ordered all households to paste the scrolls during the Chinese New Year. This tradition continues today.
How to Read the Spring Festival Couplets?
The order in traditional Chinese writing is different from that in Western countries or modern China. In the past, people were accustomed to writing in vertical lines from right to left. The traditional couplets followed this rule, but things have changed. Sometimes people don’t follow the rules, and they even make mistakes. Here is the way to read Spring Festival Couplets:
First, look at the horizontal scroll. If the four characters are written from left to right, the upper scroll will be on the left and the lower scroll on the right. If the characters of the horizontal scroll are reversed, the two side scrolls should be read from right to left.
How to Paste?
Pasting couplets is not an easy job. There are requirements for both when to paste and the correct order. Usually, they should be pasted before New Year’s Eve, and the best time is between 13:00 and 15:00 on the 29th of lunar December. The correct pasting order is: upper scroll → lower scroll → horizontal scroll. You can distinguish the upper and lower scrolls from the writing order of the horizontal scroll.