Does “shi li” mean “strength” in Chinese?

Learning Chinese using pinyin can be addictive. It is easy to begin, and students can quickly gain the ability of carrying on some social conversations with Chinese people in life or at work. Such a good start usually encourages students to continue relying on pinyin to learn more Chinese, and that is a mistake. 

After passing a threshold, using pinyin as the only medium to learn Chinese will create so much confusion that many Chinese words become completely indistinguishable. One example came to my mind is the word “shi li”. If I ask you to tell me the meaning of “shi li”, you might point out that you can’t do it only because I have not put the tone markers there. So, let’s re-write the pinyin with tone markers, what does “shí lì” mean?

With the tone markers, we can narrow it down quite a bit. With the help of a popular Chinese dictionary app, we know that “shí lì” possibly means “strength, power”, “living example”, “actual benefit”, or “candlenut tree”. Except the last one, “candlenut tree” which I have got no idea what it is, the rest are all nice high level words which will eventually appear in front of a high level student who would like to use these words to express some thoughts and ideas. The trouble is that all these words share the exact same pinyin.

Let’s write these words down in Chinese. The same pinyin “shí lì” could be:

  1. Strength, power: 实力
  2. Living example: 实例
  3. Actual benefit: 实利
  4. candlenut tree: 石栗 

Imagine the confusion these words would create if we only write them down in pinyin. It would be a mad vocabulary list like this:

  1. shí lì: strength
  2. shí lì: living example
  3. shí lì: actual benefit
  4. shí lì: candlenut tree

This is devastating news for students who spend so much time trying to memorise the tone markers. Sooner or later, they will find out that memorising the tone markers does not help them learn Chinese. It’s in fact hindering them from learning Chinese better, faster, and having more fun.

If we disregard the tone markers, the possible meaning of “shi li” increases exponentially. In addition to the previous four meanings, it can also be:

  • pinyin is “shi4 li4”

    Force, power: 势力

    vision, sight: 视力

    example: 事例

    Municipal: 市立

    Snobbish: 势利

    Give a demonstration: 示例

    Be in attendance: 侍立

  • pinyin is “shi1 li4”

    suffer a setback: 失利

    To put pressure on: 施力

  • pinyin is “shi4 li3”

    Inside a city: 市里

    Reason: 事理

  • pinyin is “shi1 li3”

    Commit a breach of etiquette: 失礼

    Make a bow: 施礼

    The Book of Songs and The Book of Rites: 诗礼

  • pinyin is “shi3 li2”

    To steer away from: 驶离

  • pinyin is “shi3 li4”

    To exert one‘s strength: 使力

In order to avoid the frustration and confusion pinyin creates, we must recognise the importance of shifting the main learning medium from pinyin to Chinese characters. 

At MSL Master, that threshold is Mandarin Express Basic Level B. After that, pinyin no longer appears in the textbooks. To prepare for that transition, students must go through the Chinese Reading and Writing series, learn 320 Chinese characters, and develop good skills in reading and writing Chinese texts. 

The conclusion is, get ready to steer away from pinyin, the sooner the better!


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