Editor’s note: We are pleased to announce that we are launching a new direction for A Cup of Fine Tea. In the past, we have devoted this column to critical analysis of works that have been previously published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. With this post by poet Red Slider, however, we are expanding Fine Tea to include critiques of classic Asian works. In “”Shi and the Ten Stone Lions”: Riddle or Nonsense?”, Slider provides a provocative interpretation of Yuen Ren Chao’s classic, “Shi and the Ten Stone Lions”. “Ten Stone Lions”, which is constructed entirely out of Chinese characters that can be transliterated as ‘shi’ in English, tells the story, in the form of a riddle, of the poet Shi. Although the piece has generally been characterised by scholars as a linguistic exercise demonstrating the difficulty of translating Chinese into other languages, it has also been seen by many as a ‘poem’. According to Slider, however, few, if any, critics have offered a thorough reading of “Shi and the Ten Lions” as poetry. In his essay, Slider not only seeks to address this oversight, but also uses critical poetic analysis to provide a convincing solution to Chao’s riddle. -Tammy Ho
“Shi and the Ten Stone Lions”: Riddle or Nonsense?
By Red Slider
A solution-set to the riddle of Yuen Ren Chao’s classic, “Shi and the Ten Stone Lions” (above), has eluded scholars, poets and general readers ever since its first public reading in Toronto in 1977 (and its original design, possibly as far back as 1934). The story, which is constructed entirely out of Chinese syllables which can be transliterated as “shi” in English and which was designed as a linguistic exercise and a demonstration of problems in phonetics and translation from classical Chinese, is referred to as ‘poem’ or ‘verse’ by practically everyone. However, at least as far as I can tell, no serious treatment of the work as a ‘poem’ has yet been undertaken. Instead, any quick online search reveals that the narrative of “Shi” is most often dismissed as ‘silly nonsense’ or treated to sarcasm or wildly improbable interpretations — this despite the fact that Chao was a gifted and renowned scholar, for whom poetry was an obvious interest and talent. In the last line of the narrative, Chao challenges us to explain the matter of the story and solve the riddle of “Shi”. By treating the work as a poem and using the ordinary tools of poetics and an appreciation of metaphor, perfectly plausible meanings for the story of the poet Shi’s strange odyssey are easily discovered, as are possible solutions to Chao’s riddle.
Purpose and Synopsis
What follows is somewhat superficial treatment of Chao’s work as poetry, written in hopes that it might stimulate other poets and scholars to take a second look at “Shi and the Ten Stone Lions” as an offering of competent verse, as well as continuing to see it through its already established character as a linguistics demonstration and exercise.
The next section will briefly outline three solution-sets to the riddle of interpreting the English text of the story. Chao ended his story by asking what its meaning might be. Yet a serious answer to that challenge seems to have escaped students and scholars alike. I present three fairly accessible interpretations that keep well within the bounds of ordinary interpretive technique. Not treated in this essay, but also suggested is that an additional focus on the work as one of the earliest examples we have of Language Poetry may be warranted as well.
Finally, a more detailed presentation of the metaphor used in one of the solution-sets is offered to illustrate that the work is subject to such interpretations in a thoroughly consistent and understandable way, and that further examination of it as a work of poetry may offer benefits that have hitherto been overlooked.
Solution-sets to “Shi and the Ten Stone Lions” (“The Lion-eating Poet in the Stone Den”)
In the full essay from which this paper has been excerpted, three solution-sets (interpretations of the English translation of the story) are discussed. The first, which I will discuss in detail below, treats the entire text as a metaphor for the poet and the process of writing poetry. A second solution-set (not treated here) examines the story as ordinary romance — poet is lonely, poet gets girls, poet insults girls, poet loses girls — and sees the work as a short and not too sweet cautionary tale about poets and their romantic fantasies. The third solution-set (also not discussed here) interprets the story in terms of traditional Chinese symbolism as a species of creation myth: ‘lions’ as protectors/guardians, ‘water’ as chaos/origin and so forth.
The First Solution-set
It is no stretch to presume that Shi, the poet in the work, is doing what poets do best — making poetry. Regarded in that light, one solution-set to the riddle of the “Ten Lions” is very close at hand. Shi appears to be someone engaged with poetry, as well as being represented through the construction of the poem we are reading. With a poet at the helm, it is a safe bet that the story will vector to one of the things poets are most intimately connected with: language.
This particular poet lives in a ‘stone house’. Within the realms of poets and poetry, this can be seen as an easy metaphor for the ‘house of language’ — the labyrinth of the poet’s own mind, where poets generally live, have always lived.
Shi’s principal occupation, then, is to ‘hunt’ words, bring them ‘home’ and ‘dine’ on them. We also read that there are ‘servants’ in Shi’s house. If the ‘stone house’ is the poet’s own mind, what could these ‘servants’ be that tend the house of language? His pen, ink and paper perhaps? His glasses, maybe. His voice, certainly. His thoughts, absolutely.
Otherwise, Shi seems to be alone, with his own thoughts. There is no hint of wife or family; no other voices seem to intrude. It is not hard to imagine him surrounded by old tomes and crumpled paper. He is looking for something to eat; something he particularly likes, swears he will get.
