shíWe are always on the lookout for fun and interesting tips, tricks, and information for our language learners. As we banter amongst ourselves in the Livemocha office, I often stumble upon blogger gold. Today, in the flurry of the chitter chatter being lobbed over our computer screens, a colleague of mine shared this poem. He asked, 

“Have you heard about that Chinese poem that only has the word shi in it?”

Indeed I hadn’t, but I found it fascinating that sheer intonation of a single three-letter word could comprise a whole poem. In my search for a history and translation of the poem, I found, that posted the following.

“Lion-Eating Poet” Tongue-Twister Essay

While tongue-twisters in all languages take advantage of similar sounding words and syllables to generate confusion, some Chinese tongue-twisters also take advantage of the fact that Chinese is a tonal language. Taken to the extreme, it is possible to create a tongue-twisters where all the words have the same sound but varying only in their tones. Zhao Yuanren () (1892-1982), an accomplished Chinese linguist, created just such an essay. He did so to prove just how inadequate it would be to replace Chinese characters by a purely phonetic script as others were advocating at the time.

The beauty of this essay is that although the romanized version is utterly ridiculous, its Chinese character version is perfectly clear and its content totally interesting. However, it is up to you to find out whether a native Chinese speaker hearing the essay for the first time could correctly parse it when read by another native Chinese speaker.

To see the full post and to see the translation, click here.


Check out this guy giving this tongue twister his best shot! (Listen to the intonation he uses for each word. Cool, right?)


If you want to learn Mandarin so you can try this on your own, check out our Mandarin Language page.


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