The NYT just posted a report on how Cantonese is being “swept aside” by Mandarin in Chinatowns of North America. This post has nothing to do with that story.
The photo above is used by the NYT to illustrate a New York Chinese School classroom scene. Those vertically arranged Chinese characters shown in the background are the first half of a 对联 (Chinese antithetical couplet). And there is an interesting story behind the couplet.
This story has been attributed to a number of famous Chinese luminaries in history. One of the more popular versions is based on 苏轼 (Su Shi), a writer, poet, artist, calligrapher, pharmacologist, and statesman of the Song Dynasty.
The story goes: Su one day paid a visit to a Buddhist monastery in plain dressing. The head monk didn’t pay much attention to this seemingly ordinary guest. So he causally offered “坐” (take a seat) and told the junior monk “茶” (tea). After a bit of conversation, Su asked for the pledge book and wrote down a generous sum. This caught the attention of the monk, who offered again “请坐” (please take a seat) and ordered “上茶” (bring the tea). Su smiled and signed his name on the pledge book. Recognizing that the guest was the famous Su Shi, the monk immediately jumped up and said “请上坐” (please take the top seat) and turned to the junior monk “上好茶” (bring out the good tea).
Afterward, the head monk asked Su to leave behind some calligraphy for the monastery. So Su wrote an antithetical couplet:
坐，请坐，请上坐 (seat, please seat, please take the top seat)
茶，上茶，上好茶 (tea, bring tea, bring out the good tea)
The writing in the photo above is the top half of this couplet.