The "shi shi" poem: Why the idea of romanizing Chinese is stupid

There is a poem in ancient Chinese where someone wrote the whole poem using only words that were pronounced “shi” with different tones.

[Image: shishi.gif]

In pinyin romanization, it looks like this:

shi2 shi4 shi1 shi4 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi1. shi4 shi2 shi2 shi1. shi4 shi2 shi2 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi1 shi2 shi2. shi4 shi2 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi2. shi4 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi1. shi4 shi3 shi4 shi3 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi1shi1. shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi1. shi4 shi3 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi4. shi4 shi3 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi1 shi2 shi2. shi3 shi4 shi3 shi2 shi1 shi1 shi2 shi2 shi2 shi1 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4

Here is a translation by Ti Fa-kuan:

"A poet by the name of Shih Shih living in a stone den was fond of lions. As he had taken an oath to eat ten lions, he went out to the market every day at ten o'clock in order to look for lions. It was at the time when all of a sudden ten lions came to the market and also Shih Shih went to the market at once realizing these ten lions. Relying on his (bow and) arrows, he caused these ten lions to pass away. Shih picked up the corpses of these ten lions, and as he went to the stone den, the stone chamber was damp. Shih had the stone den wiped by his servant. As the stone den was cleaned, it was the time that Shih began trying to eat the meal of these ten lions' corpses and he began to realize that these ten dead lions infact were ten stone lions' corpses and he tried to get rid of this matter."

and there are audio files:


this Cantonese version sounds like someone read a binary code Smile
What a nice coincidence that the background color of the poem is the same of the forum.
I'd really like to listen to this, but I just can't bring myself to install RealPlayer...
sethg Wrote:I'd really like to listen to this, but I just can't bring myself to install RealPlayer...
hmm interesting. Too bad I can't read it, mandarin(chinese) is next on my list after japanese.
I can play .rm files with MPC--not sure if you need to DL the RealAlternative thingy first...

I personally think being able to romanize (Chinese, Japanese, etc.) and kanjify (c'mon English, get with the program) any language is great, to add flexibility/adjustibility, and none of my arguments for logographs as essential components of orthography have depended on aesthetics (instead I make highly contested claims about them being better for education/mental processing and overall literacy), but I do think Japanese and Chinese poetry are great places to appreciate the stylistics of visual puns and suchlike and appreciate the potential communicative nuance of these scripts, even if they're used in much subtler ways in everyday practice.

For something similar, re: the alphabet, check out Christian Bök:
Edited: 2010-05-27, 7:10 pm
ahibba Wrote:What a nice coincidence that the background color of the poem is the same of the forum.
It's a transparent gif. ^_^ The font colour, however, that's a nice coincidence.
Edited: 2010-05-27, 7:12 pm
That's an argument for why literary classical Chinese shouldn't be romanized, not modern Chinese (maybe -- I haven't really seen any definitive statements on why Chao composed this).

Note that the poem was written by Y.R. Chao, who was an advocate of romanization and even created one of the romanization systems for Chinese that used to be used in some textbooks (it's cumbersome because it shows tones by letters rather than by accent marks). This is not a real ancient Chinese poem (it's not a poem, for starters); I don't know exactly when Chao composed it but he was born in 1892 so it had to be in the 20th century.

(Even if that weren't true, it's silly to use a poem intentionally written to be confusing in romaji for an argument against romaji. The poem is not entirely clear even written in characters -- it can of course be read, but it's not like a Chinese person, upon seeing the character version, would instantly go "Oh!" and read it fluently without any assistance.)
Edited: 2010-05-27, 7:48 pm
That's like using the word Buffalo to attempt to prove that English should never be written down.

You also might as well try to say that Chinese should never be spoken by exactly the same logic.

Edit: For those wondering about Buffalo:
Edited: 2010-05-27, 7:17 pm
I'm still studying Japanese but I've heard that pinyin can be very confusing. I've read somewhere that GR is much easier to use, since it uses spelling of syllables for the tones.

