Search This Blog

Friday, April 23, 2010

Complete My Couplet Or Your Head Please!

This battling of wits took place during the Three Kingdoms period (184 AD - 220 AD) from which the novel, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is based upon. The three principals in this episode are the antagonists Zhou Yu (周瑜) and Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮, also known as Kung Ming,孔明), and peace broker Lu Su (魯肅), advisor and subordinate to Zhou Yu.

Here’s a link to an excellent English translation of the novel,

The 3 principal characters in the story are not simply powerful men of position - military strategists, advisors, governor or generals. They are highly respected as poets and scholars in their own right. Even Cao Cao, so vilified in literature and with the mass populace, was highly regarded for his literary skills. Without further ado, here’s my translated version with all its embellishments.

"Feast at the Bronze Bird Terrace" where Cao Cao's generals show off their archery skills to win a rare silk gown as prize. In the end, the fabric was soiled and torn when every participant came forward to claim it. Wily Cao Cao then awarded each claimant a gown saying, "I am here to see your skills. What importance is a silk gown to me!"


When Zhuge Liang left for Jiangdung (江東), his intent was to form an alliance against Cao Cao. The atmosphere was laden heavily with plots and counterplots. It was not just a meeting where a bunch of Confucian scholars gathered to comment on the moon and stars in a language crouched in vague terms of diplomacy but an intensely violent tirade of insults hurled at each under the guise of literary savvy; in a life and death war of words where lips were akin to dancing spears and tongues were but swirling swords; where fates of empires hung in delicate balance. Truly a battle between a dragon and a tiger waged!

Zhuge had intended to use the combined forces of Sun and Liu to defeat Cao Cao. So he came alone to persuade Sun Quan (later the Emperor of Eastern Wu) to the common cause. The commanding officer of Eastern Wu was Zhou Yu, another brilliant strategist. He saw in Zhuge Liang almost a seer who seemed to know events before hand, abilities rivaled those of heaven. Zhou was jealous (professional jealousy?) and formulated a plan to eliminate him.

One day, Zhou invited Zhuge to a banquet. On the surface just a gay old time among friends – bouts of drinking and competition in poetry composition1. As penalty, the losing party is made to drink 3 more cups of wine. However, Zhuge knew of his real intent and clearly asked Lu Su be invited as well - to act as a fair judge and witness to their joust of words. Zhou agreed most heartily (as we know that Lu is his subordinate).

During the banquet, Zhou once more mentioned the penalty. Zhuge knowing his real intention, calmly suggested,

“Why such an easy penalty? Hardly worth the excitement that we all wanted! Say… How about staking our heads? This should prove interesting to the losing party in presenting his own head to the victor!”

This was exactly what Zhou wanted to hear and could not believe his luck that Zhuge fell into his trap so easily. However, Lu stood up quickly, waving his hands frantically saying that this is too harsh a penalty. With a gesture of his hand, Zhou bade him to sit down and said gleefully,

“I’m just teasing with his Excellency. But then how can I do him honor and yet refusing his request at the same time? ”

“There’s no harm!” replied a smiling Zhuge.

Zhou rose from his seat and exclaimed,

“If that’s the case, I shan't be courteous! Here’s my opening to the couplet!”

“With water it’s a stream2, without water it’s only a servant.”
“Throw away the water in the stream, add a bird and it’s a chicken”.
“A smug cat more ferocious than a tiger! A phoenix losing its feathers, far sadder looking than a chicken!”


Purported battle site at the Red Cliff. Not that impressive as in the movie eh? The exact site is subject to debate as the Yangtze River had changed its course during the centuries. Taken by a Japanese tourist.

The meaning was clear, that you, Zhuge Liang so favored by Liu Bei (later Emperor of Shu Han) is nothing more but a servant; so smug like fish in water; so high and mighty like a ferocious tiger coming down the mountain; So where are your prowess and prestige now that you have entered Eastern Wu? Nothing more than a plucked phoenix, looking worse than a chicken!

When Zhuge heard the words, he knitted his brows and said to himself,

“You Zhou! This is really uncalled for, insulting me like that. I have no real power at my side do I? Well then, let me douse your smugness a bit!”

