SU HUI.

A reader sent me a link to this remarkable Wikipedia article: “Su Hui … was a Chinese poet of the Middle Sixteen Kingdoms period (304 to 439) during the Six Dynasties period. … She is most famous for her extremely complex ‘palindrome’ (huiren) poem, apparently having innovated the genre, as well as producing the most complex example to date. Apparently, all of her other thousands of literary works have been lost.” I suspect she wouldn’t be happy to know that her elaborate literary stunt would be all that survived of her work, but hey, at least she’s remembered for something. At any rate, gaze at the multicolored reproduction of her magnum opus in the Wikipedia article and marvel: “The poem is in the form of a twenty-nine by twenty-nine character grid, and can be read forward or backwards, horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. This arrangement allows for 2,848 different readings.” I presume it’s no masterpiece as a poem, but I’d be curious to know what my Sinophone readers have to say about it. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Comments

  1. befuggled says:

    Cool. I wish the characters in the image were a little larger, though.

  2. later to be outdone by Raymond Queneau.

  3. Could someone tell me if the central character, to these Western eyes a red house symbol, is in some way of particular importance to the readings ?

  4. The middle character is 心, which means heart, core, mind, center etc. According to the Chinese wikipedia page on it, it was actually added later, the original being 840 characters with the middle not being used.
    One thing to clarify is that it’s not the entirety of the poem that can be read forwards, backwards, etc., but rather the different parts (as denoted by color) that can be read in a variety of different ways.
    You can check out the wikipedia link to see a larger text only version as well as browse some of the multitude of ways this poem can be subdivided

  5. Also, if you click on the image in Wikipedia you get a .gif file, and if you click on that you can read the characters easily.

  6. Interesting that she was a contemporary or near-contemporary of Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius, who was doing similar things (mutatis mutandis) in Latin under Constantine (late 320s). Wikipedia has very little on him, but links to a very full account, with pictures here. Someone should really color-code his poems so they can be seen on-line as written, with red characters among the black, instead of with black lines around the significant areas of black text, which was all dead-tree technology could provide at reasonable expense. Finally, pattern poems in Europe go back to various Hellenistic Greeks, as mentioned in the linked page.

  7. John Emerson says:

    Arthur H. Smith’s Proverbs And Common Sayings From The Chinese: Together With Much Related And Unrelated Matter, Interspersed With Observations On Chinese Things-In-General includes this poem, I think, together of dozens of other word games of various sorts. (Palindrome poems, poems made up of repetitions of the same syllable, physical puns, etc. etc.) My guess is that the majority of Hattians would enjoy this book tremendously. The Chinese writing system itself, independent of any particular content, was a sort of holy object in traditional China, but people had a lot of fun playing with it too. I have a Chinese book named 奇詩 (“Odd Poems”)which consists of about 100 pp. of oddities of this sort.
    http://www.amazon.com/Proverbs-Common-Sayings-Chinese-Things-In-General/dp/0548086826

  8. Francesca says:

    Re. Porphyrius, the Italian Wikipedia page has an example with some colour coding and the relevant Latin text with its Italian translation: Publilio Optaziano Porfirio

  9. Even taking pc’s point that it is the different sections of the grid that are palindromes, I don’t see how this works. I can’t read Chinese, but I can see that the characters are repeated often enough for them to be what I would call a palindrome, so presumably Chinese palindromes don’t read the same backwards as forwards. So what counts as a palindrome in Chinese?

  10. Whoops, try again. Even taking pc’s point that it is the different sections of the grid that are palindromes, I don’t see how this works. I can’t read Chinese, but I can see that the characters AREN’T repeated often enough for them to be what I would call a palindrome, so presumably Chinese palindromes don’t read the same backwards as forwards. So what counts as a palindrome in Chinese?

  11. Palindromes in Chinese, per this list, are basically texts that can be sensibly read in either direction, typically with different meanings. They are not palindromic in the Western sense.

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