An artwork I made in elementary school, depicting a typical Chinese couplet booth setup.
What are Chinese Spring Couplets?
Have you ever seen two strips of red paper placed on the left and right sides of a door during Chinese New Year? Those are the 春聯 (pronounced as “chun lian”), the Chinese Spring Couplets. It is a long-standing tradition in Chinese culture to put these couplets up during the Lunar New Year. They are said to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the household.
Spring Couplets have a long history. It is said that in ancient times, there were two brothers, 神荼 (pronounced as “shen tu”) and 鬱壘 (pronounced as “yu lei”), who would stand underneath peach trees and help fend off monsters and evil spirits. Starting around the Qing dynasty, people worshipped them as deities, and would put pictures of the brothers up on peach wood planks on the two sides of the front door to scare away the Nian monster. Roughly a thousand years ago, an aristocrat thought the peach wood charms were too monotonous, and replaced them with prose, or a couplet. Hence the earliest 春聯 was born.
How to get started
Spring Couplets have 4 main components:
1、上聯: pronounced as “shang lian”, it means the upper, or the first line of the couplet. It is placed on the right side of the door, and the last character of this first prose usually has the third or fourth tone (also called 仄 “zhe”).
2、下聯: pronounced as “xia lian”, it means the lower, or the second line of the couplet. Placed on the left side of the door, the last character usually has the first or second tone (also called 平 “pin”). Hence the common four word idiom that refers to the structure of most couplets, 仄起平收 (“zhe qi pin shou”, meaning to start with the third / fourth tone, and end with the first / second tone). The couplets are typically 5 or 7-word pairs.
3、 橫批: pronounced as “heng pi”, it is the horizontal scroll on top. It usually comprises of 4 words, and goes from right to left.
4、斗方: pronounced as “dou fang”, it is a square paper that’s typically placed in the middle of the door. The most common words are 春 (“chun”, meaning “spring”) or 福 (“fu”, meaning “fortune”). There are also clever combinations that turn four-word idioms into a single character, or other cute, modern designs that combine cartoons and other artistic elements. For 春s and 福s, people often place them upside down on the door, as the word for “upside down” (倒 “dǎo”) sounds very similar to arrive (到 “dào”), in the hopes of bringing spring and fortune to one’s household.
Now that we know what the major components are, how do we go about finding the content to write? Fret not. Given that this is a long-standing, and still popular tradition for the Chinese, it’s as easy as entering a search term on Google that combines the year you’re looking for, and the characters for “couplet” (ex. “2023 春聯”). You’ll come across countless sites such as this one, that provide long lists of couplet content. The Chinese zodiac also plays a huge roll in determining the content of each year’s couplets. For instance, this upcoming lunar new year is the year of the rabbit. Therefore you’ll likely notice tons of rabbit designs and the use of the character 兔（“tu”).
If you already have the standard calligraphy tools (if not, you can find an introduction to and how to get them in my second post, TOOLS), then the only thing left is to get your hands on some traditional red couplet paper! You can easily find sets of couplet paper online or in your local Chinese art supply store, and you’ll be ready to join in the festivities 🧧
This is the last post of the “How to get started on Chinese Calligraphy series”. If you’ve followed along, THANK YOU. It’s been an absolute pleasure creating these content, and I hope you’ve enjoyed learning the basics of Chinese calligraphy. Don’t hesitate to reach out anytime with questions or feedback. I’m also offering remote, one-on-one Chinese calligraphy lessons. If this is something you might be interested in, you can DM me on facebook @chinesefineart2018 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details. Till next time ❤
Chinese New Year