Spring Couplets for the Lunar New Year

Tomorrow is Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year and as the Spring Festival. 2020 is the year of the rat.

The Rat is the first of all zodiac animals. One version of the Rat’s story is that the Jade Emperor said the order of the zodiac would be decided by the order in which animals arrived to his party. The Rat got a ride on the Ox and then at the last moment jumped off and landed in front of Ox.

Most Westerners don’t think very highly of rats, but in Chinese culture rats were seen as a sign of wealth and surplus, and because of their rapid reproduction rate, married couples prayed to them for children. In terms of yin and yang, the Rat is yang and represents the beginning of a new day.

A lunar calendar is a calendar based upon the monthly cycles of the Moon’s phases (synodic months), rather than solar calendars. The most commonly used calendar is the Gregorian calendar which is a solar calendar system but it orginally evolved out of a lunar calendar system.

This image from Flickr shows a house with the couplet:
Spirited horse amidst colorful songs pushes away the old year
Fat sheep between joyful dances welcome a new spring season
That couplet cleverly uses the order of the animal zodiac because the Year of the Sheep follows the Year of the Horse.

Recently, I discovered that one Chinese New Year tradition involves chūn lián couplets. These “Spring Couplets” are a pair of antithetical lines. These two sentences are put on the sides of a home’s door and a horizontal scroll bearing an inscription with an auspicious phrase is put above the home’s main door or gate. The first line is put on the right side of the door and the second is on the left.

On the eve of the Spring Festival, a household will usually paste the spring couplet written on red paper on the door frame.

I read that the earliest couplet was written by Meng Xu (919–965), king of Houshu State during the Five Dynasties. That one reads:

The New Year enjoys many celebrations;
happy holiday sounds invoke lasting spring blessings.

That first one doesn’t seem very “antithetical.”  A newer one reads:

Hǎi kuò píng yú yuè;
tiān gāo rèn niǎo fēi.

A wide sea lets fish jump;
a high sky lets birds fly.

At one time families wrote their own spring couplet with a brush or carved them into woodblocks, but now you can buy printed spring couplets in Asian markets – and on Amazon!

Published by

Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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