UChicago Admissions Essays

The Lion-Eating Poet: Should We Rethink the Way We Classify Things?


Who does Sally sell her seashells to? How much wood can a woodchuck really chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Pick a favorite tongue twister (either originally in English or translated from another language) and consider a resolution to its conundrum using the method of your choice. Math, philosophy, linguistics... it's all up to you (or your woodchuck).

—Inspired by Blessing Nnate, Class of 2024

Shí shì shī shì shī shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Living in a stone den, the poet Shi loved eating lions and swore to eat ten of them.

—Shī shì shí shī shǐ
Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den

Okay, stay calm-, I’m not about to explain how the poet stewed, baked, boiled, and stir-fried his ten lions before sharing them among his family and friends. But look closely at the two lines. Even though the first line is probably unintelligible to you, in Romanized Chinese, it stands for all of the Chinese characters meaning stone, den, poetry, scholar, to love, to swear, to eat, ten, lions, and of course, the poet’s name. The chaos is quite obvious, as all these characters that initially look different from others become variants of "shi" due to their similar pronunciation. In composing this tongue twister in the 1930s, Chinese linguist Zhao Yuanren satirically responded to his Soviet colleagues who were advocating for the Romanization of Chinese characters at the time, deftly demonstrating the confusion and chaos that would follow in the wake of their proposed scheme.

Of course, the attempt to reduce all the characters with entirely unrelated meanings into the same transcription simply because they were homophonous proved to be a failure. Still, Soviet linguists weren’t the only ones to make this mistake. After all, simple classification and characterization have always been a straightforward way for us as humans to make sense of the world around us – just pause for a moment and humor me. If cheetahs and leopards are both spotty big cats that run extremely fast, why would a cave-dwelling human whose life was at stake bother to stop and notice the difference? At what point in time did primitive human beings begin to note all the slightly different species around them or create a scientific taxonomic system to identify them? Why did astronomers first define Pluto as a planet, then mercilessly downgrade it to a dwarf planet after the discovery of Eris?

Why can’t we stop classifying and labeling everything?

Like it or not, the simple heuristic of categorizing things with preexisting concepts and prototypes without fully understanding them lingers within our very DNA. On the one hand, this model helped our ancestors make quick decisions and survive in that harsh landscape. On the other hand, one could argue that it discourages us from appreciating the increasing complexity and diversity of our society. You may laugh at the tongue twister above, with its twelve uses of “shi,” each with a drastically different meaning, but are you also aware that you’ve always been driven by your primitive instincts to classify everything around you? People, gender, skin color, religion, education, political beliefs, wealth – are we really any better than the aforementioned Soviet linguists, trying to boil things down to the essence of their existence while losing all important details in the process?

If Karl Marx was one hundred percent right in his class theory and subsequent prediction of the future, if the bourgeoisie always exploited the proletariat and that’s the cause of an ever-widening class divide, then how would he explain me? I am neither a rich landlord nor a poor laborer, just an international student aspiring to study in America – one of an ever-growing middle class, which by his theory, should have disappeared by now. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not trying to take the moral high ground and dictate your thinking. All I’m trying to say is that definitions and classifications are, or should be, as complicated as the world in which they exist.

Very few things can perfectly fit the box that we’ve designated for them to belong in. So, will you still go along with your unconscious bias, blindly classifying and labeling? We’re all guilty of it, the same old shi, shi, shi. Or will you step back and look at society with open eyes and a humble heart? Most prefer freshly cooked dishes over canned food, no matter how fancy the labels look. Who knows? Perhaps, if you approach the poet without judgment, he’ll invite you to share in those ten, tasty lions…


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How to cite this essay (MLA)

Wang, Ruochen. "The Lion-Eating Poet: Should We Rethink the Way We Classify Things?" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 10 Jun. 2021. Web. 24 Jul. 2021. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/uchicago/the-lion-eating-poet-should-we-rethink/>.