You Cannot Be Tone-Deaf In China

Chinese poetry is a blur of semanticism, tone variation and complexities. This month, our resident linguist shares her favorite Chinese poem, while exploring the depths of such a thought-provoking piece.

You’re in for a real treat today, my friends! I’m going to share with you a Chinese poem, a personal favorite of mine. I assure you; it is simply irresistible. Moreover, it’s such a fun way to illustrate the supreme challenge that Mandarin presents to any non-native speaker. Yes, trying to enjoy poetry in any foreign language is challenging, I’m aware of that. But trust me, this is something different altogether. Are you ready? Here it comes, the famous poem by Zhao Yuan Ren (aka Chao Yuen Ren), “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den,” or [施氏食狮史] (shīshì shíshīshǐ):

ShīShì shíshīshǐ
Shíshì shīshì ShīShì, shì shī, shì shíshíshī.
Shì shíshíshì shì shì shī.
Shíshí, shì shíshīshì shì.
Shì shí, shì ShīShì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shíshī, shì shǐshì, shǐshì shíshīshìshì.
Shì shíshì shíshīshī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐshì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐshì shíshì shíshī.
Shíshí, shǐshíshì shíshīshī, shíshíshíshīshī.
Shì shì shì shì.

Yes, try to explain this matter indeed! Altogether 92 “shi” rendered by different characters, but, most importantly, with four different tones.

And before you decide that it is just an example of the Dadaists’ influence on modern Chinese poetry, a nonsensical repetition of the same syllable again and again, here’s the poem rendered in Chinese characters and an approximate translation, courtesy of an anonymous internet benefactor:


The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den
In a stone den dwelled a poet called Shi Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.

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 began to eat, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.

Try to explain this matter.

Yes, try to explain this matter indeed! Altogether 92 “shi” rendered by different characters, but, most importantly, with four different tones. Imagine just hearing the poem! In fact, ever since its first public reading in Toronto in 1977 (and its original design, possibly as far back as 1934), it has been a matter of debate whether this is a poem, a riddle or just a brilliant illustration of the complexity of modern Chinese. What do you reckon? Do you get the subtle metaphor of a poet in the process of creating poetry? Think of those “lions” as hunted words and see their inadequacy at the end to capture the true emotions and ideas of the poet. Or would you prefer interpreting the story in terms of traditional Chinese symbolism, “lions” as protectors/guardians, “water” as chaos/origin, etc.?

For a humble student of the beautiful Chinese language like myself though, this riddle of a poem has always been primarily a reminder of the importance of getting the four tones right.So, go ahead, have a try at the classical tongue-twister and let me know how it goes. Could you read it in a way that a Chinese person would get its meaning?