85. Xuanji

Here’s part of a very old classical Chinese poem, one from the Six Dynasties period that was written somewhere around or a little bit before 400 CE:


蘇  璣


The poem’s loop structure isn’t normal for old Chinese poems, which were usually written in blocks of text, with the ends of poetic lines indicated by the rhymes. The unfamiliar structure produces a question about where to start. If you begin in the upper right-hand corner and read down and to the left, as most Chinese poetry of the time was written, you get a rhyming couplet that you might translate like “The beginning of the chart of the star gauge; a poem made by Lady Su” (璇璣圖始詩平蘇氏). It’s a bit odd as a sentence, especially that “start” or “beginning” in the first line, as well as a strange word for “made.” If you read it going down the right column, then move over a character, then start directly above it and rotate counterclockwise, you get a more balanced couplet: “‘The Star Gauge,’ a poem / by Lady Su from Shiping County” (璇璣圖詩始平蘇氏). If you’re willing to overlook the rhyme and jump around a little, you can get something more or less like this: “Lady Su’s poem / Is the first one written like a star gauge” (蘇氏詩圖璇璣始平). There are lots more possibilities, with varying levels of likelihood and resemblance to standard poems.

It’s an enjoyable game — a “star gauge” or xuanji (I’m borrowing David Hinton’s translation of the term, here) was a kind of ancient astronomical instrument that was used to map the revolution of the constellations, something that looked like this… / Nick Admussen, Boston Review (mit tollen Bildern)

Hier ein Bild ihres Palindromgedichts von Wikisource (in modernisierter und traditioneller Schreibweise):

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