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