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

It is easy to start learning Chinese with the help of pinyin. But, if students don’t start learning Chinese characters at some point,  learning Mandarin using (only) pinyin will create more hurdles that prevents students from making progress.

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. 

In this article, let’s have some fun with the word “shi li”.

If I ask you the meaning of “shi li”, you might point out that you can’t do it 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, you can narrow it down. But there are still many possibilities.

“shí lì”

Using a Chinese dictionary, we can quickly find out the following words, which all have the exact same pinyin “shí lì”:

  • 实力: strength, power
  • 实例: living example
  • 实利: actual benefit
  • 石栗: candlenut tree

It’s nice and clear only because we are aided by Chinese characters.

If we use pinyin instead of characters, the above entries will look like these:

  • shí lì: strength
  • shí lì: living example
  • shí lì: actual benefit
  • shí lì: candlenut tree

“shì lì”

Another possibility for “shi li” is “shì lì”. Both are fourth tones.

Checking on a dictionary, we’ll have the following words:

  • 势力: force, power
  • 视力: vision, sight
  • 事例: example
  • 市立: municipal
  • 势利: snobbish
  • 示例: give a demonstration
  • 侍立: be in attendance

“shī lì”

Another possibility for “shi li” is “shī lì”. A first tone and a fourth tone.

Dictionary gives us two words:

  • 失利: suffer a setback
  • 施力: to put pressure on

“shì lǐ”

There is also the possibility of “shì lǐ”. A fourth tone and a third tone.

Dictionary gives us two words:

  • 市里: inside a city
  • 事理: reason

“shī lǐ”

It is also possible “shī lǐ”. A first tone and a third tone.

We have three words:

  • 失礼: commit a breach of etiquette
  • 施礼: make a bow
  • 诗礼: The Book of Songs and The Book of Rites

“shǐ lí”

It is also possible “shǐ lí”. A third tone and a second tone.

We have one word from the dictionary:

  • 驶离: to steer away from

“shǐ lì”

Finally, there is the possibility of “shǐ lì”. A third tone and a fourth tone.

We have one word:

  • 使力: to exert one’s strength

A maddening vocabulary list

If we put all these words together into a vocabulary list which includes only pinyin and English translation, that will be something like the following, a mad vocabulary list!

  1. shí lì: strength
  2. shí lì: living example
  3. shí lì: actual benefit
  4. shí lì: candlenut tree
  5. shì lì: force, power
  6. shì lì: vision, sight
  7. shì lì: example
  8. shì lì: municipal
  9. shì lì: snobbish
  10. shì lì: give a demonstration
  11. shì lì: be in attendance
  12. shī lì: suffer a setback
  13. shī lì: to put pressure on
  14. shì lǐ: inside a city
  15. shì lǐ: reason
  16. shī lǐ: commit a breach of etiquette
  17. shī lǐ: make a bow
  18. shī lǐ: The Book of Songs and The Book of Rites
  19. shǐ lí: to steer away from
  20. shǐ lì: to exert one’s strength

This is devastating news for students who try to memorise tones of each words. Lists like this one is confusing and makes people go crazy!

A story written with all “shi”

What makes things even more maddening than the above vocabulary list is something written with Chinese characters which all share the same pinyin. 

In the following story, all characters’ pinyin is “shi”.

The pinyin version:

Shíshì shī shì shī shì, shì shī, shìshí shíshī. Shī shì shí shíshìshì shì shī. Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì. Shì shí, shì shī shì shì shì. Shī shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shì shì. Shì shíshì shí shī shī, shì shíshì. Shíshì shī, shì shǐ shì shì shí shì. Shí shì shì, shī shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī shī. Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī. Shì shì shì shì.

The character version:


The name of the story is 《施氏食獅史》. Read more here for its origin and translations.

It is hilarious.