This is a Chinese poem you can’t possibly perform

I learnt from Daily Post that April is the National Poetry Month in the USA.

“National Poetry Month is a month-long celebration of the art of poetry and American poets. ”

It immediately reminds me of a quirky Chinese poem, which may be of interest to you.

It is called ‘The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den‘ (施氏食狮史), written by an accomplished Chinese linguist, Zhao  (or Chao) Yuanren (赵元任, 1892-1982). The poem uses just over 90 characters. However, all of them have only one sound — shi, in different tones. 

Photograph of Yuen Ren Chao ca. 1916.

Photograph of Yuen Ren Chao ca. 1916. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may know that Chinese is a tonal language, but this poem has taken it to an extreme.

Here is a mystery. In the English world, we believe that poems are to be performed, to be read out loud, to add emotions, and by doing so, you enjoy them more.

However, this Chinese poem has overturned this rule. This poem is simply impossible to perform like the way you perform Shakespeare. This poem will only make sense if you are able to read the Chinese characters.

That’s why learning Chinese characters is important. If you don’t recognise Chinese characters, or that Chinese characters don’t recognise you, you’ll be in trouble in China, even though you can speak the language fluently.

My lecturer in London used to refer to fluent speakers of Chinese who can’t read the characters as fluent illiterate.

The original poem:

《施氏食狮史》 by Zhao Yuanren (赵元任)
The romanised version:
« 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 shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

Meaning in English: (Source: Wikipedia)

« Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den »

In a stone den was a poet called 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 ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.

20 thoughts on “This is a Chinese poem you can’t possibly perform

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thanks. Some people think it is a tongue twister, or a silly poem. The linguist was of course trying to make a point that romanisation could never match the essence of Chinese writing.

      There was a movement that Chinese writing should be romanised, so that the Chinese language could be understood by the west, to promote Chinese democracy. This poem simply illustrates that it is impossible to replace Chinese characters with romanisation.

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  2. rhmay

    Two pupils sat a test putting verbs into blank spaces. The teacher then told them their marks, and Bob was disappointed. Billy, where Bob had had “had” had had “had had”. “Had had” had had more marks.

  3. Red Slider

    old stuff (from last April I gather) but kudos to you Janet, for thinking of Chao’s poem in the same breath as “poetry” and “poetry month”. You see, while lots of people inside and outside the linguistics communities call the work a “poem” or “verse” there hasn’t been a single treatment of the work as a poem that I have found. Its all about translation, linguistices, homophony and tonal languages and such — Pure language studies, no poetics or poetry interest. Yet the work is also a consummate work of poetry. Even the “riddle” posed in the last line can be solved when one considers the work as a poem. I’m working on an essay of some of these aspects: but here is one solution-set (actually the least of three that I will be presenting) that is excerpted from my paper:

    “A third possible solution-set is also close at hand with only a passing familiarity of Chinese symbolism. Lions, for instance, are often treated as symbols of protection from demons and evil. They appear as stone guardian lions at the entrances of temples and other places of importance throughout the country. Water is commonly appreciated as the element of origins, the fluid and chaotic state of the world at its beginning. In the story, their transformation to stone might even be interpreted as a step up for the poet. Rather than the defeat of satisfying his worldly desire, the poet has brought order, ‘has dried’, the wet floor of his chaotic world and set the ‘stone lions’ in its stead. A creation narrative of differentiation of living things (‘natural lions’) from some primordial soup. Through organization, animation and ultimately sentience these elements will organize to protect and guard their natural products from collapse. We might attempt to further discover what each of the ‘ten lions’ were that the poet had in mind to represent these guardians of life; things which will protect us (temporarily) from simply reverting into chaos. But the narrative stands in any case; a simple “taming of nature” story.
    It might also be added that, of Buddha’s many reincarnations, in ten of them he was reborn as a lion.”

    At least for the English translation, that makes the work look a whole lot less silly and quirky – yes? Yet it is quite simple (and there are many other, even better solution-sets to the riddle, when one shifts from pure language concerns to poetic ones.). Anyway, kudos to you for making the connection – red slider

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thanks you for your feedback. Thank you for sharing your wonderful paper — it’s very stimulating.

      I felt this Lion poem by the charismatic Chao was intentionally funny. It’s tongue in cheek. Chao was considered a renaissance man. Deborah Fallows dedicated a chapter to this remarkable man in her book Dreaming in Chinese.

      I wish you all the best with your research.


