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An Ancient Chinese Wordplay

By Memrise Blog

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义) is one of the great Chinese novels. Not only is it a rip-snorting tale of adventure, but it gives a wonderful insight into Chinese culture and history. If you haven’t read it, you should.

I will not try to explain why the book is so wonderful, nor give you an outline of the plot – it is far too massive and complex a beast. But I would like to recount one particularly clever piece of wordplay. It’s an incident of no importance to the plot, and one which would be easy to skip over and forget. I, however, am cursed by an incurably infatuation with Chinese characters and this wordplay stuck fast in my memory.

Cao Cao (he’s the chap with the beard above) is a sort of an anti-hero, a consummate general who eventually usurps the imperial throne. In a break from his prolific war-mongering, he decided to have a garden built.

When the garden was finished, he went to inspect it. He did not utter a single word in praise or criticism. He simply took a brush and wrote the single character  (to live) on the gate at the entrance to the garden, turned on his heel and left. The workmen looked on in bemusement. What on earth could he have meant? Was this a criticism or a complement? No one could work it out, and everyone was feeling a little on edge; Cao Cao was a pretty fearsome chap, and if they failed to interpret his wish correctly, it could be curtains for the lot of them.

And then up stepped Yang Xiu, a very talented bureaucrat. “Ah ha!” he said (or at least the Chinese equivalent). “It is very simple; his excellency simply feels that the gate is a little too wide”. He ordered the gate to be removed, the opening narrowed, and a smaller gate fitted. Everyone looked on in confused wonder at the confidence with which he had given these orders. How had he divined Cao Cao’s wishes?

Well, it turns out that the character 活 (to live) when written inside the character  (gate) makes the character 阔, which means “wide”. So Cao Cao had made use of the physical gate to take the place of the Chinese character meaning “gate”. It is like giving orders by a cryptic crossword clue. And Yang Xiu was the only one bright enough to work it out.

As an afterthought, I should note that Yang Xiu met with a sticky end (like many of the very brightest stars in ancient China). Although Cao Cao pretended to be delighted when he returned to the garden to see that his wishes had been carried out, he was in fact riled by this show-off who had solved his little puzzle.

He did nothing at the time, but when a similar incident occurred later, decided that enough was enough. He had the hapless wordsmith beheaded and his head placed on top of the main gate. It would be indescribably wonderful to be able to tell you that the chinese character for “head” when placed on top of the character for “gate” created a character that meant something like “Smart Alec”. But alas, Cao Cao was done with cunning wordplay for the time being; no such character exists. This was just a brutal warning to everyone else not to even think about making Cao Cao feel silly. Ever.