I tossed it through a converter just to see the difference, but it still looks like a mess to my eyes. O_o;

shyr shyh shy shyh shy shyh shyh shy. shyh shyr shyr shy. shyh shyr shyr shyh shyh shyh shy shyr shyr. shyh shyr shy shyh shyh shyh shyr. shyh shy shyh shyh shyh shyh shyh shyh shyr shy. shyh shyy shyh shyy shyh shyr shy shyh shyh shyh shyr shyh shyr shyshy. shyh shyr shyh shyr shyh shy. shyh shyy shyh shyh shyr shyh shyr shyh shyh. shyh shyy shyh shyr shyh shyr shy shy shyr shyr. shyy shyh shyy shyr shy shy shyr shyr shyr shy shy shyh shyh shyh shyh

Oh, and here it is with Pinyin tonal marks. XD
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 shīshī. shì shí shì shí shì shī. shì shǐ shì shì shí shì shí shì shì. shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī shī shí shí. shǐ shì shǐ shí shī shī shí shí shí shī shī shì shì shì shì
Well, I can see one advantage to GR. Having studied Mandarin, I find that it's very easy for me to forget the tones. I often remember the reading of a character or word without the tones, but I can't get the tones right. I think that if things were in GR, since you are forced to read and spell words with the tone information, it might be easier to fix that in your memory. I don't know, though.
The poem was written by YR Chao, as yudantaiteki said. But if I remember correctly, it wasn't to show why literary Chinese shouldn't be romanized (or why it shouldn't be written...? not sure where that came from), but to show why vernacular Chinese (白話) should be the standard rather than literary Chinese (文言). But yes, Chao was a proponent of romanization, and devised the very odd Gwoyeu Romatzyh.

By the way, Classical Chinese poetry is rarely crystal clear, even to a native speaker, and I believe that was even the case before 白話 became the standard.
Interesting. Apparently this Chao fellow was big on characters/alphabet as a parallel system: "As we have noted, reading is not by letters or by words but by much larger units. From this point of view a morphemic or a word-sign system of writing can be taken in faster than a system based on smaller units. One does to be sure take in English by words and sentences in one glance too, but since there is less individuality in the shapes of the letters, the words do not stand out so prominently as in a text of Chinese characters. In looking for something in a page of English you have to look for it, but in doing the same in a page of characters the thing looked for, if it is on the page, will stare you in the face.

In the language of communication theory each symbol in a character text, being one out of several thousand, carries more "information" than one in a small class of items. The simplest kind of system of writing consists of two words: 0 and 1 and all text consists of nothing but a succession of zeros and ones. Such a language will suit a computer but not the brain of a speaking and reading person.

It is of course another question whether it is worth the cost of learning a more complicated system for eventually more convenient use...

I often speculate whether an ideal system of writing would not be some golden mean between the unwieldy thousands of arbitrary units and the paltry few letters of the Latin alphabet."

He goes on to calculate something like ~200 characters as being optimal there and elsewhere, for different reasons:

"On a comparable scale of invested interest, the very difficult system of Chinese writing, which will rate very low on most of the requirements – except that of elegance (in a sense) and except that of operational efficiency in terms of information per chunk – has not only served well the Chinese speaking people, but also several of the countries of Eastern Asia speaking various non-Chinese languages. It not only extends widely over space, but also over more than two millennia in time without substantial structural change. It was therefore not without some intellectual and emotional hesitancy that for a number of years I have advocated the use of the Latin alphabet for writing the Chinese language, which will probably be the future form in which the language will be written. However, I felt safe to advocate an alphabetic form of writing Chinese and have actually contributed toward designing and promoting a version of it, for I think that there is little danger of the characters being abolished too soon and that the characters will remain in use for decades, if not indefinitely, as a parallel form of writing...

Edit: Forgot this bit: "If vested interest could be discounted in favour of end efficiency, my guess for an ideal system of visual and auditory symbols for general purposes of speech and thought will involve neither the extreme paucity in elementary units nor the extreme luxury of thousands of them, but probably about 200 monosyllabic symbols, such that a string of “seven plus or minus two” can be easily grasped in one span of attention. A previous guess (p. 112) on a slightly different basis, came out as 170." (p. 126 and p. 240, respectively, in that bar at the bottom)

Strikingly similar to some ideas on 'optimal orthographies' in a book edited by David R. Olson, from the '90s or so (link), and quite progressive in thought given the state of research, re: the brain and language and technology, at the time ('40s-'60s or something?)...

Personally, my ideal system, given current research and learning methods, etc., would be something like 500-1000 streamlined characters for morphemes (minimized visually but with the requirement that they remain complex enough to be iconic for visuospatial-semantic processing, and clearly unique/differentiated) alongside a simple script for phonemes (preferably with visual cohesion with the logographs), with a very regular sound element attached to the characters (though something akin to furigana could always vary them). Reading through Chao's text, it seems he had very similar criteria, but steeped in the science and linguistics of the period (though strikingly progressive, methinks).

Anyway, something like that--my fantasy orthography is a work in progress. ^_^

(For example, I think I'd prefer ~2000 to the above 500-1000, come to think of it.)
Edited: 2010-05-27, 8:10 pm
A fellow student performed this at my school's annual Chinese Language Showcase; he said he got it from, which offers a line-by-line translation.