“Where there’s wood, it's chess3, when there’s none, it’s only a ‘him’.”
“Rid the wood from the chess, add on a deficiency and it’s bullying.”
“A Dragon wallowing in shallow waters taunted by shrimps, a tiger in the open4 bullied by curs!”


(Meaning that Zhou is nothing but a petty bully and indeed if your words are true, then I’m a dragon wallowing in the shallows of Eastern Wu, bullied by the likes of you, nothing more but a shrimp!)

How could Zhou tolerate such obvious insults? The moment he heard that he was being compared to shrimps and dogs, his face changed abruptly, and brandished his sword menacingly,

“Kung Ming, you rascal, you forget your manners!”

On seeing how the situation had escalated to a dangerous level, Lu rose from his seat, waving his hands frantically and said to both of them,

“My Commander! Your Excellency! Please listen to what I have to say first, I too have a matching end. Both of you; your comments, please.”

“With water there’s the province of Hunan, without water it’s mutual dependence.”
“Remove the water from Hunan, add rain and it becomes frost.”
“We sweep snow in front of our homes, bother not icicles hanging from eaves of others!”


(Meaning, let’s think of the Hunan situation first. Hunan is where Cao Cao is based at. Let not the fisherman reaps the rewards of the clam and snipe5. So let us concentrate what’s on hand first.)

When Zhou heard the words, his anger was somewhat mollified. Of course he was not satisfied. An insult was still an insult and no objective still in sight. Knitting his brows and rolling his eyes, he thought of a start to another couplet and said,

“Your Excellency, I still have a couplet for you to match, wondering if you could do it.”

Neither Zhuge would back down and replied,

“Please do, I have no objection!”

“With a hand6, it meant chosen, without one, it’s only a clown,”
“Throw away the hand, add a female and why it’s a little girl!”
“In Longzhong, so many uglies7, within a hundred miles – hard to pick a pretty girl!”


The so called Longzhong girls refer to the place where the wife of Zhuge came from. She is well known for her ugliness but as the daughter of the famed geomancer, Wong Shi Gung (黃石公) she mastered the art of divination from her father. She played a pivotal role in helping Zhuge formulate the so called Longzhong Plan8. Even though the “wondrous uglies” of Longzhong was an unbridled direct reference to the ugliness of Zhuge’s wife, on a different level of thought, it was to mock Zhuge’s reputation of being such a seer of knowing everything before any divination was made; from the outcome of a throw of dice to victories or defeats long before what was planned in military tents. Alas! What a pity that despite your powers, you cannot have a pretty girl for wife. Far worse than I am! (Zhou has a famed beauty for a wife). For a clown to marry an ugly woman is down right the most appropriate thing to do!

Another view of the purported battle site. Although it is not known if this is the actual site, the inscription is more than a thousand years old. Rember the battle took place even longer in the past sometime in A.D. 208/209

Zhuge is not one to be trifled with or one who could be so easily be suffocated in this nest of stifling hot air insults. Quickly a clever match was born in his mind. Calmly he fanned9 himself and replied sarcastically,

“My dear Commander, what a great sense of humour we do have there! I too have a witty ending to your stanza. I am much obliged and all ears to any correction.”

“If there’s wood, it’s a bridge, without any, it’s Qiao” (a last name)
“Throw away the wood from the bridge, add a female and oh ho it’s pampered beauty!”
“Jiangdung beauties, Big Qiao and Little Qiao,”
“So great protection10 just for sisters Qiao from being caged in the Bronze Bird Terrace11!”


An allusion referring to the two great beauties of that time, the daughters of Jiangdong’s elder statesman Qiao, known collectively as Big Qiao and Little Qiao. The elder sister was married to the Lord of Eastern Wu, Sun Ce (孫 策) while the younger one was married to Zhou. On the eve of attacking Eastern Wu, Cao Cao had sworn before his the troops as they were deployed on the North Shores vowing,

“In the past, elder statesman Qiao and I made a marriage pact because his two daughters are rare beauties. Later for whatever reason, they were married off to Sun Ce and Zhou Yu instead! On the banks of River Zhang (漳in Hunan), my Bronze Bird Terrace is now complete. If I'm able to subdue Jiangnan (江南) I'll marry the two Qiaos and place them in my Terrace and enjoy their delights for my retirement. To my grave I go without regret!”

