Literary wordplay

One for readers of Chinese!

Among the ritual manuals of the Li family Daoists, the final page of Li Qing’s Xiewu ke (below left) yields this ingenious poem about the Eight Immortals (below right), each pair of “characters” making up a seven-word line (4 +3):

This has nothing to do with their ritual practice. Though the composite characters may look at first sight like talismans, any cultured reader would enjoy reading (and deciphering) the poem. For a sequel, see More composite characters.

Li Manshan enjoys such word games, and puts me onto others like this:


to be read thus:


* 到 to be substituted for the implied 倒:
“an upturned 等 turned back upright”.

Indeed, as Sven Osterkamp eruditely tells me, Robert Morrison remarked on a very similar poem in an entry “Enigma” in his A dictionary of the Chinese language (1822), Part III, p.142—expanded upon by Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat in his “Explication d’une énigme chinoise”, in vol.2 of his Mélanges asiatiques (1826), pp.266–8:

Meanwhile over lunch at a transport caff (“Greasy Chopstick”) between visits to Daoists in Shuozhou, our wonderful and erudite driver Ma Hongqi wrote this elegant poem into my notebook, said to have been composed by Yingying on her first meeting with Scholar Zhang in the Romance of the Western Chamber:

Ma poem

which, as the young scholar soon discerned, is to be read first vertically, all the way down; then back upwards, turning left at 花; then all the way back to the right; and finally back to the left, turning upwards at 花—creating this four-line verse:


Variant versions of these can be found online.

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