snack_restaurant.jpgEarly this week my seven-year-old son asked me a witty question:

A boy was going to eat out in a restaurant with his parents, but he was determined to refuse to enter the restaurant when he happened to see the name of the restaurant “友朋小吃 (you meng xiaochi, a snack bar named You-Peng)”. Can you tell me why?

Please look at the picture here and read the name backwards. What does it suggest? The restaurant means to “Eat little kids” as “吃小朋友 (chi xiao pengyou)”!! Is any boy willing to be swallowed in the restaurant?

This tricky way of writing is called 回文 Huiwen (palindrome) in Chinese. It can be written in short couplets or traditional poems. A palindrome is a word, phrase, number or other sequence of units that has the property of reading the same in either direction (the adjustment of punctuation and spaces between words is generally permitted).

The most familiar palindromes, in English at least, are character-by-character: the written characters read the same backwards as forwards. Palindromes may consist of a single word (such as “civic” or “level” ), a phrase or sentence (”Neil, a trap! Sid is part alien!”, “Was it a rat I saw?”) or a longer passage of text (”Sit on a potato pan, Otis.”), even a fragmented sentence (”A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!”, “No Roman a moron”). Spaces, punctuation and case are usually ignored, even in terms of abbreviation (”Mr. Owl ate my metal worm“). Three famous English palindromes are “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” “A man, a plan, a canal-Panama!”, and “Madam, in Eden I’m Adam,”. The last example is still palindromic if “in Eden” is omitted. (The response is either the one-word palindrome, “Eve,” or the more obscure “Name no one man.”)


A Chinese word is a character, and is not composed of letters or syllables. Therefore, any Chinese word itself is a trivial palindrome. Chinese palindromes have to be phrases or sentences and are much more easy to construct than in languages written with an alphabet. For example, the phrases “我爱妈妈,妈妈爱我” (wǒ ài māmā, “I love mother,  māmā ài wǒ, mother loves me”) ,  ”上海自来水来自海上” (shànghǎi zìl ái shuǐ - láizì hǎi shàn, “Shanghai’s tap water comes from the sea”) are palindromes. Two other simple and interesting examples:

  山     果   花          花  果  山

shān guǒ huā kāi   huāguǒ shān (Hua-guo Shan Mt. was the Monkey King’s homeplace)

– 山 Mountain - 果 fruit - 花 flowers   开blossom  (at) 花 Flower 果 Fruit 山 Mountain.

  雾   锁     山头        山    锁   雾

wù  suǒ  shāntóu   shān suǒ wù

– 雾The fog  锁 locks  山  hill  头 head,    山 the hill   锁 locks   雾 the fog.

temple_huiwen.jpgPalindromic poetry (Huiwen 回文诗) was a literary genre in classical Chinese literature. The “forward reading” and the “backward reading” of such a poem would be similar but not exactly the same in meaning. Although called “palindromic”, these poems are often not palindromes in the normal English sense of the word. They do not necessarily have symmetry of characters or sound, but merely need to make sense when read in either direction (and would probably be better referred to as Semordnilaps). The couplets written in palindrome is called Palindromic Couplet, or Rolling-screen or Window-blinds Couplets (卷帘诗), because it works like the window blinds at home which not only can be put down from the top, but also rolled upwards from the end.

More examples abour Huiwen couplets and poems (Palindromic Poems)

春回先富村, 村富先回春

Chūn huí - xiān fù cūn,cūn fù - xiān huí chūn.

– Spring returns to first-properity villages, and villages which have prospered first return to spring.

贤出多福地, 地福多出贤

Xiàn chū - duō fúdì,dì fú - duō chū xiàn。

– Wise men come from fortune land, and fortune land brings up wise men.

处处红花红处处, 重重绿树绿重重

Chùchù - hónghuā - hóng chùchù,chóngchóng - lǜshù - lǜ chóngchóng.

– Red flowers everywhere make everywhere red, and green trees layer upon layer makes trees green layer upon layer.

风送花香红满地, 地满红香花送风

fēng sòng - huāxiāng - hóng mǎn dì,dì mǎn - hóng xiāng - huā sòng fēng.

– Wind delivers flower fragrance and gets the land in red. The land is full of red fragrance, and flowers deliver the wind.


A palindromic couplet at a Beijing restaurant called “Tian Ran Ju” (Nature / Heaven Residence):


Kè shàng - tiānrán jū, jūrán - tiān shàng kè.

–  It is a surprise that Guests to Heaven Residence (Restaurant)  are residents from the Heaven.

A palindromic couplet in Beijing Da-Fo Buddhist Temple:


Rén guò - dà fó sì, sì fó - dà guò rén.

– People pass Big Buddha Temple, buddhas in the temple are bigger than people.

A palindromic couplet to congratulate on Macau’s return to mainland China:

澳满香莲香满澳 (Lotus flower - the symbol of Macau)

Ào mǎn xiāng lián - xiāng mǎn ào

– Macau is full of fragrant lotus and the fragrance is full of Macau.


Mén lín xǐyàn - xǐ lín mén

– The door is welcoming the happy swallows, and happiness is visiting your door.


A palindromic poem on Dim Rain:


Méngméng xìyǔ - luò jiāngdōng, yǔ luò jiāngdōng - yìng rì hóng.

– Dim and slim rain falls in the eastern part of the river, and rain in the river mirrors the red sun.


hóngrì yìng dōng - jiāng luò yǔ, dōngjiāng luòyǔ - xì méngméng.

– The red sun mirrors the east with rain in the river, and rain in the east part of the river is slim and dim.


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