Note: This is some fun trivia about how powerful the tones of Chinese language could be. You might need some fundamentals on what in pinyin and what are tones to get the whole picture of it. However, a thorough Chinese lesson is not my intention of writing this post or any other similar post that might come after it. Sorry, no can do. But I believe there are plenty of online resources to help you catch up with it if you are interested.

OK. Whoever hasn’t closed the browser tab by now should know how funny the Chinese language could be to a foreigner. Just a slight tweak on the tone could change the topic dramatically. Here is a very good example showcasing what you can achieve by simply tweaking the tones.

The following is a tongue-twisting paragraph written by great Chinese linguist Chao Yuen Ren. Mr. Chao here used nothing but one single sound. By repeatedly twisting the tone of it, coupled with the complexity of Chinese characters system, he managed to tell a short story.

Oh yes, it’s the poet & lion story. It’s quite old really. If you’ve already heard about it, well, sorry for wasting your time… It’s about the only thing in this post. You can feel safe to close the browser tab now…

OK, to whoever is left, here it is:

《施氏食狮史》
石室诗士施氏,
嗜狮,
誓食十狮。
施氏时时适市视狮。
十时,
适十狮适市。
是时,
适施氏适市。
氏视是十狮,
恃矢势,
使是十狮逝世。
氏拾是十狮尸,
适石室。
石室湿,
氏使侍拭石室。
石室拭,
氏始试食是十狮。
食时,
始识是十狮,
实十石狮尸。

试释是事。

shī shì shí shī shǐ
shí shì shī shì Shī Shì,
shì shī,
shì shí 10 shī.
shī shì shí shí shì shì shì shī.
10 shí,
shì 10 shī shì shì.
shì shí,
shì shī shì shì shì.
shì shì shì 10 shī,
shì shǐ shì,
shǐ shì 10 shī shì shì.
shì shí shì 10 shī shī,
shì shí shì.
shí shì shī,
shì shǐ shì shì shí shì.
shí shì shì,
shì shǐ shì shí shì 10 shī.
shí shí,
shǐ shí shì 10 shī,
shí 10 shí shī shī.
shì shì shì shì.

Totally twisted, right? It’s quite merciful already, with every instance of the number 10 written as the number itself instead of yet another “shí”. It’s just a showcase of what the Chinese language is capable of. We by no means talk like this in daily life. And this short story can not be delivered verbally. No one, even Chinese linguists, could tell what the the heck those “shi” are in verbal conversation. The magic is a mix of basic Chinese pronunciation, the versatility of characters, and a tiny bit of Old Chinese (what we call 文言文 or simply 古文) grammar.

Translated into English it’s like this:

The Story of Mister Shi Eating Lions
There was this poet mister Shi who lived in a stone chamber.
Shi was very fond of lions, and vowed to eat 10 lions.
So he visited the market every now and then, to see if they sell lions there.
At 10 o’clock there happened to be 10 lions on sale.
At that time Shi happened to be at the market too.
He saw the 10 lions, and made them dead by the power of arrows.
He collected the dead bodies of 10 lions, and came back his the stone chamber.
But the chamber was damp, so he told his servant to wipe it dry.
With the chamber cleaned, he began to try eating the 10 lions.
Only upon eating them, did he realize the 10 lions were actually 10 stone lions.
Now how would you explain that?

Pretty neat, right? There are 3 other short-story-told-in-one-sound tongue twisters entitled to Mr. Chao. If you are feeling this one really interesting, feel free to leave a message here, and I’ll bring the others later.

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