Walking through the entrances to many palaces, homes or important buildings, you are likely to spot a panel of characters down each length of the door frame on both sides. This is a duilian, or Chinese couplet. Couplets are short poems or witty phrases meant to bring good fortune to those who work or live inside. Because eight is considered a lucky number in Chinese culture, couplets are often composed of four characters each, for a total of eight characters on both banners.
During Chinese New Year, special Spring Festival couplets, called chunlian, are posted at the entranceways to homes. Unlike duilian, which are permanent decorations, usually wooden carvings, chunlian are temporary banners put up in Chinese homes during Spring Festival. Much like Christmas decoration, chunlian are an integral part of New Year celebrations in China.
Chunlian are usually comprised of several characters written in glittery gold script on a red banner. Two banners always make up each couplet and they are hung down either side of the front door, the right banner being called the “upper” and the left being called the “lower”. The couplet may also be accompanied by a third poem that is strung across the top of the door.
Historically, scholars would test the wit of young students by having them compose couplets. It was important to write a poem that was succinct and witty. The characters on the two banners had to correspond in sound, meaning and grammatical usage, so this task was extremely difficult and the best couplets became highly prized.
Here is an example of a chunlian:
Upper: Dong qu shan qing shui xiu
Lower: Chun lai niao yu hua xiang
Cross: Da di hui chun
Upper: Winter gone mountain clear water sparkles
Lower: Spring comes bird sings flower fragrant
Cross: Whole Earth Returns Spring
In this example, the words in the couplet match perfectly in meaning and grammatical form. The meanings are also complimentary and the message is uplifting.
The art of calligraphy was also important, as the banners were supposed to be masterfully painted without error. The calligrapher first had to grind and whet his ink stone, and then carefully brush each stroke onto the paper flawlessly. The end result was a banner with perfectly painted, elegant characters that portrayed a clever, fortuitous message.
Decorating with couplets is still very much a traditional part of Spring Festival in China. These days, though, people purchase manufactured couplet banners at markets or in shops before the holiday. Though these mass-produced couplets are not as special as their ancient counterparts, they still portray hopeful messages for the coming year.