Sunday, October 10, 2010

10/10/10 Ten/Ten/Ten Shi/Shi/Shi

For many ethnic Chinese, October 10th is a significant day. But this post won't be about that nor will it be about the math of 10/10/10. This post is about the Chinese language, specifically about Classical Chinese. You can probably guess from the title that shi means ten. It is the Chinese Mandarin pronunciation of ten.

Before we continue, a quick disclaimer. I am not a linguist. An undergraduate linguistics class ages ago hardly qualifies me to explain or convey accurately the linguistics of the Chinese Language. With that said, when I heard of 10/10/10. It reminded of a story my dad read to me when I was little. It's a story that made no sense when my dad told it to me, but which made perfect sense when I read it on paper.

(CC Attribution 2.0 Generic by Ell Brown)

It was famous story written in Classical Chinese by a linguist. It's called "Story of How Mr. Shi ate a Lion."

《施氏食獅史》

石室詩士施氏,嗜獅,誓食十獅。
氏時時適市視獅。
十時,適十獅適市。
是時,適施氏適市。
氏視是十獅,恃矢勢,使是十獅逝世。
氏拾是十獅屍,適石室。
石室濕,氏使侍拭石室。
石室拭,氏始試食是十獅。
食時,始識是十獅,實十石獅屍。
試釋是事。

First time my dad told it to me, he started laughing and coughing while reading the story from the newspaper. At first it seemed like he was stuttering. So I asked to see the story myself while he tried to catch his breath. As soon as I saw it I started laughing too.

Without fail, all Chinese people who read this story out loud in Mandarin laughed. The story is not particularly funny. My translation follows below:
"Story of How Mr. Shi Ate a Lion"

In a stone chamber there was a Mr. Shi, who loved lions, and who vowed to eat ten of them.
This man often visited the market to look for lions.
At 10 o'clock one day, there arrived 10 lions to the market.
Coincidentally, Mr. Shi also arrived at the market.
When Mr. Shi saw the 10 lions, he used his arrows and killed the 10 lions.
Mr. Shi brought the ten lion corpses back to his stone chamber.
The chamber was wet, so he had his servants wipe it dry.
With the stone chamber wiped dry, he tried to eat the ten lions.
As he began, he suddenly realized that the 10 lions were actually ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this story.
There's a translation over at wikipedia of this Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den which is roughly the same. The Chinese characters are still the same. Although the grammatical structure is a little different from modern spoken Chinese, the story is accessible to anyone who has read a little Chinese history or who watched Chinese historical dramas.

So why is it funny to us? This is what it sounds like when you read it out loud.

Lion-Eating_Poet_in_the_Stone_Den_Shī_shì_shí_shī_shǐ_
(CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported from Wikipedia)

Here's a video of someone reading it. She kinda loses it in the end.


According to my dad, people have used this ever since as an argument against Romanization of Classical Chinese. The large number of homophones in Chinese makes it incomprehensible. In fact, to anyone who has never heard of the story, the above video seems like footage of a girl practicing her pronunciation and intonation. The original Chinese characters preserve the meaning and will be obvious to any reader of the written story. Were it romanized as "Shī Shì shí shī shǐ" it would challenge even the most imaginative Chinese mind to decode it. In practical terms, no one would ever write like this. The author did it only to make a point. Lucky for me, I get to tell his story about a certain Mr. Shi who's a fan of lions.

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