Pinyin, the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet

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CHARACTERS Up until this century, the Chinese had only ever used characters to write their language. With such unparalleled continuity in their writing system, it is not surprising to learn that they don't want to give it up or something.
For millennia, Chinese has been written in characters. Beautiful and beguiling in their complexity, the characters convey little or no phonetic information at all, rendering written Chinese utterly incomprehensible to the untrained.

Their main advantage is that, while the Chinese actually speak several different languages and dialects (1), they read and write using the same script.

PROBLEMS Several transliteration schemes have been used for Mandarin Chinese over the years, notably the somewhat inaccurate Wade-Giles system, invented over a century ago and still in use in Taiwan and by overseas Chinese communities. But the first scheme to be devised by the Chinese for the Chinese is Pinyin.

TRANSLIT SCHEMES Obviously the burden this placed on children learning to write was phenomenal, and literacy rates were very low. So, in an effort to make Chinese legible to more than a handful of people, the government firstly simplified over 2,000 characters, later commissioning the creation of pinyin (literally meaning 'spell-sound'), officially adopted in 1958 and taught in Chinese schools since then.

PINYIN The total number of people who can read pinyin is difficult to ascertain. In an increasing number of places, such as on road signs, pinyin appears below the Chinese characters.

Pinyin is supposedly based on the Mandarin spoken by educated Beijingers.

Chinese syllable structure is very simple: a single initial consonant (almost always, though a handful of syllables start with a vowel) followed by a vowel, and sometimes followed by another consonant, which can be one of only three kinds (n, ng or r – see below)

Given this predictable structure, it is not surprising that pinyin sounds are grouped into ‘initial’ and ‘final’, rather than consonants and vowels. Here the finals have been divided into three categories, see below.

Understanding this Entry

This entry aims to provide a firm grounding in Mandarin pronunciation, but if you concentrate on the tables, you should be able to get the gist of things. However, the entry is more of use as a reference for those who are learning Chinese and have access to a native speaker or tapes.

The tables break down as follows:

  • Column One gives the pinyin letter.

  • Column Two gives a representation of the sound of the letter using English-style spelling.

  • Column Three has an example English word containing this sound.

  • Column Four contains an example Mandarin word.

  • Column Five is a notes column containing mostly positional rules and pronunciation tips.

Some of the sounds can only be approximated in English. These appear in bold, and there is more information about them in the notes column or below the main table. Approximations are made mostly using British accents, with American equivalents included where necessary.

Features of Chinese Pronunciation


The basic unit of meaning in Chinese is the syllable. Each syllable is represented by one character.

Spelling Rules

Chiefly about I and y, u and w. Also u and ü.


Nearly all syllables in Mandarin start with a consonant. Most of the consonant sounds are represented by one letter – note that even those that use two letters are all single sounds.

 Letter  Sounds  As in  Word  Notes 
 b  b  bar  ba  eight 
 c  ts  cats  cài  vegetable 
 ch  ch  chop  chá  tea 
 d  d  dear  da  big 
 f  f  fluffy  fu    
 g  g  gap  gei  give 
 h  h  h  hao  good; often pronounced more harshly in Chinese 
 j  j  jet  jia  
 k  k  kin  kou  mouth 
 l  l  lad  lao  old 
 m  m  more  ma  horse 
 n  n  not  ni  you 
 p  p  pay  pei    
 q  ch  chip  qu  go 
 r  r  row  rou   
 s  s  set  su   
 sh  sh  shop  shan  mountain 
 t  t  tea  ta  he 
 w  w  war  wa   
 x  sh  sheet  xia  down 
 y  y  yes  you  have 
 z  dz  lads  zuo  left 
 zh  j  jar  zhou   


The following sounds call all end a syllable in Mandarin. In addition, an 'r' is added to the end of some syllables.

Single Vowels

 Letter  Sound  As in  Word  Notes 
 a  a  but  da   
 e  e  often  le   
 i  ee  see  qi  generally 
 i  uh  about  si  after c, s, and z, 
 i  ur  burn  zhi  after r, ch, sh and zh 
 o  aw  saw  fo    
 u  oo  boot  su   
 u  ew    qu  after j, q, x or y 
 ü  ew    nü  only appears after l or n 
  • a - like RP u in butter; like Northern English and US a in father.

  • i - like Scots 'eh', a longer version of short 'e' but tighter.

  • i - the lips should be spread wide, and the sound kept distinct.

  • o - like Northern English or Scots 'oh': lips should be quite tightly pursed.

  • u - put your lips in a small circle.


There are several diphthongs in Mandarin.

 Letter  Sounds  As in  Word  Notes 
 ai  i  pine  ai3   
 ao  ow  brown  hao    
 ei  a  tame  bei   
 ou  o  cold  kou   


The following vowel plus consonant combinations are used in pinyin. As noted above, only n, ng and r can end a syllable in Mandarin.

 Letter  Sounds  As in  Word  Notes 
 an  an  can     
 en  uhn  broken     
 eng  uhng       
 er  ar  bar  er  two 
 in  in  in     
 ing  eeng    bing  ice 
 ong  ong  long  long  dragon 
 un  oouhn       
1Officially they are all regarded as dialects, but this is erroneous.2Diphthong: a double vowel sound - really two different vowel sounds run together, such as 'oi!'3With the third tone, this word sounds exactly like how the comedian Ali G says it

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