Fall Special: Etymology & Chinese Poetic Couplets II

Fall Special: Etymology & Chinese Poetic Couplets II
– Taught by Ben Wang, Senior Lecturer

Tuesdays, 6:30-8:30pm
10 sessions (20 hours)
September 25 – November 27
Tuition: $465 members / $505 non-members
(plus a $30 non-refundable registration fee)

All languages are interesting, but nonpareil is Chinese, a blending of music and painting: spoken Chinese being singing, music, and written Chinese painting, fine art. When the two come to unite, it’s the birth of a language whose visceral characteristic glows, as opposed to the cerebral nature of all of the other languages in the world.

It’s no exaggeration to state that the spirit of Chinese culture lies in its written characters/symbols, for each and every character has a pictographic story to tell. When one learns the stories within them, these written symbols amaze with their wondrousness. Alternately poetic, humorous, ingenious, they reflect a connection between Nature and human life and emotions: a truly unique linguistic phenomenon.

Indeed, Chinese language resembles a string of pearls. Every character, like a pearl, possesses surface luster with an underlying spirit and poignant tales. Whether poetic, hilarious, philosophical or sometimes wistful and sad, these characters function as the soul of a culture. The writing of these characters underwent a few stages in their formation and appearance, which resulted in the four major calligraphic styles: Seal (篆) to represent officiousness and antiquity; Clerical (隸), somberness; Kai/Running (楷/行), a mind of imperturbability and ease; Cursive草, bravura, bravado, or both. Etymology of these characters thus became the quintessential path to the learning and appreciation of the language and the culture of China.

Created as couplets, most of which became pentasyllabic or heptasyllabic lines to make a statement of resolve, wish, or description, by poets (or other members of the intelligentsia) of the Qin (255-206 BC) and Han dynasties (206 BC -221 AD), when poetry and calligraphy had passed their nascent period to maturity, it quickly became a popular poetic genre that serves to depict a wide variety of themes, including a keen relation between Nature and Man, mottoes, glorification of the feat of an accomplished man or family, as well as humorous and poetic reference to savoir-faire and modus operandi in life, seasonal and auspicious greetings, among others.

The official name of these couplets is ying lian (楹联), literal translation of which is “wood architectural column couplet,” which means each line of the couplet is carved on a vertical wooden board hung on either side of a door. With the ripening of poetry and different calligraphic styles after the 4th century, the popularity of these couplets led them to appear everywhere from humble village homes to all quarters in the palace.

The artistic and literary quality of these ying lian, a unique union of structural, visual and poetic beauty, marked by concision and terseness (mostly with 10 or 14 characters in total), executed in fine calligraphy and high poetics, would add immeasurably to the refinement, elegance, literariness, and ultimately the status of any household or special scenic spot or other sightseeing sites in or out of cities all over China. Ying lian has thus been one of the most treasured cultural and literary decorations, both exterior and interior, in China for the past over two thousand years.

This unique 10-session course will be offered for the first time at China Institute by Senior Lecturer Ben Wang, a scholar on classical Chinese literature and an award-winning translator. With selected couplets composed in chosen characters, this course is focused on the etymology of the characters and the rigorous structural and tonal rules that govern the composition of the couplets, and how a fine, completed couplet must ultimately read and sound in perfect harmony and naturalness: a course not to be missed by those who are interested in poetry and fine art.

If you have any questions, please contact Tina Fang at [email protected], call 212-744-8181, ext. 150, or submit your information through our contact form online.


Ben Wang, Senior Lecturer in Language and Humanities at China Institute, Co-Chair of the Renwen Society of China Institute, and Instructor of Chinese at the United Nations Language Program. An award-winning published translator, Ben Wang has taught and lectured on the Chinese language, calligraphy, and classical Chinese literature at Yale, Columbia, Barnard, Williams, U.C. Berkeley, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, ABC Nightline, the BBC, among other academic and cultural institutions. Ben Wang taught Chinese and translation at Columbia University and New York University between 1969 and 1991.

Instructor: Ben Wang