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Chinese Cultural Studies:
The Chinese Language and Pronunciation


[Adapted from Compton's Living Encyclopedia, AOL 8/16/1995]

There are two elements to the Chinese language: the written language, based on individual symbols called characters, each of which represents an idea or thing; and the spoken language, which includes a number of different dialects. The written language originally had no alphabet, but it was easily understood by literate people no matter what dialect they spoke. Since the early 1950s a system using the Latin alphabet, called Pinyin, has been developed in China, and it is now in common use. Most of the spellings of Chinese sounds and names in this course are based on the Pinyin system of romanization. Those that are are generally familiar in their conventional [Wade-Giles] form, such as the name Chiang Kai-shek or Mao Tse Tung have been retained.

Some of the numerous dialects of spoken Chinese are totally different from each other. All of them use tones to distinguish different words. Mandarin, which is spoken in the Beijing region and in northern China generally, has four common tones. Cantonese, spoken in southeastern China, has nine tones and is quite different from Mandarin. Cantonese is probably most common among Chinese-American immigrants. Today Putonghua, which is based on Beijing-area Mandarin, is the official language of government and education, and everyone is expected to learn to speak it. The central government is also expanding the use of the Pinyin romanization system and is urging citizens to learn this alphabetized system of writing Chinese words. (Pinyin represents the spoken sounds of Putonghua, which is an oral representation of Chinese characters.) Citizens are also urged to learn a simplified system of Chinese. In the People's Republic the simplified system is used everywhere. In Taiwan and Hong Kong it is still very common to see much older, and more complex, signs being used.


Written Chinese characters have no "pronunciation" and can be spoken in a variety of ways depending on the dialect used. There have been a number of ways of rendering Chinese words into English. For decades the most used system, which did not in fact represent Chinese sounds very well, was the Wade-Giles system. In the United States this is most often the system encountered in older textbooks and even transliterated shop names. The Chinese themselves have realized the advantages of an alphabetical system to render the language , for instance in computing. This adopted system is called pinyin and there is now a concerted effort to render all Chinese words in this system. That is why, for instance, we now talk about "Beijing" [pinyin] and not "Peking" [Wade-Giles]. Unfortunately for students the values chosen for some Latin alphabet letters in the pinyin system do not correspond to usual English letter sounds: the pinyin pronunciation of "Q" for instance is "Ch". You simply have to learn the conventions. In course materials I have tried to use the pinyin system: where the Wade-Giles form is common, I have placed that in square brackets following the pinyin version.

I have prepared an extensive table of Pinyin and Wade-Giles equivalencies which will help with most problem situations you may come across.

Here is a table of problematic letter sounds: in general pronounce as written, but take special note of the instructions with pinyin C, D, Q, X and ZH.

b			p			b as in "be", aspirated
c			ts', ts'		ts as in "its"
ch			ch'			as in "church"
d			t			d as in "do"
g			k			g as in "go"
ian			ien			
j			ch			j as in "jeep"
k			k'			k as in "kind", aspirated
ong			ung			
p			p'			p as in "par", aspirated
q			ch'			ch as in "cheek"
r			j			approx like the "j" in French "je"
s			s, ss, sz		s as in "sister"
sh			sh			sh as in "shore"
si			szu	
t			t'			t as in top
x			hs			sh as in "she" - thinly sounded	
yi			I			
you			yu	
z			ts			z as in "zero"
zh			ch			j as in "jump"	
zi			tzu                                   

Certain words are kept in their familiar form, even by the most dedicated users of the pinyin system. For instance the Yangtze river retains that name rather than the pinyin Chang Jiang ; Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen, both of whose names are familiar in the West from their southern dialect pronuciation, are usually referred to by these familar forms. There are, of course, other inconsistencies to be discovered.

Please send any comments or corrections to Paul Halsall