Star Gauge

(Redirected from Su Hui's Star Gauge)

The Star Gauge (Chinese: 璇玑圖; pinyin: xuán jī tú), or translated as "the armillary sphere chart", is the posthumous title given to a 4th-century Chinese poem written by the Sixteen Kingdoms poetess Su Hui for her husband. It consists of a 29 by 29 grid of characters, which can be read in different ways to form roughly 3,000 smaller rhyming poems.[1] The outer border forms a single circular poem, thought to be both the first and the longest of its kind.

Star Gauge
Traditional Chinese璇玑圖
Simplified Chinese璇玑图
Literal meaningxuanji chart
Portrait of Lady Su Hui along with the poem


The Star Gauge consists of 841 characters in a grid. The original was described by contemporary sources as shuttle-woven on brocade. It was composed by Su Hui during a time when East Asian Mādhyamaka was one of the predominant philosophical schools in the area.[2]

The outer border is meant to be read in a circle. The grid is known as a palindrome poem, and can be read in different ways to generate over 3,000 shorter poems, in which the second line of every couplet rhymes with that of the next.[1] The largest set of such poems are 2,848 four-liners with seven characters per line. In the image below, the maroon grid is made up of 32 seven-character phrases. These may be read in certain patterns around the perimeter, and in other patterns for the internal grid.[1] Other poems can be formed by reading characters from the other colored sections.

Su Hui's Xuanji Tu palindrome poem in simplified characters (left) and in the original traditional characters (right)

History of the poem and its retellingEdit

A xuanji, a jade disc with a serrated edge, used as an astronomical tool, is mentioned in the title of the Star Gauge.[3]

Early sources focused on the circular poem composing the outer border of the grid, consisting of 112 characters. Later sources described the whole grid of 840 characters (not counting the central character xin, meaning "heart", which lends meaning to the whole but is not part of any of the smaller poems).

The text of the poem was circulated continuously in medieval China and was never lost, but during the Song Dynasty it became scarce. The 112 character version was included in early sources. The earliest surviving excerpts of the entire grid version date from a 10th-century text by Li Fang.

While sources agree that Su was a talented poet, the background story and interpretation of the poem changed over the centuries, from the lament of a wife longing for her husband, to a wife worrying about her husband fighting on the frontier, to a jealous wife competing for her husband's affections.[4]

By the Tang period, a popular story of Su Hui's life was attributed to empress Wu Zetian,[5] though this is likely a creative misattribution for narrative effect.[4] This included the following description of the poem:

Dou Tao of Qinzhou was exiled to the desert, away from his wife Lady Su. Upon departure from Su, Dou swore that he would not marry another person. However, as soon as he arrived in the desert region, he married someone. Lady Su composed a circular poem, wove it into a piece of brocade, and sent it to him.[6]

Another source, naming the poem as Xuanji Tu (Picture of the Turning Sphere), claimed that the grid as a whole was a palindromic poem comprehensible only to Dou (which would explain why none of the Tang sources reprinted it), and that when he read it, he left his desert wife and returned to Su Hui.[7]

Some 13th century copies were attributed to famous women of the Song Dynasty, but falsely so.[8] The poem was also mentioned in the novel Flowers in the Mirror.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Hinton (2008), p. 108.
  2. ^ Chan (1963), p. 357.
  3. ^ A star gauge was a spherical instrument used to calculate and predict the motion of planets and stars.
  4. ^ a b Tang, Qiaomei (2020-06-08). "From Talented Poet to Jealous Wife: Reimagining Su Hui in Late Tang Literary Culture". NAN NÜ. 22 (1): 1–35. doi:10.1163/15685268-00221P01. ISSN 1387-6805.
  5. ^ Métail (2017), pp. 9–14.
  6. ^ Wang (2007), p. 51.
  7. ^ Wang (2007), p. 52.
  8. ^ Wang (2007), pp. 80–1.


External linksEdit