Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The king of all Tongue Twisters

Maybe you didn’t believe me when I said that tones are important in Chinese language, so I have this tongue twister for you. I think this is the king of all tongue twisters.

Lion-eating poet in the stone den was written by Zhao Yua Ren to highlight the importance of Chinese characters. He wrote this 93 words long story, with all the words pronounced shi (in various tones), to prove that replacing Chinese characters with a phonetic script wouldn’t make sense. While this essay confirms the importance of characters in written Chinese, it also confirms the importance of tones in spoken Chinese.


Shī shì shí shī shǐ


Shíshì shī shì shī shì,

, 誓食十

Shì shī, shì shí shí shī.


Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.

, 适十狮适

Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.

, 适施氏适是

Shì shí, shì shī shì shì shì shì.

氏视是十, 恃矢,

Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì,


Shíshì shī shì shī shì,

氏拾是十狮, 适石

Shì shi shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.

石室湿, 氏使侍拭石

Shíshì shī, shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.

石室, 氏始试食十狮

Shíshì shì, shì shǐ shì shí shí shī shī.

, 始识十狮,

Shí shí, shǐ shi shí shī shī,


Shí shí shíshī shī.


Shì shì shì shì.

And here is the English translation

Lion-eating Poet

A poet named Shi who lived in a stone den was fond of lions and swore that he would eat ten lions. He constantly went to the market to look for ten lions. One day at ten o’clock, Shi went to the market and saw ten lions there. Using his arrows he killed the ten lions, and carried the dead lions back to his stone den. The stone den was damp, so Shi ordered his servants to wipe the stone den. When he tried to eat the ten lions, he realized that they were actually made of stones and tried to get rid of them.

Just in case you are wondering how this story sounds, here is a video

I hope that I have convinced you now. Can you imagine getting the tones wrong in the above story?


  1. Wow, that was hard! Was it you in the video? Well done!

    The only tongue twister I managed was a 7-word one: meaning a beauty called "Sishi" died when she was forty-four! I can't even say it right now.

    Way to go!

  2. I wish that was me in the video. I struggle with s and sh sounds even in my native language, let alone Chinese.

  3. here's another one:

  4. You say that chinese have a limited number of sounds(400 sounds),even whit the the use of tones(1200 posible sounds) and that will cause confusion if written in pinyin,because alot of chinese words whit different meanings will be written identical.The solution could be the use of combination of big and small letters.For example a word made from 2 letters(like HE) could have 4 posible combinations decided by convention:he,HE,hE.He.The word whit many sounds could have even more posible combinations.Word HUANG could be written as:huang,Huang,hUang,huAng,huaNg,huanG,HUang,HuAng,HuaNg,HuanG,hUAng,hUaNg,hUanG,HUAng,huANG,HUANG,HUANg,HUaNG and so one in at least 36 combinations for a word whit 5 letters.The more sounds a word has,the more posible combinations.But even simple 2 letter words can have 4 different meanings.Such conventions could be easily created for problematic words

  5. that combination of big and small letter is used only for the words whit identical tonal and letter spelling and when the context is not accessible.If the tonal are different then is no need for big and small letters.If huâng is identical whit another word huâng(to mean a different thing,just for the sake of argument)Than diferentiation will be huâng and huÂng,or hUâng,or huâNg.