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Shi happens

Many westerners learning Chinese, when up late studying for a character test, wonder why China never went the easier route of using pinyin rather than sticking with their character-based writing system. Learning the 5000 characters most Chinese know takes a lot of time for their elementary students, and (I believe) influences the direction and format of the Chinese educational system. Reformers have been suggesting replacing characters with pinyin for over 100 years, and traditionalists have been disputing it for just as long.

100 years ago, to demonstrate the inability of a pinyin type system to write Chinese, the poet Chao Yuanren wrote a poem in traditional literary Chinese called "The History of Lion Eating Shi", which in Chinese is "施氏食獅史", pronounced "shi shi shi shi shi". The poem is 92 characters long, consists of over 30 different characters, each of which is pronounced "shi". It is unintelligible in Pinyin, and also spoken - it can only be understood by reading it. The poem reads as follows:


(click on a line to hear it read by Google translate. It often fails to play, if it does put the cursor in the address box of the browser and hit return, that seems to make it work.)

In Pinyin, this would be written as follows (as commonly used, pinyin does not include the tone marks. They are added here for clarity :-)

« 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, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

Finally, an English translation from Wikipedia:

« The History of Lion Eating Shi »
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.

The Chinese language and culture are much more closely linked than English with its written system. Written English is a tool to record and transmit thoughts on paper, but written Chinese is an integral part of Chinese culture.

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