What do poets like to eat? Why, words of course. Delicious words; magnificent words, perhaps ‘lions of words’ if they get lucky. For some reason, he seems to want ten of them (from which it might be deduced that he is hungry but not gluttonous. Ten, after all, is a rather modest number of premium words for a poet).
Where does the poet hunt for these ‘word-lions’? At the ‘market’ — perhaps representing the places that words are most likely to be found, such as dictionaries, thesauruses, other books and writings, his memory. His shelves, desk, and books piled all around him on the floor make for a perfectly good marketplace for hunting words. Then, ten beautiful, golden, powerful words suddenly appear in the ‘market’.
The poem provides a precise time that he goes to the market, but we attach no special significance to that other than that it contributes to the concrete timbre of the poem and offers another opportunity to employ ‘shi’ terms. One might conjecture that ‘ten’ may have some special symbolic importance (see below). But that is only speculation and unneeded for the metaphor to do its job. We do know the poet has hunted ‘lions’ before (he ‘used to go to the market…’). Did he find other word-lions on those occasions? The story doesn’t say. But if he is a poet of any worth, we might presume so. Not all of his previous poems could have been so spare as to contain no word-lions.
In any case, on this particular day, he not only finds one lion at the market, he finds ten at once! He takes out his ‘arrows’ (his pen?) and ‘kill[s]‘ them (takes them into his mind; puts them on paper). Many of us know well the feeling of words skewered on the tip of the poet’s pen. The poet then takes his lion-words ‘home’. His stone house (of language) is wet, we are told: the floor dripping with emotion perhaps at the prospect of capturing ten great words? Tears, joy and excitement maybe? As any poet can tell us, it can get very wet (plain sloppy, in fact) when one finds ten perfect words on one hunt and brings them home. ‘Wet’ is a very good descriptor for what goes on in poets’ minds at the first blush of the creative process making a new poem.
The poet can’t eat his fresh words quite yet, however. They’re still in his mind, in a mess of damp sentiment and structureless, disassociated flux. It’s time to dry things off — to put his lions on the page and ‘eat’ them. He calls upon his servants (remember those?) They will work and rework, edit and revise, until the poem takes shape and the floor of his house of language is quite ‘dry’ once again. When the work is finished it’s time to ‘eat’ his lions, to savour the new poem.
Alas, after all that work, the lions have changed. The thrill is gone, too. All that effort drying (editing/revising) things out has also taken something else out of his meal. The very ‘lionic-vitality’ that was in those words is now gone. The ink is dry, and so is the poet. His once fresh words have turned to stone — durable, perfected, memorable perhaps. But stone, nonetheless; immobile on the page, used up and hard as rock. They are no longer the delicious lions (fresh meat= fresh words) he so desired; the once supple and ephemeral things that had rolled so deliciously on his tongue.
When one considers the material itself, the ‘stone’, from which both the house of language and the processed lions are made, the metaphor gets even tighter. ‘Wetness’ now figures as a solvent by which words are slipped loose from the stone walls of language, shaped into meanings and finally reworked as poetry, until they are ‘dry’ (used) and rejoin the general schemas of language, once again, as stones (at least for the poet who employed them.)
What is appealing about this solution-set to the riddle of the “Ten Lions” is that it is consistent with another interpretation that would view the entire work (in all its stages) as Language Poetry. For Shi, the poet, it is an exercise steeped in spontaneity, serendipity and vitality, followed by the application of effort, regulation and formality (drying out) which finally severs the poet from his original work and from all trace of any nourishment or enjoyment (voice and subject) that he might get from it. Not much different than taking a deeply nuanced set of Chinese characters, hacking off everything but their transliterated sound and then pasting them back on the page to see what you’ve got. In the end, the poet’s poem has become just another ‘perfected’ product; one as processed as Velveeta and as devoid of life (to its author) as stone.
As you can see, it is not difficult to discover a very appropriate and consistent metaphor for the meaning of the story of the ten lions, and plausible solutions to its riddle. Using metaphors quite within the range of the story’s elements, and without introducing extraneous terms, contradictions or making improbable substitutions (e.g. ‘water buffalo’ for ‘lions’, or describing the lions as ‘wet clay’ turned to stone when ‘dried’), the riddle posed by Yuen Ren Chao is a valid challenge for which good replies exist but, as far as we know, have never been given before.
Most importantly, I believe it establishes that the narrative story (along with the processes of its construction) is indeed a poem, as it has so often been called by linguists as well as publishers and readers. Only the real attempt to examine it as a poem, rather than as an exercise or demonstration, has been missing.
My hope is that this little introduction will encourage other scholars and poets to reexamine the case of “Shi” as poem and Yuen Ren Chou as poet (along with his brilliant renderings of “Jabberwocky” in Alice in Wonderland), and to give him is due as an important contributor to the project of poetry, as well as for the contributions he made to many other disciplines and for which he already enjoys considerable reputation.
Excerpted and adapted from the essay, “Shi and the Ten Stone Lions – A Reappraisal” ©Red Slider, 2012, All rights reserved. A copy of the full essay, including the two additional solution-sets to the riddle, can be obtained by making a request to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Red Slider, poet/writer lives in Northern California. His work has appeared in numerous print and online publications. He is active in many social and community projects directed towards creating positive change and new realities of sanity, health and sustainability for the people of world. Additional works may be viewed at his websites www.holopoet.com and poems4change.org-