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Couplet on Red Paper by the Qianlong Emperor

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Period: Qianlong reign (1736–1795), Qing dynasty (1644–1911)
Medium: ink on decorative paper
Calligrapher(s): The Qianlong Emperor

This couplet by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–1795) presents the prosperity (fugui) of a vernal scene (jing) and peace (ping’an) as gold (jin).

Spring couplets (chunlian) were developed from the ancient tradition of peach-wood charms (taofu), which involved painting guardian gods or writing the names of guardian gods on peach wood boards attached to doors. Legends recount how the divine brothers Shencha and Yulei atop the peach tree guarded the Ghost Gate (Gui men) between the worlds of the living and the dead and were charged to punish evil spirits that dared to harm mortals. In line with these stories, the ancient Chinese hung peach-wood boards on the doors of their homes and wrote the names of the two gods to ward off evil spirits. During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (906–960), the ruler of the Later Shu (934–965) named Meng Chang (934–965) wrote a couplet on the boards in celebratory expression of the new year and wishes for an eternal spring; this inscription is the first recorded instance of a spring couplet.

Spring couplets are crafted through a clever use of auspicious language with wishes for the coming year; the writer must pay attention to the use of level (ping) and oblique (ze) tones and present a parallelism. The first line of the couplet is to end with an oblique tone (ze), which is typically a third or fourth tone in Modern Chinese. The second line of the couplet is to end with a level tone (ping), with is usually a first or second tone in the modern standardized language. The placement of two scrolls on which the couplet is written is determined by the orientation of the horizontal scroll atop the lintel. If the horizontal characters are read from right to left, the first scroll of the couplet is placed on the right and the second on the left. The opposite placement is appropriate for horizontal characters read from the left.

While most of the couplets displayed in the Qing palace were written by scribes of the Hanlin Academy, this piece was written by the Qianlong Emperor. A couplet with the same characters was hung in the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin dian).

Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying

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