[AUDIO] 施氏食獅史 – The Incredible Tonality of Mandarin

The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den

“Shī Shì shí shī shǐ”

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.


“A poet by the name of Shih Shih living in a stone den was fond of lions. As he had taken an oath to eat ten lions, he went out to the market every day at ten o’clock in order to look for lions. It was at the time when all of a sudden ten lions came to the market and also Shih Shih went to the market at once realizing these ten lions. Relying on his (bow and) arrows, he caused these ten lions to pass away.  Shih picked up the corpses of these ten lions, and as he went to the stone den, the stone chamber was damp. Shih had the stone den wiped by his servant. As the stone den was cleaned, it was the time that Shih began trying to eat the meal of these ten lions’ corpses and he began to realize that these ten dead lions infact were ten stone lions’ corpses and he tried to get rid of this matter.”

The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den (simplified Chinese: 施氏食狮史; traditional Chinese: 施氏食獅史; pinyin: Shī Shì shí shī shǐ) is a famous example of constrained writing by Yuen Ren Chao which consists of 92 characters, all with the sound shi in different tones when read in Mandarin. The text, although written in Classical Chinese, can be easily comprehended by most educated readers. However, changes in pronunciation over 2,500 years resulted in a large degree of homophony in Classical Chinese, so the poem becomes completely incomprehensible when spoken out in Standard Mandarin or when written romanized in Standard Mandarin.

People’s Republic of China linguists suggest that Yuen Ren Chao, as the leader who designed Gwoyeu Romatzyh, believed in romanization of Mandarin (which incorporates tones and foreign cognate spellings) but believed it suitable only for writing modern vernacular Chinese and not Classical Chinese. As a result, Classical Chinese should be abandoned and vernacular Chinese should be promoted. Other linguists, however, see the text as a demonstration of how absurd it could be when the Chinese language is romanized. It sometimes causes confusion rather than giving assistance for the learners.

Classical Chinese is a written language and is very different from spoken Chinese. Different words that have the same sound when spoken aloud will have different written forms, comparable to deer and dear in English.

Also, many characters in the passage had distinct sounds in Middle Chinese. All the various Chinese spoken variants have over time merged and split different sounds. For example, when the same passage is read in Cantonese, there are seven distinct syllables – ci, sai, sap, sat, sek, si, sik – in six distinct tone contours, leaving 22 distinct morphemes. In Min Nan or Taiwanese, there are six distinct syllables – se, si, su, sek, sip, sit – in seven distinct tone contours, leaving 15 distinct morphemes. Even with Dioziu (Chaozhou/Teochew), there are eleven distinct syllables – ci, cik, sai, se, sek, si, sip, sik, chap, chiah, chioh – in six distinct tone contours, leaving 22 distinct morphemes. However, it is still debatable whether the passage is any more comprehensible when read aloud in other dialects than it is in Mandarin.

In Cantonese, 48 of the story’s 92 syllables are read si in one of six tones, 13 are read sik in one of two tones, 12 are read sap in one of two tones, 6 each are read sek or sat in one of two tones, 4 are read sai in one of two tones, and 3 are read ci in one of two tones.

By Leonardo Vintiñi
Epoch Times Staff
Created: Jan 16, 2009 Last Updated: Nov 12, 2009
POET’S MEAL? The consumption of ten stone lions seems like a ridiculous subject for a poem, but this work has a linguistic, rather than semantic goal. (Public domain source)

The Chinese language. This ancient linguistic heritage has a rich and diverse tonal expression that makes it quite different than the languages of the West. Including Mandarin, Cantonese and other dialects, more than a billion people speak some derivation of this time-honored tongue.

As in all tonal languages, in Chinese one syllable can be pronounced in several distinct ways, with each pronunciation having radically different meanings. While this aspect can be confusing for those new to this form of expression, for individuals who have mastered it, Chinese presents linguistic possibilities unachievable in other languages, offering an unparalleled opportunity for articulation.
Consider a poem written by Chinese linguist Yuen Ren Chao that describes the bizarre tale of a lion-eating poet. Yuen’s homophonic masterwork performs a most impressive manipulation of tonal gymnastics, revealing a story that—if reproduced phonetically with English letters—would only require the constant repetition of a single word: shi.

Although the perversion of the Chinese language over the years may create a bit of incoherence in the reading of the poem, any moderately-trained reader can still easily enjoy its ingenuity.

In English, the poem basically reads like this:

In a stone den was a poet named Shi, who loved to eat lions, and had resolved to eat ten.
He often went to the market to hunt for lions.
At exactly ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that moment, Shi had just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those lions, he shot them with his arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp, so he had his servant clean it.
After the stone den was cleaned, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized the corpses were in fact ten stone lions.
Try to explain this matter.

Using 92 Chinese characters, this poem seems innocent enough, save for the strange narrative it conveys:

While the ideas expressed in this poem are ridiculous at best, Westerners can most appreciate this work when it is produced in Pinyin, a form of Romanized writing where every character is converted into one syllable and where every tone is expressed by using four distinct accents used by the Chinese language and its derivatives:

Almost like a game, “The Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den” manages to describe the complete tale of a daring writer, using only the word “shi.” Yet how could merely four tones of one word produce such a complete narrative?

A language like English, of course, has homophones too (words that sound alike but have different meanings)—like “flower” and “flour,” “meet” and “meat.” But sounds are limited to at most two or three concepts. In Mandarin Chinese, a falling, rising, dipping or even tone can vastly change the meaning of a spoken syllable. Add the variable of context into the mix, and the possible meanings for a single syllable becomes disturbingly vast.

Within the poem, concepts such as “stone”, “eat”, “ten”, “promise” and “time” have the same tone of pronunciation, while others like “lair” or “story”, are in a different tone. However, the poem loses its original pronunciation if the written characters are read in dialects other than Mandarin, such as Cantonese, Taiwanese or Hakka.

Tonal languages can be found all over the world, and some have even greater tonal variations than those found in Chinese. The apparent confusion caused by the repetition of the same syllable over and over again disappears when one considers that in the mother tongue of the Orient, the context within each phrase says a lot about the meaning itself.

You can find the enunciation of the complete poem at http://videodownloader.net/especial/shi.mp3. If it doesn’t elicit surprise, then this phonetic rarity should be capable, at least, of producing a smile.


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