We use cookies
This website uses cookies in order to improve your browsing experience. Read more on our cookie policies.
Two palindromes
Yu Müller / 翟彧
22 November 2023
published in Issue Four

My poems, in Chinese, can be read in two directions (at least!). Translation to English demands a doubling and an inverting. I call them palindromes (回文).

To create a palindrome is to be both the predator and prey: the predator cunningly frames, as bait, a twisted apologia; for the prey, reading is the multi-directional task of making sense, as well as a frenzied search for an exit. At least, I felt it was so.

But let’s sketch a history of the form, starting with Palindromes Categorized (《 回 文 類 聚 》), a very old book, the editing of which spans many centuries. It began with the scholar Sang Shichang (桑 世 昌), late in the Song dynasty (960-1279). It paused when Mongolians took over (1271-1368), and resumed through the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when Confucian values and Han traditions made their overpowering return. The version I am reading now is based on the editing work of Zhu Xiangxian (朱 象 賢), a scholar from Kangxi era (1661-1722). In the late eighteenth century, Palindromes Categorized was included among the tens of thousands of books and scrolls that made up emperor Qian Long’s massive Si Ku Quan Shu (《四 庫 全 書》) — not conspicuously or prominently, but enough for renowned literates to pay homage to this shrine of palindromes.

The diva of Palindromes Categorized is Su Hui (蘇 蕙), who, in the fourth century, created the Star Gauge (璇 璣 圖), an undecipherable (or multi-decipherable) palindrome complex, woven into brocade. Her poetic endeavor began as the tortured indulgence of family drama. (Whose doesn’t?)

Subscribe to the European Review of Books, from €4.16 per month.
A digital subscription gives you access to our complete Library. A print+digital subscription brings you a print magazine designed like no other.

Yālù River, 鴨綠江 in Traditional Chinese, 41°58'8''N 128°4'24''E, borders China and North Korea, and flows into the Yellow Sea.

Hŭshān Town, 虎山鎮 in Traditional Chinese, belongs to Kuandian Manchu Autonomous County, through which my maternal grandmother possibly passed to get to North Korea during the Korean War.

下放 (xià fàng) is a vernacular expression from the Cultural Revolution, referring especially to the « Up to the Mountain, Down to the Countryside » movement of the Cultural Revolution, when cadre members were sent down to work in grass roots units.