Chinese calligraphy question
January 29, 2007 8:36 AM   Subscribe

I've bought a couple pieces of Chinese calligraphy in recent years and have been wondering what the characters on them mean/represent. Can someone here fluent in Chinese or just knowledgeable about Chinese calligraphy give me a decent translation of each? (Sorry about the frame glass glare in the first picture.) Thanks!
posted by aught to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My Chinese reading isn't good enough to help, but the first one is upside-down.
posted by juv3nal at 9:24 AM on January 29, 2007

I've asked Tian over at Hanzi Smatter about some kanji, and he was very helpful. While I believe he specializes in Japanese, he has translatted/mocked all matter of calligraphy from Chinese to Korean, and could probably help.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 9:38 AM on January 29, 2007

Best answer: The first (upside-down) one is '杜碧', which is likely a contraction of '杜鹃碧血' - cuckoo birds crying blood - a popular imagery/meme in Chinese poetry. It's usually an expression of morning.

The second one is '观 静观生悟'. The central character, '观', means observation. The following four character phrase can be roughly translated into 'Quiet observation/study brings enlightenment/understanding'.
posted by of strange foe at 10:58 AM on January 29, 2007

I asked a chinese coworker of mine, here's what he replied:

the picture was up side down, but i can’t read it even I rotated it. My guess is 独碧, word to word translation is “ONLY GREEN”

the word is traditional version of 观, 1. to observe 2. a taoism tample
posted by PowerCat at 11:02 AM on January 29, 2007

Best answer: I bet of strange foe is right about du bi 杜碧, and I learned a new reference.
The characters vertically on the right (once it's the right way up) will be the signature - it ends with 作 (zuo), i.e. by 'so-and-so' - I can't read the sig at all - looks almost Manchu or Mongolian.
The character 觀 (guan) - to look upon, or behold - is the first character in the Chinese name of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva who observes the suffering of the world aka Guanyin, and would fit with the Buddhist sounding four-character phrase of strange foe identified.
posted by Abiezer at 11:11 AM on January 29, 2007

Best answer: More on the '杜鹃啼血' cuckoo story: one version has it that the spirit of a deposed king turned into a cuckoo. The bird cried tears then blood, lamenting his great loss, and the blood stained the azalea flowers red. (That's why cuckoo and azalea share the same name in Chinese.) The most famous couplet with this meme is perhaps from 白居易's "琵琶行" - "其间旦暮闻何物,杜鹃啼血猿哀鸣。"

Also, I'm reasonably certain that the four smaller characters on the left on the first picture are '福 禄 寿 爱' - Luck, fortune, longevity, love. How that goes with the cuckoo is unclear.
posted by of strange foe at 11:53 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to all those who have replied so far. I've rotated the first image to its correct orientation for anyone coming along from this point on...
posted by aught at 1:04 PM on January 29, 2007

Second thoughts: given the unorthodox placement and the felicitous tone of the four smaller characters ('福 禄 寿 爱') on the first piece, '杜碧' might not really mean anything. It could be simply the phonetic transliteration of a foreign name. (You didn't say how you acquired the calligraphy pieces. If that piece was custom made as a souvenir, I'd say the my second guess is the stronger possibility.) '杜' and '碧' are both nice characters that people like to use in names. '杜' is a common Chinese surname, and '碧' means a deep shade of green.
posted by of strange foe at 9:13 AM on January 30, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the follow-up, of strange foe. We found the first piece at a rummage sale, so I have no idea what its origin. I live in a university town with many Asian, Asian-American, and Asian Studies students, so it could well be practice calligraphy, a class assignment, or a discarded belonging of a departing student. The phoneticized name makes some sense given the very general side characters.

On the other hand... I don't know if it came through on the image very well, but there is a very faint design that looks like bamboo leaves behind the central characters ('杜碧'). When I first started looking into this I tried to find characters for bamboo and leaves but I couldn't find anything to match. So maybe the 'green' part sort of makes sense, in this regard? Anyhow, thanks again for the insights.
posted by aught at 10:04 AM on February 2, 2007

Yes, I noticed the bamboo leaf background on the first piece, but the 'green' part is probably just a coincidence. The piece has several red chop marks, and the right-most hard-to-make-out line has the date and the place ('xxx Year ... China Institute'), so it looks quite formal and not like a practice piece.
posted by of strange foe at 7:50 PM on February 3, 2007

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