Monthly Archives: November 2009

Chai Zi, or, Ho Chi Minh was a Puntastic Poet

拆字

囚人出去或為國
患難到頭始見忠
人有憂愁優點大
籠開竹閂出真龍
— 胡志明

Chai Zi, by Ho Chi Minh

Who knew that Ho Chi Minh wrote poetry? Let alone a poem that, on closer inspection, appears to be comprised of four lines of fiendishly clever Chinese wordplay?

This poem is entitled 拆字 (Chai Zi), which might be translated as “split-word”. The term Chai Zi is also known as 测字 (Ce Zi); it was known in earlier times as 破字 (Po Zi) during the Sui Dynasty, and 相字 (Xiang Zi) in the Song. The concept behind the term is loosely analogous to numerology, except with Chinese hieroglyphics: it’s the idea that you can break up a Chinese word or phrase into its radicals, add or subtract strokes from words to turn them into different words, and conduct divination or tell fortunes from the results.

As the title of Ho’s poem, it’s probably best translated as “Wordplay”. And wordplay it is. On the surface, it is, like much of Ho’s oeuvre, revolutionary in intent. Loosely (and badly – I’m no poet) translated, it might look something like this:

Prisoners loosed from prison can build their country
From great misfortune arises true fidelity
The most troubled souls are the most virtuous
When the prison doors open, the real dragons emerge.

That is to say: souls who undergo hardship — in prison or otherwise — are most worthy, and capable, of building the nation. When the prison doors open: watch out! The poem was written when Ho was under Kuomintang arrest in Chongqing, Sichuan; prophetical or divinatory elements can be gleaned from the poem as you see fit.

The wordplay is in the words themselves; each sentence has both a surface poetic meaning, and a hidden chaizi reading. As follows:

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