Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den
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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 Mr. 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.
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.
Poem text in vernacular Chinese
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.
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.
- Homophonic puns in Mandarin Chinese
- James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher
- Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo
- Neko no ko koneko, shishi no ko kojishi
- Forsyth, Mark. (2011). The etymologicon : a circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language. London: Icon Books. ISBN 978-1-84831-307-1.
- The Three "NOTs" of Hanyu Pinyin has a similar but different text, and it explains that the intention of Zhao Yuanren (Yuen Ren Chao) was not to oppose Chinese Romanization.
- a YouTube video showing the text read aloud in Mandarin