The Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den

Here is an amazing example of how puns work in Mandarin Chinese language.

This is a very famous Chinese poem written by Yuan Rao Chen (1892-1982) that consists only of the sound “shi” in different tones. Yuan Rao Chen was a Chinese American linguist who developed a new romanization scheme for Chinese, served as Bertrand Russell’s interpreter for his visit to China in 1920, and created this really cool example of constrained writing in Chinese.

 

Yuen RaoChen

 

All in all, a pretty cool guy! Now, let’s have a look at the poem written in Chinese characters:

 

《施氏食狮史》

石室诗士施氏,嗜狮,誓食十狮。

氏时时适市视狮。

十时,适十狮适市。

是时,适施氏适市。

氏视是十狮,恃矢势,使是十狮逝世。

氏拾是十狮尸,适石室。

石室湿,氏使侍拭石室。

石室拭,氏始试食是十狮。

食时,始识是十狮尸,实十石狮尸。

试释是事。

 

Notice that each character is different and each character represents a word (or a word-component) in Chinese. Looking at this, it’s clear that the poem consists of many different words with different meanings.  Now have a look at the romanized version of the poem. For those who aren’t familiar with “pinyin”, the little lines on the top represent various tones.

 

« 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 shī, shí shí shí shī shī.

Shì shì shì shì.

 

As you can see, the poem consists only of the sound “shi” in different tones. Now let’s examine the English translation:

 

« Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den »

In a stone den was a poet called Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.

He often went to the market to look for lions.

At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.

At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.

He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.

He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.

The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.

After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.

When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.

Try to explain this matter.

 

Brilliant, isn’t it?

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Chineasy?

I came across this TED Talk a while ago and thought it deserved a place on the blog since it is so relevant to what I’m studying! In it, ShaoLan Hsueh discusses her intuitive method of learning Chinese characters, which she calls “Chineasy”. Have a watch:

You can learn more about Hsueh’s background on the TED website. And you can check out the Chineasy website as well if you’re interested.

It’s important to remember that since she is from Taiwan, Hsueh is actually using traditional characters instead of the simplified characters that are used in mainland China. This is apparent when you look at the character “door”.

Hsueh uses the traditional variant, that looks like this: 門

As opposed to the simplified version that looks like this: 门

She also mentions that if you know 1,000 characters, you have achieved basic literacy in Chinese. And, according to Hsueh, if you can recognize the most basic 200 characters, than you have achieved “basic comprehension”, enabling you to read menus, most signs, etc… Personally, I think Hsueh has a relatively low bar for what “basic comprehension” means. I hope this doesn’t put anyone off learning Chinese, but I have studied formally for five years and probably recognize somewhere between 1,500 – 2,000 characters, and I still struggle with reading menus and newspapers, just because of the sheer volume of characters in use today.

In any case, even though I disagree with her benchmarks for success, I really like that Hsueh has attempted to make Chinese written language somewhat more accessible to foreigners. I find that many people who are unfamiliar with Asian languages find them intimidating, and I applaud anyone who tries to make Chinese language fun.