China's official system for romanizing putonghua (Common Chinese Speech or Mandarin) was developed in China in the late 1950s. It is strictly phonetic, based on the Beijing dialect. It is almost without exception these days also the international system for the same task. There have been and are other Systems for Romanizing Chinese. Pinyin's full name is "Hanyu Pinyin", which well-translated means "Mandarin Phonetics".
A little history is in order. The English name for Mandarin exists because for a long time the Beijing dialect has been (and is today) the language of the mandarinate, or Chinese officialdom. It was perhaps inevitable that any "Chinese alphabet" (which, linguistically, is what pinyin is) invented inside China in recent times corresponding to this language would be politicized by parties who wanted to deny Beijing's authority in political matters. This of course meant pinyin was defended using political arguments by Beijing. This has unfortunately lead to many misunderstandings which deserve a linguistic history node of their own. Suffice it to say that if you started learning Chinese at a North American university, you may have been subjected to a rant or two about pinyin.
In truth, there needs to be no tedious "mine's better than yours" for these various systems, because in fact most of them were invented for different purposes, to catch a different "set" of Chinese dialect sounds, even different Chinese languages. The purpose of pinyin is to create an alphabet for putonghua and it does a really excellent job doing exactly that, and little more. But, for the history buffs, here are a couple of comparisions that may explain some spelling changes you've observed over the years. Where Wade-Giles creates Mao Tse-tung, Tsing-tao and Chung-kuo, Pinyin creates Mao Zedong, Qingdao and Zhongguo. In all three examples I've left the tone marks off - this is how they were/are rendered in English. For more on tone marks, read on!
I have met many linguists in China who have exclaimed "I must be stupid, I just can't seem to completely switch over to pinyin, even when I need to..." (to design coursework, for example). This is not a problem of mental horsepower, but rather a reflection that the spoken and written languages have developed in parallel, and are inextricably linked, and so once you've learned characters, you "think" in characters. Studies show that children who are taught pinyin from the start don't have this difficulty.
So here for your usage and amazement is Hanyu Pinyin, complete and unexpurgated.
Syllables in putonghua are predominantly made up of an initial, which is always a consonant, and a final, which makes up the rest of the syllable. There are also "final only" syllables. In textbooks, the initials are always laid out in a carefully formatted matrix, which corresponds to the different pure vowel sounds used to enunciate them when learning putonghua if you are a foreigner, or learning pinyin if you are a Chinese primary school student. There are 21 initials:
b p m f
d t n l
g k h
j q x
z c s
zh ch sh r
Here is a quick'n'dirty pronunciation key for all initials. Please note that pronunciation keys by nature really only work to get you halfway there - you simply must have native instruction. For additional angles on pinyin pronunciation, see Mandarin and other writeups in this node, which tackle the issue from different perspectives.
- m, f, n, l, h and sh are pronounced as in English
- d like "d" in "bed" (unaspirated)
- j like "g" in "genius" (unaspirated)
- z like "ds" in "beds"
- zh like "j" in "a job"
- b like "p" in "spin" (unaspirated)
- g a soft unaspirated "k" sound
- x like "sh" in "sheep" but with the corners of the lips drawn back
- r somewhat like "r" in "rain" (tongue forward - NOT retroflex! If you think about this - and practice it - it will completely explain a certain puzzling pronunciation difficulty experienced by many Asians learning Engrish.)
All the following are aspirated
and therefore tricky. You must expel considerable air after the consonant is pronounced.
- p like "p" in "pop"
- t like "t" in "tap"
- k like "k" in "kangaroo"
- q harder than the "ch" in "cheap"
- c like the "ts" in "cats", with aspiration
- ch no analogue. tongue curled back "ch", aspirated
- Practice these key differences: b/p d/t g/k j/q z/c zh/ch
There are 38 finals, which form the end of a Chinese syllable. These will also be presented in the standard table:
i u ü
a ia ua
ei uei (ui)
ou iou (iu)
an ian uan üan
en in uen (un) üen
ang iang uang
eng ing ueng
Note that when transcribing
these, because not all finals can map onto all initials, some helpful
shortcuts are taken in writing down the finals, which I will outline below in Rules of Spelling
. Here is a quick'n'dirty pronunciation guide for tricky finals - you will also be able to extract the single vowel finals from this:
- ie like "ye" in "yes"
- e like "e" in "her"
- er like "er" in "sister" (American English)
- ai like "y" in "by" (lightly)
- ei like "ay" in "bay"
- ou like "o" in "go"
- an like "an" in "can" (don't stress the "n")
- -ng finals like "ng" in "bang" without hitting the "g"
- uei, uen and iou, when preceded by an initial , are transcribed ui, un and iu.
