February 21, 2013
How can four tones of one word create a complete narrative? "Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den" was written by Chao Yuen Ren, a contemporary Chinese American linguist who wrote the poem as an argument against the idea of converting Classical Chinese into a phonetic system. In the poem, the sound of each syllable is “shi,” with each “shi” marked by one of the four Mandarin tones (“shī,” “shí,” “shǐ,” and “shì”). Since Mandarin is a tonal language, one syllable can be pronounced in many ways, with each pronunciation producing completely different meanings. The context within each phrase also makes the possible meanings for a single syllable even larger. Chao Yuen Ren’s poem is not only an impressive feat of constrained writing, but also one of the best tongue twisters we’ve ever encountered.