In alluding to this story, the great Tang poet, Tu Mu had written the poem “Red Cliff12”,

折戟沈沙鐵未消, Alas, broken halberds buried within the sand, its iron not completely rusted,
自將磨洗認前朝. On rubbing and washing, I recognized it came from the former dynasty,
東風不與周郎便, If the east wind helped not that boy of Zhou...
銅雀春深鎖二喬. Surely a deep cage the Bronze Bird for the two beauty Qiaos it will be!

What Zhuge’s match meant was, although my wife is ugly, she is much better than yours as she does not need such high maintenance. If it was not for that fateful day, your wife, Little Qiao would be abducted by Cao Cao and be locked up in the Bronze Bird Terrace to be his toy.

To Zhou, this kind of insult proved too much for him to bear, maddening him to the point that his hairs bristled with rage and eyes flashed wickedly like a tiger’s. Wishing that he could swallow Zhuge in one gulp, he unsheathed his sword once more, ready to slash his adversary to pieces. Zhou’s action frightened Lu almost to the brink of death. If Zhuge is killed at this moment, not only the plan of unity goes up in flames faster than a twinkle of the eye, all of Eastern Wu will fall under the full brunt of Liu Bei’s unleashed fury. Under no circumstance can this be allowed to happen. Lu ran quickly between the two men, snatching the sword from Zhou and quickly said,

An older picture of the area, again by another Japanese tourist.

“Commander, you must not! Keep in mind the utmost importance of your country’s affairs is at stake! What I heard are sharp daggers pointing at each other. This will affect the cordial relations enjoyed by the Suns and the Lius. Please reconsider and let us return to our seats as I still have one more stanza to be presented to both of you.”

“If there is wood, it is a manger, if not, then it must be Cao.”
“Throw away the wood and add rice to it and it will be a mess!”
“Today’s plan is to defeat Cao, when the dragon and tiger battles, surely an ensuing disaster will result!”


Although Zhou is petty and jealous of the capable13, the importance of defeating the forces Cao Cao and the welfare of his country are paramount, he is not that too befuddled a person. After hearing Lu’s counsel, he had no choice but to temper himself. As for Zhuge, for the sake of the needed goodwill of Eastern Wu, he too has to stop taunting and provoking Zhou. With Lu’s successful pacifying tack, the bout of spearing lips and barbed tongues eased in temporary truce and wiith that the drama of swords being unsheathed and bows being brought out soon died away. Later the combined forces of Sun and Liu under the direction of Zhou and Zhuge14, a huge victory at the Battle of the Red Cliffs was won, thus establishing the triumvirate hegemony of Wei, Shu and Wu.


I did not attempt to translate the original text as for verbatim. It would it be hard on readers not familiar with Chinese idioms and allusions. Also the semi classical language style tends to repeat the same thing over, much to the annoyance of non-Chinese readers. At the same time I would like to retain the flavour of the original language as much as possible. My notes and explanations are peppered throughout mixed with the original explanatory text for smoother reading. The Chinese text is included at the end of the notes section for those interested. The greatest difficulty lies in choosing the many versions available. Unfortunately I do not know which text is the original. In the end, I mix and match the parts that made most sense under the circumstances.

The couplets in the story are constructed in a rather formulaic pattern in the first four lines with each line consisting of 5 characters. The meaning of the character changes as radicals are added or subtracted from the root word.

Add this to this and it becomes…
Take this away and it becomes…

However the poem sparkles when the last two 7 character lines are finally constructed, revealing the full intent and meaning of the entire poem. The best couplets, at least in Cantonese and in my opinion, are the transformed word is a homonym of the original word.

This story took place just after Cao Cao had defeated Liu Bei and sent Zhuge for an alliance, just as in part 1 of the movie.

