When vulgar meets sublime in Mandarin – by Liz Carter
There is a special genre of Mandarin verse near and dear to my heart. I call it “admonishment poetry.” Like English poetry of the same kind, it appears most often as a rhyming couplet with a simple meter, not too long and not too complicated. The use of poetic devices drives home messages that are all variations of “don’t be an asshole.”
Bathroom poetry is one variety of admonishment poetry, and seems to be universal. The most commonly known bathroom poem in the English language is a four-line verse, made up of two rhyming couplets:
If you sprinkle
While you tinkle
Please be neat
And wipe your seat!
I have seen a somewhat less polite version of this in Mandarin, also short and sweet, a single rhyming six-foot couplet:
|Meaning:||If you don’t flush when you poo|
|Meaning:||Your future man will cheat on you|
The anonymous author perhaps thought the rhyme scheme, matching meter, and parallel structure would leave an imprint that common sense and etiquette had not. The imagery even extends to the contrast between the last character of each line.
In the first line, the character chōng 冲 means “to flush.” In the second line, the character zhōng 忠 means “loyal.” Each contains 中, a rough signal of pronunciation. The differing strokes signal that one is a matter of water, the other a matter of the heart.
As is often the case with Mandarin, the causal relationship between the two states described in the poem – shitting without flushing and having an unfaithful husband – is implied (in some versions, “husband” is replaced with “wife,” which are both two-syllable words in Mandarin). “If” and “then” are often omitted where they would be stated explicitly in English.
This is also the case with another admonishment poem for the modern age, this time with five feet per line:
|Meaning:||Sharing spoilers brings momentary pleasure|
|Meaning:||But your whole family will burn together|
This verse is repurposed from an older poem warning against spreading rumors, replacing only the first two characters. The absence of an explicitly defined causal relationship again invites the reader to imagine the connection themselves. The rhyming of the last two syllables (shuǎng and chǎng), proximity of the two lines, and parallel meter drive the message home.
Admonishment poetry deserves a place in our studies because it speaks to a simple truth: poetry is not the exclusive province of the cultured few. It is a resource available to all of us, to be used however we want – to curse or cajole, admire or admonish.
It also deserves a place in our study of Mandarin because it is far more accessible and interesting to the beginning reader than Tang Dynasty verse (although we may look at some of that later, too). It takes a lot of context to understand most classical Chinese poetry, in which obliqueness can be a virtue, and without a shared historical or cultural background, much gets lost in translation. Besides, classical Chinese isn’t even the same language as Mandarin. It’s like using Beowulf to teach English.
To ignore or discourage vulgar pursuits while elevating “cultured” pursuits can make language learning needlessly boring and difficult. Not so with shit and spoilers. ∎