My Favorite Chinese Poem – “Quiet Night Thoughts” by Li Bai

Li Bai, also known as Li Po or Li Bo,  (701-762 C.E.) is one of the most well-known and widely quoted poets in Chinese history. He lived during the “Golden Age” of Chinese art and culture, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.).

 

Li Bai

Here is one of his most famous poems, which also happens to be my personal favorite:

 

靜夜思

床前明月光,

疑是地上霜。 

举头望明月, 

低头思故乡。

 

Jìng yè sī 

Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,

Yí shì dì shàng shuāng.

Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè,

Dī tóu sī gù xiāng.

 

Quiet Night Thoughts

In front of my bed, the bright moon shines,

I thought it was frost on the ground.

I raise my head and gaze at the shimmering moon,

Then lower my head and miss my home.

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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?