Due to the length of the Yangtze river, the regions are divided as follows, Jiandung (river east), Jiangnan (river south, i.e. all lands south of the River) and Jiangxi (Kiangsi, actually a contraction of Jiangnan xi). There is no such place as “Jiangbei, (river north). The exact site of the Battle of Red Cliff is subject to debate as the River had altered course through the centuries. For more info see

1. Favourite pastime of the literati not unlike today’s rounds merriment in Chinese dinners - of course minus the scholarly aspect of it.

2. The stream refers to Liu Bei. An apt reference as he was not looked upon by Zhou as someone great. Though not great as a river, it is nevertheless, an important component in agricultural China.

3. Chess is the second of the Four Accomplishments (琴棋書畫). The rest of the scholarly pursuits are playing the zither, the ability to write calligraphy and to paint. Here Zhuge refers Zhou as a bogus scholar. He is nothing more than just a bully.

4. 平川 or 平陽 are places known for its flat and open areas. Nothing remarkable about the surrounding landscape, hence a synonym for boring open flat areas or fields.

5. An age old adage: when the snipe and clam grapple, the fisherman profits (鷸蚌相爭漁翁得利), that is, the third party benefiting from the tussle between two rivals.

The story came from the Age of Warring States (prior to the unification of China under the first Emperor). On hearing that the State of Chao was toying with the idea of invading the State of Yen, Su Dai (蘇代) on behalf of the Yen king went to Chao to persuade King Hui to abandon his enterprise. He told this story to the king,

“On my way here, I was about to cross River Yi, (易, a river in Hubei), when I espied a fat juicy clam exposing itself to catch some warmth in the sun. Just then a snipe came and decided to peck at the tasty morsel. The clam at once shut its shells gripping the beak of the snipe tightly in the process. The snipe said,

If it doesn’t rain today, or tomorrow, you will die from exposure of the sun.”

The clam replied,

“If I don’t free you today, or tomorrow, you will die from starvation!”

Neither snipe nor clam would budge, whence came along a fisherman and caught them both. Su warned that both Chao and Yen are like the snipe and clam. Just beware that the State of Chin is the fisherman. Upon hearing the story, the king abandoned his idea of conquering Yen. Apparently this is not some made up tale of caution. In May 5, 1988, New York times published the following article:

“A fisherman, while on Plymouth Beach, last Friday, captured a gull in a rather peculiar predicament. Firmly pinched upon the bill was a clam about the size of a man’s palm. The clam weighed enough to keep the head of the gull hanging downward, and thus effectually prevented any long flight, while it was evidently exhausted in trying to escape from its strange captor. It is thought that the gull, seeing the clam’s snout protruding, endeavored to seize the dainty morsel, was in turn gripped by the hard shells of its intended victim.”

6. The Chinese version which I used, has the radical was wood. I thought the hand radical used was more appropriate.

”Where there is wood, it is a handcuff, Without it, it’s a clown.Take away the wood from the cuff, add a female and it’s a girl.


7. In another version, the characters used were長得丑 “so many uglies grown”. I prefer the version with 多奇丑 (“so many uglies”) as the characters are far more poetically elegant than the more vernacular term.In Longzhong – so many home grown uglies, within a hundred miles, hard to pick a pretty girl!”隆中女子長得丑(醜),百里難挑一個妞


9. Zhuge Liang is always depicted as an elderly man with a big black ellipsoidal fan trim with white feathers near the handle.

10. One version used the name of Cao, Cao instead.

曹操銅雀鎖二Cao Cao’s Bronze Bird (Terrace) to cage the two beauties.I used the other version as it is more appropriate in taunting Zhou in implying that he takes much effort to protect his women where as he, Zhuge needed no such effort (in actuality, no one would want his ugly wife but that’s not the point!)

11. Bronze Bird Terrace 銅雀臺 also known as the Copper Bird Pavilion in some translations was built by Cao Cao for his retirement. Cao Cao was accused to be a very sensuous man in the novel. The terrace is located in Santai Village in Linzhang County of Hubei. It was reputed that Cao Cao took the oath here to rouse his troops before launching the Battle of the Red Cliff. Least his descendants should forget him, he wanted to be buried near the Terrace so that they could see his tomb whenever they are at the Terrace. By the time of the Sung Dynasty, most of the buildings were destroyed mainly by floods and finally by flames of wars. Today one can still see vestiges of the site.

