“men wai you shi shi shi zhi shi shi zi,
hui shi you shi shi shi zhi shi shi zi ?”
“Beyond the door are 44 stone lions, or are they 44 dead lions?”
“This one is really common in schools, at least in my experience, because not only is it a riddle or a play on words, but the best way to describe it is a tongue twister. To be able to say it would prove your aptitude with the language, because Chinese works on a system where you have four pronunciation levels; there’s a flat, a rising, a dip and then a fall tone, and with the tone itself it changes meaning. Anyway, its a very short phrase, and translated it means, “Beyond the door are 44 stone lions, or are they 44 dead lions?” Usually the person hearing the rhyme is not expected to have an answer for it, in the context I learned it its not so much for that as it is can you say it and not mess up, and if you don’t mess up then you’re pretty good. One of the most important things about speaking Chinese is to be aware of the difference in meaning one change in tone can make. I mean for me it was a lot of fun, and kids get a lot of bravado because they feel they know how to pronounce words properly. So it was a way to encourage kids to learn tonal differences. I never really studied why this tongue twister became so popular, but I do know that a lot of old Chinese houses like stone lions in front of their doors, as guardian spirits.” (see entry: Chinese Door Guardians)
The informant who told me about this tongue twister was born and grew up in Hong Kong for a great part of his life. He speaks fluent Chinese and has had significant exposure to Chinese culture, given the fact that he and his family still speak the language and practice many of the traditional customs. He moved to the US in 5th grade.
The informant remembers first learning this tongue twister in school about 9 years ago, when he still lived in Hong Kong. China has a very established culture of tongue twisters, given that the language is difficult to speak and tonal differences are key. He says that this is one of he most prolific and popular tongue twisters in China, and like the others, it relies on the difficulty of its pronunciation to create the challenge. Apparently this is a shortened version of a longer, more difficult tongue twister that is practiced by people schooled in traditional Chinese, however, this is the more popular one.