Three Questions about the Couplet: Whence? How? When?
Haun Saussy, Stanford University
No reader of Chinese poetry can long ignore the privileged role of the couplet in determining both poetic form and meaning. The classical stanza shapes in shi poetry require it as a formal unit; single lines are often pointless or incomplete without the matching lines that with them form couplets. Wang Li in his Hanyu shilüxue goes so far as to deny the individual line or verse any structural value: his descriptions of Chinese stanza forms take the doubled line as their basic building-block. Wang’s is a radical hypothesis, but it is borne out by interpretive experience: Reading an unfamiliar shi poem for the first time, we instinctively grope for the bracketings and focusings we expect couplets to provide. But these habits grow out of a history. What is that history? How and through what stages did composers train the users of the Chinese language to read in couplets and to expect to find couplets in what they read?
The purpose of this paper will be to sketch a history of the couplet. The texts surveyed will include bronze inscriptions, speeches from early historical documents, the Book of Odes, rhetorical texts, and poems from the Warring States, Qin and Han eras (by the end of which period duilian, or "responding couplet," structure is well in place). Commentators considered will include Wang Guowei, Wang Li, A. C. Graham, Xu Zhongshu and Yu Xingwu. A first assumption made here is that language knows no separation into verse and prose until the formation of verse-conventions permits prose to be defined as a specific type of language. Many chapters of the Shang shu seem to alternate between verse and prose, but can we be sure that the distinctions we perceive were relevant for speakers of an earlier form of the language? Or do we perceive what we are trained to perceive? It is tempting—and not all that difficult—to arrange samples of rhythmic language in chronological order from the early Western Zhou (ca. 1050 b.c.) to the end of the Han (221 a.d.) so as to show rougher and cruder examples of couplet-structure gradually paving the way towards subtler usages. But that is to assume that the history of the couplet is teleological in form. The experiment of this paper will rather be to assess the rhetorical resources and purposes behind various early examples of the "quasi-couplet," the better to reveal what roads later Chinese poetic composition, in its devotion to the couplet, left untrodden. That may mean a messier history, but for that very reason its story should open more frequently onto fundamental questions of poetics and of the "spirit of the language."