One may wonder that it did not have a loftier or a more majestic name, such as dragon or phoenix. To do so would mean that he was openly usurping the throne. Officially, he was still the prime minister of the Han Emperor who is now a mere puppet in name only. As a matter of fact, the Bronze Bird Terrace was flanked on both sides by two other terraces known as the Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix – meaning, that he is the king maker, even the emperor and empress are there by his side. Cao Cao had vowed that he as long as he was alive, the throne will never be usurped which he faithfully kept. That doesn’t mean that his son could not do it. In the end, he was posthumously titled, Emperor of Wei.

Here’s a link to another story held at this Terrace, “Feast At Bronze Bird Terrace”

12. The broken halberd buried in the sand alludes to a terrible battle once fought here. The Former Dynasty refers to the Three Kingdom era as this poem was written in the Tang period. The East wind signifies to the fortuitous change for the Southern navy when fire ships sent by Cao Cao’s fleet back fired on their ships. The Qiao Beauties here represented the fate of the country.

13. For more accurate account of Zhou Yu see

14. Contrary to popular belief, Zhuge Liang did not play a prominent role in the Battle of Red Cliff. It was Zhou You and Lu Su who mainly directed the operations in the battle against the invading armies of Cao Cao from the north in A.D. 208. In fact, long before Zhuge Liang's famous Longzhong Plan5 came into view, on which the Three Kingdoms of Cao, Sun and Liu was formed, Lu Su foresaw not only this happening but also a possible establishment of the Northern and Southern Han (the so called Six Dynasties Period). In the novel, Zhuge Liang was elevated to a higher status than Zhou Yu in every aspect of this life. Historically, it quite the opposite. There was a saying at that time: "Should the tune be in error, Zhou Yu takes note. (曲有誤, 周郎顧)”. However it is true that Zhuge is his nemesis. His last words being: "Having born Yu, wherefore also Liang? (既生瑜, 何生亮?)”

Original Chinese Text













諸葛亮所對這句下聯的意思是說,我的夫人雖然貌醜,但總會比你強,說不定哪一天你的媳婦小喬就會被曹操擄到銅雀臺上去,變成曹操的玩物。 對于周瑜來說,這樣的戲言哪能接受得了,氣得他怒髮衝冠虎目圓瞪,恨不得一口把諸葛亮吃下去,側身抽劍就要刺孔明。這可嚇壞了魯肅。因爲魯肅知道,要想破曹,那只能是孫劉聯軍攜手同心,共禦強敵,才有勝利的希望。如果這時把諸葛亮殺了,不但孫劉聯合毀于一旦,而且還會招致劉備的全力報複,真到那時東吳就有國破家亡的危險,這一步是萬萬走不得的。




周瑜雖心胸狹窄嫉賢妒能,但在抵抗曹兵保家衛國方面他還不糊塗,聽了魯肅的勸告,也就暫時把心中的怒火壓了下來。諸葛亮本來就是爲與東吳聯合而來,就更加不會與周瑜斤斤計較。于是,一場唇槍舌劍的爭鬥在魯肅的勸解下也就暫時平息下來,那劍拔弩張的氣氛也隨之緩解了。 後來,孫劉聯軍在周瑜和諸葛亮的指揮下,于赤壁大破曹軍,取得了空前的勝利,從而奠定了魏蜀吳天下三分的局面。


  1. If I am not mistaken, the third of the Four Accomplishments is poetry and not calligraphy.

  2. @Dancesport Malaysia. The third of the Four Accomplishments is calligraphy not poetry. One has to write beautifully first before one can write poems. The third Chinese character, 書 is used as verb, meaning to "write" as in 書法, "the way of writing" ie calligraphy. Notice that 畫, "painting" is place after calligraphy. In the old days, one is not allowed to learn painting until his calligraphy is deemed okay by his master.