Shī Shì shí shī shǐ
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí 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 shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
石室詩士施氏, 嗜獅, 誓食十獅。
氏視是十獅, 恃矢勢, 使是十獅逝世。
食時, 始識是十獅, 實十石獅屍。
Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den
In a stone den was a poet Shi, who loved to eat lions, and decided to eat ten.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
One day at ten o'clock, ten lions just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those ten lions, he killed them with arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this.
Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den is a Chinese poem by Yuen Ren Chao, a linguist who lived from 1892 to 1982. The poem was created as an illustration of the large degree of homophony in Classical Chinese; it consists of 92 characters that are all pronounced with the sound 'shi', each syllable enunciated with one of four different tones (Chinese is a tonal language). Chao created the poem as an argument against the romanization of Classical Chinese, although he did support the romanization of the modern written form of Chinese known as Vernacular Chinese.
Classical Chinese is a written style of Chinese that is based on 2000-year-old forms of spoken Chinese, and is not congruous with any modern spoken dialects (the variation between different Chinese "dialects" can be as great as between different languages of the Romance language family, bringing to mind the aphorism "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy"). The poem is understandable when written in Chinese characters, or if it were pronounced by a speaker of Old Chinese, who would enunciate the distinctions between the tones; however if the Classical Chinese were spoken aloud with the dialect of a modern speaker, the syllables would be indistinguishable. For this reason it is also not understandable when romanized, as the characters of the Latin alphabet are mapped to individual phonemes (sounds).