The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den

If you want to grasp just how complicated the Chinese language is, listen to a rendition of the poem, “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den” by Chinese-American linguist Yuen Ren Chao (1892–1982).

Written in Classical Chinese script, the language of Chinese literature until the 20th century, every one of its syllables has the sound shi — in different tones — when read in modern Mandarin Chinese.

To recap, this is how the poem goes:

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

Classical Chinese is a written language that is very different from spoken Chinese. Different words that have the same sound when spoken aloud will have different written forms (not unlike deer and dear in English). When read in Cantonese, Min Nan, and other Chinese dialects, there are several distinct syllables as opposed to just one.

Needless to say, this makes Mandarin Chinese one of the most difficult languages to master, as a slight change in tone can convey a very different meaning. 


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