During my brief study of Mandarin, I learned about the poem “Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den,” written by linguist Yuen Ren Chao as a peaceful and humorous, but poignant protest to Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang Movement’s initiative to abolish Classical Chinese Script in favor of full Romanization of Chinese writing (what later became pinyin).
Chao made his point and instead of adopting Romanization entirely, Classical Chinese script was instead reformed into Simplified Chinese, which was designed to increase literacy by streamlining a handful of the most common characters and teaching those instead of having to teach all 8000 traditional characters. And it worked.
Here is Chao’s poem written the way the Kuomintang was rallying for:
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.
You see the joke now. Spoken Chinese has a lot of homonyms. A lot. Each of those diacritic marks at the end of the word represents a different tone. “Shi” happens to be the word for lion, stone, den, poet, the number ten, market, the name Shi and a whole bunch of other words. Depending on the inflection, or tone, of said word you get a different meaning all together and deciphered mostly through context.
Below is Chao’s poem in Chinese script, Classical on the right, and Simplified on the left. If you look at it and say, “Well, it doesn’t look all that simple to me,” try to remember that all those little strokes and lines are there for a reason–each one represents a sound, an idea, and/or an object that compounds with other sounds/ideas/objects/etc. to form a new meaning. If you can read it, you don’t have to search for an etymology dictionary to find the meaning of the word–it’s built right into the character!
Fundamentally, though, it’s the very same reason we dot our i’s and cross our t’s; without them, letters would be a bunch of weird looking sticks and scratch marks. But you can look at an “e” and say, “Hey, that’s an ‘e’ and it sounds like this…” It’s the same basic principal.
And now here’s the full English translation:
- 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.
- What a witty and benevolent way to make a point. What’s even more wonderful is that Chao was neither pro or anti-communist. He considered himself a modernist and was never affiliated with any party. And yet with one silly little nonsense poem, he managed to influence the linguistic direction of an entire country that, in contrast, had a very strict agenda. Chao wasn’t rallying for a position. He was simply stating a fact: that abolishing Chinese script completely was just as silly as attempting to eat ten dead stone lion corpses.
- Language shapes history. Of course it does. We can’t tell our history without it. But that doesn’t mean we have to shout it from the top of a soapbox and stamp our feet to be heard. Sometimes the simplest and silliest response can make just as much of a difference.