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


— 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:

First sentence:
囚人出去或為國 (qiú rén chū qù huò wéi/weì guó)

Take the word for man (人) and “loose” it (here, a pun on 出去, the word for “go out”) from the word for prison (囚) and you end up with an empty box (口). Into that box, place the word for probability or possibility (或), and you get the word for nation (國). The word 為 is a sort of preposition, but in Chinese it can be read in two different tones: the rising second tone WEI2, and the falling fourth tone WEI4. In the falling tone, it conveys the sense of “purpose”: that the freed prisoners serve and struggle FOR the country. In the rising tone, it conveys rather the sense of “is”: that the word 國 IS what you get from taking 人 out of 囚 and adding 或.

Second sentence:
患難到頭始見忠 (huàn nàn dào tóu shǐ jiàn zhōng)

到頭 — literally, “to the head” — means “in the end”; that is to say, adversity and misfortune, in the end, make the most loyal revolutionaries. But in the context of Chai Zi, the sentence is understood to mean that one should take the “head” particle from the word for adversity (患), leaving the word for fidelity (忠).

Third sentence:
人有憂愁優點大 (rén yǒu yōu chóu yǒu diǎn dà)

Literally, “men who worry are the most meritorious”. The word for man (人), in slightly altered form, also functions as a radical (亻). According to the Chai Zi reading, then, if you add the radical for man (亻) to the word for worry (憂) you get the word for merit or quality (優).

Fourth sentence:
籠開竹閂出真龍 (lóng kāi zhú shuān chū zhēn lóng)

This sentence is slightly more metaphorical than my translation of it suggests: it literally reads, word for word: “Cage open bamboo latch, emerge real dragons”. The wordplay here is with the first and last words. As with the word for man (人), the word for bamboo (竹) also functions, in slightly different form, as a radical (𥫗). Thus, take the bamboo “latch” (𥫗) from the word for basket or cage (籠), and what “emerges” is the word for dragon (龍)! Isn’t Chai Zi fun?

3 responses to “Chai Zi, or, Ho Chi Minh was a Puntastic Poet

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