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Emperor Ming Taizu

Keywords:  Emperor Ming Taizu, Peach Charms, Ming Emperor, Ming Dynasty

It is said that early couplets were written on peach-wood planks so as to have exorcist's power (since it is obvious to

everybody that peach wood scares away baleful forces), and so the peach-wood planks were called "peach charms" (táofú 桃符), a name that is still sometimes used even for the paper couplets. The imagery of the exorcist's peach branch remains in some New Year couplets to this day.

Emperor Tàizǔ 太祖 of the Míng 明 dynasty (1368-1398) was particularly keen on New Year couplets, and even decreed that every family be required to post couplets for New Year. The emperor had been born a peasant and had become emperor after leading a revolution, and he was barely literate himself. It is a reasonable, if uncharitable, speculation that couplets were about as much as his level of classical literacy was up to appreciating. Another reasonable, but also uncharitable, speculation is that he demanded universal couplets so that people would think he was a great fancier of poetry and obviously very literate indeed.

One year Taizu was making one of his frequent incognito tours among the peasants when he came upon a butcher shop that did not display any couplets. He confronted the butcher and asked how he dared to defy imperial policy in this way. The butcher replied that he loved both couplets and the emperor, but was, alas, illiterate. So the emperor composed a couplet with his own hand and presented it to him. It read:


 Lǐangshǒu pīkāi shēngsi lù,
 Yīdāo gēduàn shìfēi gēn.

Two hands cut open the road of life and death,
One knife cleaves apart the roots of truth and falsehood.

The couplet was at once political and linked to the butcher's trade. And since it was soon discovered that the emperor himself had composed it, it has lived forever as a brilliant piece of composition, despite its absence of rhyme and its idiom of violence.