The portrait is of Su Hui, a gifted fourth-century female scholar and poet who had the courtesy name of Ruolan (“like an orchid”). She is famous for a palindromic poem that she embroidered in several colors of silk to express her love for her husband, who had been exiled to a distant point on the trade routes to Central Asia. Different versions of the poem exist. One has 112 characters arranged in eight rows of 14 characters. They make no sense unless the reader starts with the character "husband" in the first row and then reads down on a diagonal to the right. A perfect seven-syllable line is formed when the reader reaches the edge of the design. Dropping down one character to the lower right-hand corner of the design, the reader must continue diagonally upward to the left to get the matching line of the couplet. The reader continues in a like manner until the resultant 16-line poem closes with a hope that the emperor will allow the author's husband to return and relieve her loneliness. Another version of this work has 841 characters. The Tang empress Wu Zetian wrote that she found more than 200 poems in the pattern. An 18th-century man who must have devoted an enormous amount of time to the puzzle claimed to have discovered 9,958 poems in the work.
Last updated: September 29, 2014