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The stone lions tongue twister

Zhao Yuanren was among China's most brilliant linguists; try to wrap your mind and tongue around his tricky tales


Many beginners learning Chinese may have encountered this curse: “四是四,十是十,十四是十四,四十是四十” (sì shì sì, shí shì shí, shísì shì shísì, sìshí shì sìshí), which translates to “four is four, ten is ten, fourteen is fourteen, forty is forty.”

Chinese is certainly a language packed with homophones, particularly for those not practiced in distinguishing between tones. If you survived the last tongue twister and didn’t at all bite your tongue, try the following advanced version:

shī shì shí shī shǐ

shí shì shī shì shī shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī. shì shí shí 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 shì shì. shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shí shì. shí shì shī, shì shǐ shì shì shí shì. shí shì shì, shì shǐ shì shí shí shī shī. shí shí, shǐ shì shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī. shì shì shì shì.

To prove that this isn’t mere gibberish, here’s the original text written in Classic Chinese:        



If you are curious about what on earth it could possibly mean, a translation is available, though, well, it does sound a bit like gibberish at times.


The Story of the Stone Grotto Poet Eating Lions

Stone Grotto post Shih by name was fond of lions and swore he would eat ten lions. The man from time to time went to the market to look at lions. When, at ten o’clock, he went to the market, it happened that ten lions went to the market. At this time the man looked at the ten lions and, relying on the moment of ten stone arrows, caused the ten lions to depart from this world. The man picked these ten lions’ bodies and went to the stone grotto. The stone grotto was wet and he made the servant try to wipe the stone grotto. The stone grotto having been wiped, the man began to try to eat the ten lions’ bodies. When he ate them, he began to realize that those ten lions’ bodies were really ten stone lions’ bodies. Now he began to understand that that was the fact of the case. Try and explain this matter.

The author of the text was Zhao Yuanren (赵元任). As the “father of Chinese linguistics”, he speaks eight nation’s languages as well as 33 Chinese dialects. But besides his unparalleled linguistic talent, Zhao also has a genius for whimsicality.

The “story of eating lions” is not the only gimmick he played with, and I’m not just referring to three other tongue twisters he wrote with syllables “ji”, ”xi” and ”yi” (see the bottom of this post). One of his proudest accomplishments was the translation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland into Chinese, and during his six decades of teaching career as the professor of physics, mathematics, Chinese music and Chinese linguistics in Harvard, Cornell and UC Berkeley, one of his most delightful feats on the lecture circuit was to record on tape a discourse of English (a passage, a poem) uttered backwards. The tape was then played in reverse to reveal perfectly natural English pronunciation, and he would be laughing in tears when looking at his astounded students.

Story of Stone Grotto Poet Eating Lions was written originally not for fun, but as a weapon in the “revolution of Chinese characters”. The phonetic letters in Chinese—pinyin (拼音, pīn yīn) was an invention in modern times. In the past, Chinese ancestors used neither pinyin nor punctuation marks. Zhao developed the National Romanisation (Zhao Yuan Ren’s  Romanisation), a phonetic alphabet designed for Chinese language, an effort that met huge obstacles from conservative literati who urged to keep the traditional language “clean” from the western Latin letters. The four stories, written with quasi homophones, were thus to prove the relative independence between the tones and meanings of the Chinese language. Zhao’s romanisation was adopted nationwide in 1928, which through much simplification evolved into the system we are using today.

A few more of Zhao’s works:

jì jī jī jī jì

jì jī jì, jí jī, jī jí jí jī. jí jī jī jī, jì jī jí jī jì jì jī. jī jì jì, jī jī jí, jì jī jì, jí jī jī, jī jí, jì jī jǐ, jì jī jí, jí jí jī jī jī, jī jí jī jǐ jì, jì jí jī, jī jī jí jǐ jī, jì jī jí jí jī jī jī, jī jì jí, jì jī, jī, jí jì jì jī jī jī jì.




Reminiscences of Famished Chickens Assembled on the Ridge of a (Flying) Machine

Chick, chick, chickens! Chickens, chick, chick! Several chickens squeezed and assembled on the machine’s ridge. The machine was extremely swift; the chickens extremely famished. The chickens surmised their skill was sufficient to strike some perch. The machine having crossed the suburbs of Chi. The chickens reckoned the swift machine should stir up several perch. The machine was swift; the perch extremely scared. Hastily they squeezed and assembled in the interstices of stone steps. Subsequently the perch’s traces were extremely silent, silent. Subsequently the chickens, since still famished, said chick, chick!

xī xì xī

xī xì xī, xĭ xī xì. xí xī xī xī xí xī xĭ, xí xī xì xì xí xĭ xī. xī xī xī, xì xí xī. xí xī xī xī xī xī xì. xī xī xī xī xĭ xí xī.




Hsi Hsi Plays with the Rhinoceros

West Creek Rhinoceros enjoys romping and playing. Hsi Hsi every morning takes rhinoceros to play. Hsi Hsi meticulously practices washing rhinoceros. Rhinoceros sucks creek, playfully attacks Hsi. Hsi Hsi, laughing, hopes to stop playing. Too bad rhinoceros, neighing, enjoys attacking Hsi.

yí yí

yí yí yĭ yĭ, yì yì, yí yì yì, yí yì yī. yī yĭ yí yĭ yĭ yí yī yí. yī yĭ yì yì yì yì yĭ. yì yĭ yì, yĭ yí yì. yī yĭ yì yĭ yì yí yī yí, yí yì yĭ yī. yí yí yí, yĭ yí yī yí yī. yī yī yí yī, yì yí yí. yì! yī yĭ yí yí yī yí yì, yì yì yĭ;  yí yĭ yí yī yí yī, yì yì yì yĭ yĭ!




Reminiscences of How Aunt I was Cured

Aunt I felt depressed. She changed her clothes and reclined on a chair. Her idea was to suspect of some strange sickness. She should visit a doctor. The doctor’s idea was that one should treat the aunt’s sickness with the pancress of ants. He took 100,000,000 arrows and hunted 100,000,000 ants. The ants one by one died. Their pancreases overflowed. The doctor removed the pancreases and treated the aunt’s sickness with them. The aunt’s sickness was thereby cured. She was joyful and presented her doctor with a foreign garment. The doctor put on the foreign garment and was joyful, too. Yea! the doctor took 100,000,000 ants’ pancreases to cure Aunt I’s sickness, wasn’t that wonderful? Aunt I presented the doctor with a foreign garment, wasn’t that even more wonderful, too?


translation credit: online archive of California 

Photo credit: 昵图网

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