top of page
Stationary photo

Thoughts on a Chinese Palindrome

When I think of palindromes, I think of mountain rivers, meandering and exuding charm. Palindromes are abundant in Chinese poems. I have always thought that Chinese palindromes have the aptest use for expressing romantic love. When Chinese poets construct palindromes to express the yearning for a lover, the form of expression is subtle, yet, the underlining meanings are multifarious. Because every single Chinese character can have multilayered meanings, a line of palindrome often projects to the reader’s mind a colorful oil painting—every depicted object in the painting has depth because of the layers of pigments and the use of chiaroscuro; every character, word, and phrase in a palindrome holds complex emotions because of the nature of Chinese homonyms and the poet’s maneuver of them. That is why I feel that most Chinese poems are ekphrastic in nature—the poems often feel like they describe a picturesque scene.


There is a poet named 李愚 (Li Yu) who lived in the Song dynasty. Li Yu’s poem 《思妻诗》can be literally translated as “Yearning for Wife”. If the whole poem is reversed character by character, the poem becomes 《思夫诗》, which can be literally translated as “Yearning for Husband”.











My interpretation of “Yearning for Wife” is as follows. “When I look into the distance trying to picture your image in mind, my eyes are blocked by mountains and rivers and become dimmer like how a well is dried; among the people passing by, nobody knows me as well as you do. My flagon is empty, and I am too afraid to fill it with wine because sipping a single cup will make me too mopey to write a rhyming poem. The winding roads have distanced us for unbearably long; there have not been any messenger pigeon to send me your whereabouts in time. I lit a lonely lamp, having to spend the long night all by myself; I know that my wife, you must be missing me terribly, just as I am missing our son.”


My interpretation of “Yearning for Husband” is as follows. “Dear husband, I am missing you terribly, just as our son is missing his father; I feel lonely constantly waiting for you when there is only my lamp lit throughout the night. I sent a messenger pigeon to take my letter to you a long time ago, but I am yet to hear from you; it has been such a long time since I sent you off on that bumpy road. I have come up with many rhymes for my poems, yet it still feels difficult for me to write a whole poem for you and about you; I am afraid that without you by my side, I feel so downhearted that I can’t help finishing a whole flagon of alcohol after sipping a cup. We are in love, heart to heart, yet we can hardly ever meet each other; how I long for seeing through these rivers and mountains with my drying eyes to finally see you!”


Li Yu’s use of palindromes deeply resonates with couples in China nowadays who are making efforts to maintain their long-distance relationships. One person’s love for his/her/their partner is reciprocated when any line of the poem is repeated in a reverse manner. Hence, many wonder, “what kind of romance can possibly beat that? ” While the two poems above tug at my heartstrings when I interpret them in a certain way, I find a particular palindrome “往来曾见几心知,知心几见曾来往” (Wang Lai Ceng Jian Ji Xin Zhi, Zhi Xin Ji Jian Ceng Lai Wang) interesting. 


In the context of Li Yu’s poems, the first half of this palindrome means “Among the people passing by, nobody knows me as well as you do.” from the husband’s perspective, and the second half means “We are in love, heart to heart, yet we can hardly ever meet each other.” from the wife’s perspective. From a traditional heterosexual point of view, what is so moving about this line is firstly, the assurance the husband gives his wife that she is his “only one” despite the fact that he meets countless people every day, and secondly, the apparent “loyalty” that the stay-at-home wife has towards her husband because all she thinks about is her husband when she seldom has any other kind of meaningful relationship in life. Notice that although the two persons are both emphasizing each other’s uniqueness and irreplaceability, there are some subtle allusions to their gender roles in this line. A husband is supposed to be out there dealing with people from all walks of life, and his loyalty to a relationship is seen in his will to resist temptations, whereas a wife is supposed to be virtuous according to social expectations, and her loyalty to a relationship is manifested when her only happiness in life is derived from being together with her husband. Thus, if the palindrome is interpreted this way, it has suddenly lost its romantic charm for people who value gender equality in this era. A change in the order of words can result in the palindrome sounding like the conception of male-female relationships by some controversial social media personalities like Andrew Tate. Nowadays, admittedly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this mode of relationship between two people despite their genders if they are two consenting adults. However, on a macroscopic scale, when the “husbands” advocate this mode as a social norm disregarding how the “wives” feel about their sense of self-worth and agency, resentment breeds, and systemic discrimination and social barriers will stay there for a prolonged time. Therefore, the meaning of love shifts over time, and whether or not the palindrome is still that appealing to the readers is up to their interpretations. 


While the first interpretation may raise questions on social issues, I feel that another interpretation of mine may raise some philosophical questions. The palindrome could also mean “Among those whom I have ever met, how many can be my true friends? As for those whom I want to be soulmates with, it is inevitable that we are farther and farther away on our forking paths.” The line seemingly tells us that real friends are hard to come by, which makes sense logically and statistically. We meet new people at different stages of life and get acquainted with each other because of our close proximity. Those who long for an ideal friendship may question this: since we all have goals to accomplish and are going at different paces, how can we expect someone to understand us, support us, and help us grow? However, this palindrome’s conception of friendship is more like Nietzsche's. This palindrome recognizes that a healthy friendship is not an ideal to “live up to” but rather something that is complex and necessarily includes elements of conflict. The “forking paths” that two people are on could be their differing career goals, political stands, religious beliefs, gender identities, purposes in life, etc. While integration may work better in societies like Singapore and assimilation may work better in societies like France, friends that are similar to us and friends that are different from us help us grow differently. Therefore, rather than being dismayed at the rarity of soulmates, perhaps it is more practical to try to learn from those who we have often held a grudge against. 


Of course, the interpretation of the palindrome need not be confined to interpersonal relationships since there is no Chinese character in the palindrome that means “person”. In a broader sense, the palindrome could refer to anything or anyone that a person holds close to heart. For example, for a mathematician, the palindrome could mean “Among all the proofs that I have constructed, how many can even approach my expectation of elegance? As for those proofs that I have always wanted to work on, it often eludes me how to continue with them.” For an artist, the palindrome could mean “Among all the images that I have in mind, how many can perfectly express the intricacies of my feelings and thoughts? As for those inspirations that I have occasionally had, they often shrink away from me when I try to turn them into something tangible on my canvas.” 


The examples of interpretations are inexhaustible. Yet, what stays invariable is the subtle conflict between realism and idealism—can we actualize those alluring objectives from preexisting certainties, or can we also achieve those goals from conceivable possibilities?

bottom of page