Saturday, October 4, 2008

Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den

The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den is a famous example of constrained writing by Yuen Ren Chao which consists of 92 characters, all with the sound ''shi'' in different when read in .
The text, although written in Classical Chinese, can be easily comprehended by most educated readers. However, changes in pronunciation over 2,500 years resulted in a large degree of in Classical Chinese, so the poem becomes completely incomprehensible when spoken out in Standard Mandarin or when written romanized in Standard Mandarin.

linguists suggest that Yuen Ren Chao, as the leader who designed Gwoyeu Romatzyh, believed in romanization of but believed it suitable only for writing modern vernacular Chinese and not Classical Chinese. As a result, Classical Chinese should be abandoned and vernacular Chinese should be promoted. Other linguists, however, see the text as a demonstration of how absurd it could be when the Chinese language is romanized. It sometimes causes confusion rather than giving assistance for the learners.

The text

multi-listen item|filename=施氏食獅史.ogg|title=Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den|description=Click here to listen to the text.|format=Ogg

The following is the text in and Chinese characters. Pinyin orthography recommends writing numbers in Arabic numerals, so the number ''shí'' would be written as 10. To preserve the homophony in this case, the number 10 has also been spelled out in Pinyin.

:? 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, shí shí shí shī shī.
:Shì shì shì shì.



Meaning in English:
:? Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den ?

:In a stone den was a poet Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten.
: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 those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
:Try to explain this matter.


Since the passage is written in Classical Chinese, homophony is not an issue. 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.

Also, 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 , there are seven distinct syllables - ''ci'', ''sai'', ''sap'', ''sat'', ''sek'', ''si'', ''sik'' - in six distinct tone contours, leaving 22 distinct morphemes. In Min Nan or , there are six distinct syllables - ''se'', ''si'', ''su'', ''sek'', ''sip'', ''sit'' – in seven distinct tone contours, leaving 15 distinct morphemes. Even with , there are eleven distinct syllables - ''ci'', ''cik'', ''sai'', ''se'', ''sek'', ''si'', ''sip'', ''sik'', ''chap'', ''chiah'', ''chioh'' - in six distinct tone contours, leaving 22 distinct morphemes. However, it is still debatable whether the passage is any more comprehensible when read aloud in other dialects than it is in Mandarin.

:? Si1 si6 sik9 si1 si2 ?

:Sek9 sat7 si1 si6 si1 si6, si3 si1, sai6 sik9 sap9 si1.
:Si6 si4 si4 sik7 si5 si6 si1.
:Sap9 si4, sik7 sap9 si1 sik7 si5.
:Si6 si4, sik7 si1 si6 sik2 si5.
:Si6 si6 si6 sap9 si1, ci5 ci2 sai3, si2 si6 sap9 si1 sai6 sai3.
:Si6 sap9 si6 sap9 si1 si1, sik7 sek9 sat1.
:Sek9 sat7 sap1, si6 si2 si6 sik7 sek9 sat1.
:Sek9 sat7 sik1, si6 ci2 si3 sik9 si6 sap9 si1.
:Sik6 si6, si6 sik7 si9 sap9 si1, sat9 sap9 sek9 si1 si1.
:Si3 sik7 si6 si6.

:? Si--sī Si?t-si Sú ?

:Se?k-sek si-sū Si--sī, sī su, sè si?t si?p-su.
:Sī s?-s? sek-sī sī-su.
:Si?p-s?, sek si?p-su sek-sī.
:Sī-s?, sek si--sī sek-sī.
:Sī sī sī si?p-su, sī sí sè, sú sī si?p-su sè-sè.
:Sī si?p sī si?p su-si, sek se?k-sek.
:Se?k-sek sip, sī sú sī sit se?k-sek.
:Se?k-sek sit, sī sí sì si?t sī si?p-su.
:Si?t-s?, sí sek sī si?p-su, si?t si?p se?k-su-si.
:Sī sek sī-su.

:? si1 si6 ziah8 sai1 se2 ?

:zioh8sig4 si1se6 si1si6, si7 sai1, si7 ziah8 zab8 sai1.
:si6 si5si5 sêg4 ci6 si6 sai1.
:zab8 si5, sêg4 zab8 sai1 sêg4 ci6.
:si6 si5, sêg5 si1si6 sêg4 ci6.
:si6 si6 si6 zab8 sai1, si6 si2 si3, sai2 si6 zab8 sai1 si7si3.
:si6 sib8 si6 zab8 sai1 si1, sêg4 zioh8sig4.
:zioh8sig4 sib4, si6 sai2 si6 cig4 zioh8sig4.
:zioh8sig4 cig4, si6 si2 ci3 ziah8 si6 zab8 sai1.
:ziah8 si5, si2 sêg4 si6 zab8 sai1, sig8 zab8 zioh8 sai1 si1.
:ci3 sêg4 si6 se7.

In Cantonese, 48 of the story's 92 syllables are read ''si'' in one of six tones, 13 are read ''sik'' in one of two tones, 12 are read ''sap'' in one of two tones, 6 each are read ''sek'' or ''sat'' in one of two tones, 4 are read ''sai'' in one of two tones, and 3 are read ''ci'' in one of two tones.

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. The following is an example written in Vernacular Chinese, along with its pronunciations in Pinyin; Chinese characters with pinyin transcription added using annotations.

{| style="border: solid 2px;" cellpadding="5"
《 ruby-zh-p|獅|shī 》

ruby-zh-p|獅|shī ,
ruby-zh-p|獅|shī 。

ruby-zh-p|獅|shī 。

ruby-zh-p|獅|shī 。

ruby-zh-p|獅|shī ,

ruby-zh-p|獅|shī 。

ruby-zh-p|獅|shī ,

ruby-zh-p|獅|shī 。

ruby-zh-p|獅|shī ,
ruby-zh-p|獅|shī 。

!|Chinese characters
!|Chinese characters










吃的時候,才發現那十隻獅子,原來是十隻石頭的�br />

Related tongue-twisters

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


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 southern dialects of Mandarin, however, where speakers do not pronounce the and instead replace it with , the tongue-twister is pronounced as follows, with all the syllables except for their tones:

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

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