7 February 2013
A little while back, when the weather was still pleasantly autumnal, my wife and I decided to take a stroll through a hutong (one of the old districts of Beijing, rather worse for wear now). As we wandered from lane to lane, we came across this sign sellotaped to the wall of a house.
Intrigued, I took the photo for later clarification. We also picked up another of these signs which had fallen down, to add to our collection of urban flotsam and jetsam which we have found lying in our paths during our walks across the city: an abandoned set of Chinese chequers, some large chunks of raw coal, bits of brick from destroyed hutongs, broken pieces of ceramic …
This was a weekend. On Monday, I went to my usual expert source on Chinese calligraphy, namely my secretary, and showed her the picture. “Double happiness”, she told me with a smile. After a certain amount of clarifications from her and some reading on the web, I can report back.
As I think is clear from the picture, this Chinese character is actually a composition of two identical characters, which both stand for xǐ, or ‘joy’. Hence its meaning of double joy or double happiness. It is very often used in weddings – this was almost certainly the case in the hutong – which I think is very sweet: marriage as the union of two happy people. Of course, we know that marriage is not all sweetness and light but two happy people is a good start. The colour red is also significant. The Chinese are somewhat mediaeval (at least to my way of thinking) in attributing moods to colours. Red stands for happiness (so Chinese communists no doubt saw a much deeper meaning in the communist flag than the original European communists ever did).
So we took our trophy back to the apartment and laid it down for future hanging. By the time we got around to doing that, we had forgotten which way was up – being illiterate in Chinese, we couldn’t read it of course. After some debate, we decided to hang it up like so.
Only then did I remember to check the photo. The alert reader will immediately have spotted what we discovered, that we had hung it upside down. After a moment of consternation, we decided that actually this way it looks even more like two happy people arm in arm. So we’ve left it that way. Lord knows what our cleaner thinks; she’s been too polite to say.
We’re away next week, so I use this post to wish everyone a happy St. Valentine’s day, the two-happy-people day.