Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den

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A stone lion.

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; literally: "The Story of Shi Shi Eating Lions") is a modern poem composed of 92 characters written in Classical Chinese by Yuen Ren Chao (1892–1982), in which every syllable has the sound shi (bearing different tones) when read in modern Mandarin Chinese. It is a noted example of a one-syllable article, a form of constrained writing unique to Mandarin Chinese.

Explanation[edit]

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.

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 - even the modern Cantonese - there are seven distinct syllables - ci, sai, sap, sat, sek, si, sik - in six distinct tone contours, leaving 22 distinct character pronunciations. In Southern Min or Taiwanese Hokkien, there are six distinct syllables - se, si, su, sek, sip, sit – in seven distinct tone contours, leaving 15 character pronunciations. Even in the Teochew dialect, there are eleven distinct syllables - ci, cik, sai, se, sek, si, sip, sik, chap, chiah, chioh - in six distinct tone contours, leaving 22 distinct character pronunciations.

Therefore, the passage is barely comprehensible when read aloud in modern Mandarin, but far easier to understand when read in other dialects, such as Cantonese.[citation needed]

Poem text in vernacular Chinese[edit]

While the sound changes merged sounds that had been distinct, new ways of speaking those concepts emerged. Typically disyllabic words replaced monosyllabic ones. If the same passage is translated into modern Mandarin, it will not be that confusing.

Related tongue-twisters[edit]

In certain Southern Mandarin-speaking areas of China, speakers have a tongue-twister similar to The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den:

四是四,十是十,十四是十四,四十是四十。

This tongue-twister translates to "Four is four, ten is ten, fourteen is fourteen, forty is forty." In Standard Mandarin, it is pronounced as follows:

sì shì sì, shí shì shí, shísì shì shísì, sìshí shì sìshí.

In some southern dialects of Mandarin, however, where speakers do not pronounce the [ʂ] (sh) but replace it with [s], the tongue-twister is pronounced as follows, with all the syllables homophonous except for their tones:

sì sì sì, sí sì sí, sísì sì sísì, sìsí sì sìsí.

See also[edit]

Chinese[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]