Only in Chinese: Shī Shì Shí Shī Shǐ

Today something really interesting came out of my random internet browsing. I have found a story written in classic Chinese extremely amusing, not because of its content but the way it was delivered. As we know, the Chinese language is based on written characters. The same character might have different pronunciations in different dialects and likewise different characters with different meanings might sound the same, even with the same tone. This makes it impossible to recognize an isolated Chinese character in a conversation without an actual context to indicate which meaning the speaker refers to. This story consists of characters all in one pronunciation (some tones vary) and makes good sense on the paper but sounds absolutely insane if you try to read it…. Here goes the interesting story:



It’s not that difficult to understand this story, even though it’s written in classic Chinese. The story goes like this:

<The story of Mr.Shi eating lions>

“There was a poet named Mr.Shi who lives in a stone den. He liked to eat lions, and vowed to eat ten lions. Therefore Mr. Shi would usually visit the market to look for lions. At 10 o’clock exactly ten lions just arrived at the market. At that very moment, Mr.Shi shot a few arrows from his bow and killed those ten lions. Mr. Shi then brought the ten dead lions back to his stone den. Because the den might be too wet to store the lions. So he ordered his servant to clean and dry the den. After the den was cleaned, Mr.Shi started to try to eat those ten lions. However, only until he was eating the lions he found out that those ten dead lions were actually ten stone lions. Would you try to explain what was happening?”

The story line might sound a bit absurd but it’s clear and most of all, comprehensible. But if you try to read it out loud in Mandarin, well, I suggest you not to, because it would just sound like a lunatic murmuring nonsense. Here is what it would sound like if you read the story out loud (indicated in Pinyin romanization for reading):

<Shī Shì Shí Shī Shǐ>

“Shí Shì Shī Shì Shī Shì, Shì Shī, Shì Shí Shí Shī.Shì Shí Shí 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 Shì Shì. Shì Shí Shì Shí Shī Shī, Shì Shí Shì. Shí Shì Shī, Shì Shǐ Shì Shì Shí Shì. Shí Shì Shì, Shì Shǐ Shì Shí Shì Shí Shī. Shí Shí, Shǐ Shí Shì Shí Shī, Shí Shí Shí Shī Shī. Shì Shì Shì Shì.”

Seriously, this is NOT the story you should read out loud to other people. It’s better to read them on the paper.

This story was written by the Chinese linguist Zhao Yuanren (趙元任) in early 20th century to demonstrate that Chinese characters are especially designated for the Chinese language, whose status is irreplaceable. This was an attempt to rebut the ridiculous call for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese in order to abandon the use of Chinese characters at that time. The story serves the purpose well. If someone is seriously considering about learning the language still (assume you don’t get intimidated by this post), please start with the written Chinese first.


      1. Well that’s not necessarily true… The story is written in ancient Chinese, modern Chinese is pretty different. You can definitely explain the story in modern Chinese.

  1. While this is an example of the weakness of a tonal language with limitation on the sounds, in reality, it is not as dire. The characters so contrived is an old classical style of writing that is not in every day use. Imagine if there are many everyday usage of a language that behaves like this, there will be some mutation to avoid the confusion. In fact, while the every day usage of the language is not confusion free, you don’t see this level of confusion when you speak it.

  2. John, Old Chinese (where the written classic Chinese derived from) most likely did not have tones at all. This story could be understood as an amusing coincidence of the written Classic Chinese and the later development of tones for the Chinese characters (in Mandarin in particular). You are right in everyday use it’s really not that confusing. But still the amount of homophone (regardless of tones) is very high in Mandarin (not so much in other dialects, for reasons you could read my Chinese language post). Still, in normal daily use it’s unlikely to have confusions in a conversation. But what I argue is that if you replace Chinese characters to put even everyday Mandarin dialogue on the paper with alphabets, it would become a mess.

    1. TSE,

      Language evolves base on partly what types of written system it has. I imagine if the Chinese discards the current writing system and adopts an alphabet, certainly there would be confusion even in everyday usage. However, I bet that it will quickly evolve to eliminate these confusions.

      1. John,
        “Language evolves base on partly what types of written system it has.”
        True, but this statement only goes with a few languages that have developed its written scripts. just saying.

        “However, I bet that it will quickly evolve to eliminate these confusions.”
        Keep in mind that Chinese written script is the only script that is independent from the rest alphabet writing systems in the world. The spoken language has been shaped by this written script continuously for at least 4000 years. Once abolished the script, it would probably evolve but probably with much longer time (or adjusting new scripts to the old spoken tones). Take Vietnamese for example, their tonal language has changed much after the introduction of the Latin alphabets in the 19th century.

  3. But! I have been searching different sites (having come upon the just-posted story on my Facebook new-feed, a teacher having just posted it : ) , to see if someone, instead of commenting only upon the quite interesting language factor, might have tried to solve the riddle, as challenged in the last line of the story. I cannot think myself, what the solving of the story’s riddle is. Please, can you tell me? I am SO curious! 🙂

  4. I loved this post, I basically love anything where I learn something new, and I don’t know a lot about China.

    That said, I have a cousin who does, he’s quite well known over there, his Chinese name is Hurun 胡润, and I’m going to send it to him on WeChat.

  5. Not if you read it in Cantonese. That’s why Cantonese is most complex dialect and considered closer to ancient Chinese in China.

  6. Not if you read it in Cantonese which is closer to ancient Chinese and preserves a lot of lost tones that you can never find in Mandarin.

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