Week 4.5: Đối (對) – An essential art in Chinese and Vietnamese culture

This week on #VNmyth: Đối (對) (lit: parallel, verse or opposite), also known as Antithetical couplet, or simply, couplet – an essential aspect of East Asian (more specifically Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) culture that has rarely seen the light in English fiction.

Now, I know this is not a myth, but I’ll put it in the #VNmyth series anyway because in the future, there will be a lot of myths where this type of literature shows up, and it would be a pain to explain it again every time, so I’ll just make a super post explain the basic of things. This post is the hardest one to date to translate.

Pardon the half-rant, though.

Câu đối tết hay
Câu đối Tết

I. Usage:

Đối is a type of writing that was utilized in both poems and proses in the imperial days. Usually, it comes in pair, and for the sake of easy narrating, I’ll call them Upper and Lower.

You could literally see Đối everywhere, at the gate of pagodas or temples, on the family altar, on village gates, in a picture in a room, etc. For example, Chapter titles of Journey to the West was written as Đối. In the old day, people would even use them as a form of flyting (but they are more metaphoric on the insult) to challenge one another intellect and or the clashing of genius, spirit, beliefs. It plays a vital spot in every writing piece back in the imperial time, and would typically be the weapon of choice for folk geniuses to battle figures of power, outwitting those big bad while ensuring their own safety.

However, sadly, it was not utilized in English fiction inspired by Chinese or Vietnamese culture as far as I know of. And it is, in my opinion, such wasted potentials but an understandable phenomena. And I’ll explain why.

For instance, a book I recently read (which supposed to be heavily inspired by Chinese culture, btw), the lead girl made short and bratty, sometimes insolent even, retorts to people of higher authority instead of using Đối to outwit a figure of power. Now… I know readers from the west love this kind of character, but those “smart mouth” will get you killed 90% of the times in imperial Asia. You don’t outright insult someone on a higher social position in the east; thus, the Đối come in to help you subtly insult them while leaving them with little to no opening to outright harm you. In other words, it’s an essential art-form that all scholars in Imperial Asia that had dealings with Chinese needed to be well-versed in. It’s essentially a type of verbal battle, much like boasting or trash talk, that ancient Asians utilized in civilized situations. That lead girl is at her core straight up modern American, not an Asian inspired character.

Why did I bring it up? Well, honestly speaking, I did not hold my hope high on this matter. The author of said book is Chinese-born, didn’t leave the country until she was four, and has two masters in Chinese culture. Yet, I don’t think she knows about or knows how to use this type of art, let alone foreign writers. And here is the reason:

II. The rules:

The upper and the lower of a Đối are near perfect parallel.

1: They need to have the same number of words.

2: The words of the same positions have to be the same part of speech. For example: if the third word of Upper is a noun, so must the third word of the Lower. This goes with every type of word, including onomatopoeia and idioms. Also also, the idioms used have to be parallel as well.

3: If the tone of a word in Upper goes up, its counterpart’s tone must go down and vice versa. Please note that this can only be done in tonal languages, so it’s not something that can be replicate with English.

4: The meanings of both have to either be supportive or contrast. Now, this might sound easy, but if your Upper was formed with… let’s say, 4 smaller sentences, then all of them must be perfectly aligned in the Lower. And it should be constant, too. You can’t be both supportive and contrast to the Upper. Without heavily impairing your Lower.

5: There are pairs/groups of images that go better together, so using them instead of random imagery in a Đối is significantly more valuable.

6: The wordplay too has to be parallel. For example, if the Upper makes a comparison, so must the Lower, and they need to be in the same position.

And that’s just the basics of things. If I were to go deeper, I would need a freaking seminar just to cover some of the intermediate levels.

III. Conclusion:

To even know how to use this art require one to fluently use the native language, have extensively read our old literature, while at the same time learn all the rules of traditional poem making and rhyming. With all due respect and bloody honesty, do you seriously believe anyone would do all of that just to write a book? If I were to say I do, then I must be on drug myself. Isn’t worth it, especially when your targeted audiences aren’t the natives now, is it?

Before you were to say anything, researching for a degree and researching to write a novel are two entirely different things. Even then, reading a couple of articles before writing would most likely make one susceptible to Dunning Kruger effect rather than actually accomplish anything. With Đối, though, even the former situation isn’t enough in most cases. So no hard feelings whatsoever here folks. I just want to state a fact that “representing a culture the right way” is harder than you might think, at least it involves wayyyy more than reading a couple of articles.

IV. Some example (or the interesting part):


Upper: Thổ triệt bán hoành, thuận giả thượng, nghịch giả hạ (土撤半横, 順者上, 逆者下)

Meaning: The word “thổ” 土 – earth – when removing half of a stroke, then it is “thượng” 上 – up, reverse it, and it is “hạ” 下 – down.

In this case, this is actually used by an imperial governor to convince/threaten a rebel leader to surrender. “thượng” 上 here can be understood as positive, being regarded highly, while “hạ” 下 – down is understood as unfavorable, being taken down.

(Note: here it use a pair of acronyms: thuận – nghịch. While nghịch is “reverse,” I don’t think its acronym has a direct translation in English, though a close approximation would be “to follow”)

So, in the language of uneducated person in the imperial time: if you surrender to us, you will be rewarded; if not, then you are dead.

Lower: Ngọc tàng nhất điểm, xuất vi chúa, nhập vi vương (玉藏一點, 出為主, 入為王)

Meaning: the word “ngọc” 玉 – gemstone – hide a point. If you take it out, it is “chúa” 主- lord (see the point inside now jump onto the top of the character?), if you take it in (in this case, omit), you will get “vương” 王 – king.

Normal people language: Nah, I want to be lord or king, so nuh-uh on the surrendering and f*** you!!!

Translating these is a major pain in the b*** btw!

Now, the art here is actually a type of wordplay that can only be done with Chinese or Sino-Vietnamese characters – the dissecting of words – chiết tự. And even then, you can see the contrast and parallel in the way they cut the words in Upper and Lower (reverse and its acronym vs. in and out).

This is a word battle between Phạm Đình Trọng and Nguyễn Hữu Cầu, two historical figures of the Vietnamese 18th century. There are rumors that they are destined enemies (they’re rivals from childhood, one was 3 years older than the other and died exactly 3 years before the other, sharing the same age at death). My other novel in Vietnamese had them as significant characters, but someone doesn’t want to translate it.


Upper: Da trắng vỗ bì bạch.

Meaning: the white skin was slapped, making a popping sound

This doesn’t have a lower because no one has come up with a perfect match for it after hundreds of years. Why it’s so hard, you ask? It all comes down to the last two words.

“Bì bạch” is not only an onomatopoeia, but it is also an echo word (từ láy), a word that rhyme with itself in Vietnamese. And to make things even harder? “Bì bạch” is a word-by-word translation of “da trắng”, with “bì” meaning “da” and “bạch” meaning “trắng”. Need more challenge?? “Bì bạch” doesn’t make sense in Chinese or Sino-Vietnamese because you actually have to reverse it to make the word that means “white skin.”

The closest one came to a Lower for that was “Rừng sâu mưa lâm thâm,” which means, “in the deep forest, it rained heavily.” This one was deemed not good enough, though.

Well, I have tons more crazy examples, but I think today’s post is a bit of an information overload already, so I’ll stop now.

That’s it for this week.

Have fun and see you again, that is if you still want to hear more from me after this post.

P.S.: I used this image because making a custom pic for all the đối is too much work for right now

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: