A new reading of an early medieval riddle: "Utterly wonderful, lovely words"?

Timothy W K CHAN*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


In the history of Chinese literary riddles, one work marks an aesthetic milestone and yet still causes uncertainty with regard to its context, syntactical structure, and meaning. Composed sometime between the mid-second to early fourth centuries in southeastern China, this riddle is a "postscript" to a stele inscription that relates how a fourteen-year-old Maiden Cao (d. 143) sacrificed her life by jumping into a river to search for the body of her drowned father. The "question" and "answer" of the riddle have been deciphered and construed in early sources, but are only treated there as a self-descriptive comment, without a larger context. After a brief survey of different kinds of riddle texts, this essay applies current theories about riddle composition to the text in question, also making use of relevant but overlooked historical and geographical information. A new reading of the riddle is ventured, in which it is seen to epitomize in enigmatically refined language the tragic act of Ms. Cao.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-87
Number of pages35
JournalT'oung Pao
Issue number1-3
Publication statusPublished - 2013

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • History
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • History and Philosophy of Science

User-Defined Keywords

  • Cao E
  • Handan
  • lihe
  • logogriphy
  • prophecy
  • riddle
  • wordplay
  • Zili


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