From the introduction:
In the fall of 1988, shortly after I arrived in Beijing for a year of work in the Beijing office of the Committee on Scholarly Communication with China (administered by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences), I noticed a sign that was intended for pedestrians crossing Haidian Road. In other countries such a sign might have said “Caution” or “Look both ways.” But this one read: Yi kan, er man, san tongguo 一 看 ， 二 慢 ， 三 通 过 ‘First look, then go slowly, then cross’. The phrase is not only rhythmic but exhibits the 1– 2, 1– 2, 1– 2– 3 pattern of syllables that is at least as old as mirror inscriptions of the Han period and that has pervaded not only elite poetry but folksongs, proverbs, and storytelling in many later eras. (In Chinese it is called qiyan 七 言 ‘seven speakings’, and I will ask the non-Chinese-speaking reader to adopt it as a technical term.) A banner stretched above the road’s northbound lane, apparently intended for vehicles headed out of the city, read:
Gaogao xingxing chu cheng zou 高 高 兴 兴 出 城 走
An’an quanquan hui jia lai 安 安 全 全 回 家 来
Have a happy trip leaving the city, and be very safe in coming home.
Here was a couplet that exhibited not only the qiyan rhythm but grammatical parallelism and “semantic antitheticality” (i.e., paired opposites in meaning: chu ‘exit’ versus hui ‘return’ and zou ‘leave’ versus lai ‘come’) of a kind favored by classical poetry. The message seemed somehow more formal and exalted than if it had been put in ordinary language.
Formal? Exalted? I crossed the street and saw a public toilet. A sign warned: Jinzhi suidi daxiaobian 禁 止 随 地 大 小 便 ‘Don’t just relieve yourself anywhere you like’. Qiyan again. The pattern seemed useful in a variety of contexts, exalted or not, but in any case seemed to bear a kind of authority. Its partner wuyan 五 言 , the equally classical 1– 2, 1– 2– 3 syllabic pattern, was also widely in evidence. A television advertisement for cockroach killer promised: Zhanglang siguangguang 蟑 螂 死 光 光 ‘Cockroaches dead to the last one!’ Somehow the poison seemed a bit more lethal in wuyan. A notice for a childbirth class promised wutong fenmianfa 无 痛 分 娩 法 ‘pain-free delivery’. Could wuyan mollify even labor pain? No, I thought. But it was apparent that someone, somewhere had felt that wuyan could add credibility to a claim about pain reduction.