Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den

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A stone lion
Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den
Traditional Chinese施氏食獅史
Simplified Chinese施氏食狮史
Literal meaning"The Story of Mr. Shi Eating Lions"

"Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den" (Chinese: 施氏食獅史; pinyin: Shī-shì shí shī shǐ) is a short narrative poem written in Classical Chinese that is composed of about 94 characters (depending on the specific version) in which every word is pronounced shi ([ʂɻ̩]) when read in present-day Standard Mandarin, with only the tones differing.[1]

The poem was written in the 1930s by the Chinese linguist Yuen Ren Chao as a linguistic demonstration. The poem is coherent and grammatical in Classical Chinese, but due to the number of Chinese homophones, it becomes difficult to understand in oral speech. In Mandarin, the poem is incomprehensible when read aloud, since only four syllables cover all the words of the poem. The poem is more comprehensible—but still not very intelligible—when read in other varieties of Chinese such as Cantonese, in which it has 22 different syllables, or Hokkien Chinese, in which it has 15 different syllables.

The poem is an example of a one-syllable article, a form of constrained writing possible in tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese, where tonal contours expand the range of meaning for a single syllable.


Mandarin is a tonal language in which changes in pitch change the meaning.[2] In romanized script, the poem is an example of Chinese antanaclasis.[2] The poem shows the flexibility of the Chinese language in many ways, including wording, syntax, punctuation, and sentence structures, which gives rise to various explanations.[3]

The poem can be interpreted as an objection to the romanization of Chinese, demonstrating the author's critique of proposals to replace Chinese characters with Latin letters—a move that could potentially lead to the marginalization or elimination of traditional Chinese script. The 20th-century linguist Yuen Ren Chao utilized this poem to illustrate the complexities and unique attributes of the Chinese language, arguing that simplification and romanization would undermine its rich tonal and logographic system.[4][5]

Utilizing this poem, Yuen Ren Chao aimed to highlight the challenges of translating the nuanced tones and homophones of Classical Chinese into a romanized script, potentially diminishing the language's depth and historical richness. This demonstration contrasts Classical Chinese's literary and formal tradition with the spoken vernacular languages of China, emphasizing the intrinsic value of the written Chinese language over attempts to phoneticize it for everyday use.[4]

The written poem is easy to understand for those familiar with Chinese characters, each of which is associated with a distinct core meaning. It remains intelligible in its spoken form in Sinitic languages other than Mandarin. However, in its romanized form or when spoken in Mandarin, it becomes confusing.[4]


The loss of older sound combinations in Chinese over the centuries has greatly increased the number of Chinese homophones. Many words in the passage had distinct sounds in Middle Chinese, but over time, all of the variants of spoken Chinese have merged and split different sounds. For example, when the same passage is read in Cantonese (even modern Cantonese) there are seven distinct syllables—ci, sai, sap, sat, sek, si, sik—in six distinct tone contours, producing 22 distinct character pronunciations. In Southern Min, there are six distinct syllables—se, si, su, sek, sip, sit—in seven distinct tone contours, producing fifteen character pronunciations. Therefore, the passage is barely comprehensible when read aloud in modern Mandarin without context, but easier to understand when read in other Sinitic languages, such as Cantonese.

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  1. ^ Behr, Wolfgang (2015). "Discussion 6: G. Sampson, "A Chinese Phonological Enigma": Four Comments". Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 43 (2): 719–732. ISSN 0091-3723. JSTOR 24774984.
  2. ^ a b Forsyth, Mark. (2011). The Etymologicon : a Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. Cambridge: Icon Books. pp. 62–63. ISBN 9781848313224. OCLC 782875800.
  3. ^ Hengxing, He (2018-02-01). "The Discourse Flexibility of Zhao Yuanren [Yuen Ren Chao]'s Homophonic Text". Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 46 (1): 149–176. doi:10.1353/jcl.2018.0005. ISSN 2411-3484. S2CID 171902133.
  4. ^ a b c 彭, 泽润 (2009). "赵元任的"狮子"不能乱"吃"——文言文可以看不能听的原理" [Zhao Yuanren's "lion" cannot be "eaten": the reasons why Classical Chinese can be read instead of being listened to]. 现代语文:下旬.语言研究 (12): 160.
  5. ^ 张, 巨龄 (11 January 2015). "赵元任为什么写"施氏食狮史"" [Why Zhao Yuanren wrote Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den]. 光明日报. Retrieved 22 May 2019.

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