  4. Red Slider

    Probably was, Janet. He was well known for his playfulness and loved kids too. But it was also a serious work, devilishly difficult to contrive, linguistically interesting and demonstrative, politically important (consider the government’s promotions of Pinyin) and structurally well conceived (hence the almost universal reference to it as a “poem”). Chao also had consumate skills in poetics (consider his translations of Alice, Jabberwocky and other works; or the group of his musical compositions he titled “The New Poetic Songbook”. Poetry and poetics was never far from his workbench. The fact that one of the segments of the work (there are five of them, actually – maybe more) transliterates as spoken gibberish and intentionally funny stuff (in the English narrative as well), does not make either the whole of it, nor other parts closed to sensible and serious analysis and poetic interpretation, as well as linguistic ones.

    And that’s really all I’m suggesting. That the work as a whole can be viewed from the critical theory of poetry and, looks surprisingly like Langpo (indeed, one of the earliest examples we may have of really good Language Poetry.) Or, one can review the story and find so much of poetic interest in it that there is simply no way it can be dismissed as “just for fun”, or accidental. It may not have been a conscious attention to writing a poem that produced it (or it may have). For that matter, folks have also dismissed Alice and Wonderland as a delightful, largely nonsensical children’s story (after all, it was written for a child.) But serious analysis has shown it to be a very clever adult work as well, chock full of social, political, mathematical, logic and other constructions,

    My contention is that “Shi” certainly qualifies for examination as a significant contribution to poetry, and deserves such review before we send it off to the curiosities of ‘playland’. As well, renaissance man Chao, may also deserve to have ‘poet’ added to his many other gifted accomplishments. And many thanks for expanding on your thoughts about this remarkable man. Perhaps, after all is said and done, I will have persuaded you to consider the matter further. Perhaps not. But in either case, it’s been fun. (the whole essay is not ready for distribution but if you send me an email, I’ll be glad to send you the draft copy.) Best from me, too – Red

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Red,

      I totally agree with you that this ‘shi’ is ‘devilishly difficult to contrive, linguistically interesting and demonstrative, politically important (consider the government’s promotions of Pinyin) and structurally well conceived (hence the almost universal reference to it as a “poem”).’ In hindsight, it seems easy to construct a homophony poem as such, but mundane people only come up with the 4=4, 10=10, 14 is not 40 and 44 = 44 structure.

      I like your analogy with this poem with Alice in Wonderland. You’ve stretched my flow of thought. Thank you.

      Chao was an incredibly bright man in the modern Chinese history, and with his classical training and influence from western literature, it’s justifiable that he could have treated this poem more seriously than what most people have interpreted.

      As charismatic as Chao, he might have been overlooked as a great poet — you have a solid point.

      I look forward to your paper. It’s inspiring.

  5. Red Slider

    Janet, grateful for the pointer to “Dreaming in Chinese”. Actually my whole focus and interest in the matter was on “Shi” and the possibility that it was overlooked as a candidate for the pantheon of great poems, and its author for recognition as a consummate poet, among other things. But you have awakened me to the fact that there may be a good deal more of interest about YRC as a remarkably gifted man and contributor to the human project. I will certainly have to read Deborah Fellows book, and a good deal more about him (arggggggh< the desktop disappears under a pile of papers and books!). You're a fine teacher, yourself, Janet – one who piques the curiosity of her students to find out more, know more.

  6. Red Slider

    Rhmay, very fun. I always liked, “The queen and and and, and and, and and, and, and the King.

    One of my favorites in jumbled language has always been the case of the misplaced comma that left a poor miscreant thanking his lucky stars when the note came down to his jailers – “Pardon, impossible to be sent to Australia.” I’ll leave it to you to guess what the prosecutor really had in mind

  7. Red Slider

    Imagine if the orders for transporting convicts had had to be translated phonetically from Anglo-Saxon using a dictionary that stripped away all of its Middle English equivalents and provided a text recast in Shakespearean English? Australia, today, would either be an open, empty land, inhabited only by crocodiles and Aborigines; or a coast-to-coast Disney theme park.

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  14. Red Slider

    Hello Janet! It has been a long time. I trust this note finds you in good health and with much joy in your life. I was just researching Chao and his work in preparation for a scholarly paper and voila! came to your page again. You might be interested to know, I’ve found a method by which his ‘Shi’ poem is not only a brilliant exercise in demonstrating the difficulties of translation, but that his little “nonsense” story turns out to be anything but nonsense. That is, it is perfectly understandable and sensible, and not at all the silly tongue-twister people have always made it out to be. And, the real story is as interesting as any masterfully written poem. Again, I don’t want to give away a spoiler here, but if you email me, I’ll be glad to provide you with the solution set to the riddle of Shi that Chao left us with, “What can this mean?” My best to you and your family, Red


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