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; Jyutping: Sī sih sihk sī sí; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: si sī si̍t sai sú; literally: 'The Story of Mr. Shi Eating Lions') is a passage composed of 92 characters written in Classical Chinese by Chinese-American linguist and poet Yuen Ren Chao (1892–1982), in which every syllable has the sound "shi" when read in modern Mandarin Chinese, with only the tones differing.[1]

This 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.


Chinese is a tonal language in which subtle changes in pronunciation could change the meaning.[2] In Romanized script, the poem is an example of the antanaclasis in Chinese.[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 could be misinterpreted as objection to the Romanization of Chinese. However, the 20th-century author Yuen Ren Chao was a major supporter for Romanization. He used this poem as an example to object the use of Classical Chinese that is hardly used in daily life.[4][5]

The poem is easy to understand when read in its written form in Chinese characters, due to each character being associated with a different core meaning, or in its spoken form in those Sinitic languages other than Mandarin. However, when it is in its transcribed Romanized form or in its spoken Mandarin form, it becomes confusing.[4] Many words in the passage had distinct sounds in Middle Chinese. All of the variants of spoken Chinese have, over time, 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.
  4. ^ a b 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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