Chinese

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:

<施氏食獅史>

“石室詩士施氏,嗜獅,誓食十獅。施氏時時適市視獅。十時,適十獅適市。是時,適施氏適市。氏視是十獅,恃矢勢,使是十獅逝世。氏拾是十獅屍,適石室。石室濕,氏使侍拭石室。石室拭,氏始試食是十獅。食時,始識是十獅,實十石獅屍。試釋是事。”

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.