George, grammar, and the lion-eating poet

I once helped teach a course to my company’s subsidiary in Hong Kong, by far the most foreign-feeling place I’ve been. At lunch one day with the mainly Chinese staff, I mentioned a story I’d heard as an undergraduate taking a course on Chinese poetry (translated into English).

The quick version:

Long ago, a Chinese grammarian first developed the theory that Chinese depended on tones to give meaning to the spoken language. In other words, the same syllable, spoken in different tones, had different meanings. Eventually this theory reached the imperial court, and the grammarian was summoned. The emperor asked what these so-called tones were.

The grammarian answered, “Whatever you wish them to be.”

The punch line is that the answer in Chinese supposedly consisted of four syllables — the same syllable in each of four tones.

I wanted to know if the story were “true” even as a legend, as in a demonstration of the principle of tones. Alas, no one in the group had ever heard this story, and I know less Chinese than I do Zulu. I said that it must be something like George Washington throwing a coin across the Rappahannock, or chopping down the cherry tree.

That meant I had to explain some George Washington stories, which my tablemates seemed to find fascinating, though not quite as amusing as my reaction to “goose web” on the menu.

When he ate, he realized that those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses...The only reason for mentioning this is that today I happened across The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den. It’s apparently a poem with all 92 of its characters having the sound shi in classical Chinese.

So the title in Hanyu Pinyin is:

Shī Shì shí shī shǐ
(The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den)

According to the article link above, changes in the pronunciation of Mandarin since classical times mean that the poem becomes “completely incomprehensible” when spoken in modern Mandarin.

I’ll leave it to experts like Ken Carroll to opine on the quality of the Chinese.

Photo of stone lion from the Forbidden City by HK James Ho.

2 thoughts on “George, grammar, and the lion-eating poet

  1. To continue with your musing… I’ve also been thinking about how people say things in Chinese. I took my first trip to China in January and while in the Forbidden City I noticed a sign, which basically meant “Stay off the Rocks” but the English translation of the Chinese sign said “A single act of carelessness leads to the eternal loss of beauty.” Wow, talk about high context speech, it took me a while to even understand what it was getting at. I enjoyed your post today.

  2. Thanks, Orlando. In some ways language of the real world. At one level, you can translate easily from one language to another in the same way that we see solids as stable and liquids as not having a fixed shape.

    When you probe more deeply, or perhaps when you simply consider in a different context, then the “meaning” of speech or text — even the meaning of meaning — is much more elusive.

    One of my favorite Gaelic proverbs is: Chan fhiach cuirm gun a còmhradh.

    Literally, “Not (a) good feast without conversation,” but so compressed intranslation it’s hard to catch the sense of “It isn’t a feast if there’s no good talk.”

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