The dreaded tones! This is what supposedly makes tonal language systems impossible. Actually, in Madarin one is relatively blessed, because there are only four (plus a "light" tone which means "no tone"), also, each of these tones has a pretty close analog in English. English, of course, uses tones:
- the question tone: "Really?" (rising)(2)
- the exclamation tone "Really!" (falling)(4)
- the bored disbelief tone "Really...?" (flat and slightly high)(1) - I also call this the "killer robot" tone.
- the strong doubt tone "Oh Really?" (down, then up)(3) - although the tone here is over two words, in Mandarin you put it onto a single syllable.
- and finally the meeting tone. PHB "It's win-win!" You "(Really).." (lightly, lower and flat) (light).
When I was Learning Chinese
one of my teachers liked my five "Reallys" so much she now uses them to teach tones! I list them out of numerical order on purpose; they are listed in order of relative difficulty of production and application for English speakers. Although the "light" tone is listed in all the textbooks as the easiest, actually it isn't. It inevitably comes at the end of sentences or words, and we English speakers then mutilate it with the natural English intonation of that sentence or word. So easiest to produce, but hardest to apply.
Tones are what make it possible to only have 400-odd syllables and still create an entire language. Each syllable has four possible tones, plus the neutral tone dependant on position. Changing the tone of the syllable (most of them complete words in a single syllable) changes the meaning entirely. Plus, like most languages including English, there are many "soundalikes" or "sound-very-similars" with different meanings. And then you add in multisyllable words, and a complex, rich, efficient language emerges.
The first tone exercise is traditionally initial "m" final "a" = "ma". This is because this sound is somewhat universal, and also because this single syllable, with the four different tones, doesn't have any offensive or unlucky possible words in Chinese. So the four main tones are: ma1 ma2 ma3 ma4, or using the handy-but-hard-to-type tone marks: mā má mǎ mà.
Rules of Spelling
As I mentioned above, not all initials can go with all finals (there are about 400 total combinations). So this means some shortcuts can be used to reduce the number of letters you have to write out. Three of those have already been seen in the finals section. Most of the initial+final combinations are just as written. Here are the rest of the rules, with the correct spelling on the left replacing the initial+final combination on the right:
zi ci si = z c s
zhi chi shi ri = zh ch sh r
ju jue juan jun = jü jüe jüan jün
qu que quan qun = qü qüe qüan qün
xu xue xuan xun = xü xüe xüan xün
yu yue yuan yun = ü üe üan ün
ya ye yao you = ia ie iao iou
yan yin ying yang = ian in ing iang
yong = iong
wu wa wo wai = u ua uo uai
wei wan wen wang = uei uan uen uang
weng = ueng
This may seem awfully complicated, but actually it makes for a very clean written script, with a minimum of those double-barreled Wade-Giles
consonants that had everyone convinced Chinese was impossible to grok
A: Nǐ xiànzài shàng wǎng ma?
B: "Shàng wǎng" shì shěnme yìsi?
A: Nǐ zěnme lián zhe dōu bù zhīdào ya?
A: Do you surf the net?
B: What's "surfing the net"?
A: How is it possible you don't know that!?
Sì shì sì,
shí shì shí,
shísì shì shísì,
sìshí shì sìshí,
sìshísì zhī shí shī zǐ shì sǐ le.
Four is four, ten is ten, fourteen is fourteen, forty is forty, forty-four stone lions really died.
New Approaches to Learning Chinese, Zhang Pengpeng, Sinolingua, 2000. ISBN 7-80052-577-5
Book 1, Hanyu Jiaocheng, Various, BLCU Press, 2001. ISBN 7-5619-0745-1
Reading and Writing Chinese, William McNaughton and Li Ying, Tuttle Publishing, 1999. ISBN 0-8048-3206-4
The Chinese Language - Fact and Fantasy, John DeFrancis, UHP. ISBN 0-8248-1068-6
My class notes.
tongpoo's writeup in this very node - extremely useful.
Note: You may need to change encoding and/or download a set of Chinese Character fonts to see this node, and this writeup, in their full glory. Also, before I'm accused of making up some random Chinese for Example 2 to make a point - what I've used above is a very well known Chinese tongue twister, a paraphrase of a famous classical poem Shíshì shishì Shi Shì, shì shi, shì shí shí shi. It makes sense in Chinese!