Pinyin (拼音 pin1 yin1) literally means "spelling according to sounds" in Mandarin and usually refers to Hanyu pinyin (汉语拼音, literal meaning: "Han language pinyin"), which is a system of romanization (phonetic notation and transliteration to roman script) for Mandarin used in the People's Republic of China. Pinyin was approved in 1958 and adopted in 1979 by its government. It superseded older transcriptions like the Wade-Giles system (1859; modified 1912) or Bopomofo. Similar systems have been designed for Chinese dialects and non-Han minority languages in the PRC. Cantonese also has a pinyin-type system called Penkyamp, whose name derives from the same word as pinyin, albeit articulated in the Cantonese dialect.

Since then, pinyin has been accepted by the Library of Congress, The American Library Association, and most international institutions as the transcription system for Mandarin. In 1979 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted pinyin as the standard romanization for Modern Chinese.

A related form of pinyin is Tongyong pinyin (通用拼音, literal meaning: "pinyin for general usage") which was created in Taiwan in 1998. Tongyong pinyin is mostly similar to Hanyu pinyin with a few changes for certain sounds.

It is important to maintain the distinction that pinyin is a romanization and not an anglicization; that is, it is equally applicable for transliteration into any language that uses a roman alphabet. Indeed some of the transliterations in pinyin such as the "ang" ending, do not correspond to English pronounciations. Pinyin has also become a useful tool for entering Chinese language text into computers.

Pinyin in Taiwan

The Republic of China (on Taiwan) is in the process of adopting pinyin. For elementary education it has used zhuyin, and for romanization there is no standard system in general use on Taiwan despite many efforts to standardize on one system. In the late-1990s, the government of Taiwan formally decided to move from zhuyin to pinyin. This has triggered a very heated discussion of which pinyin system to use, hanyu pinyin or tongyong pinyin.

Much of the controversy centered on issues of national identity with proponents of Chinese reunification favoring the hanyu pinyin system which is used on the Mainland and proponents of Taiwan independence favoring the use of tongyong pinyin.

As of October 2002, the ROC government has adopted tongyong pinyin but through an administrative order which local governments can override. Localities with governments controlled by the Kuomintang have stated that they will override the order and convert to hanyu pinyin. But like the several other systems it has introduced in the past, it has yet to catch on and Wade-Giles remains the most common system in Taiwan.


The primary purpose of pinyin in Chinese schools is to teach Mandarin pronunciation. Many in the West are under the mistaken belief that pinyin is used to help children associate characters with spoken words which they already know, but this is incorrect as many Chinese do not use Mandarin at home, and therefore do not know the Mandarin pronunciation of words until they learn them in elementary school through the use of pinyin.

Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet, hence the pronunciation is relatively straightforward for Westerners. A pitfall for novices is, however, the unusual pronunciation of "x", "q" and (for English speakers) "c" and "z". The sounds represented by "x" and "q" in Western languages don't exist in Chinese, so the Pinyin system "recycles" them and assigns them other sounds: "x" represents a soft "sh" (like the "sh" in "sharp" but not as fully sounding), "q" represents a soft "ch" (again, like the "ch" in "chin" but not quite). The "c" is pronounced like "ts", "z" like "ds". Finally, "ü" stands for the same sound as in German and "u" is pronounced like "ü" if it follows "y", "x", "j" or "q".

More detailed pronuciation rules:

a: as in "father"
ai: like English "eye", but a bit lighter
an: as in "can" if following "y", as in "unbelievable" otherwise
ar: like a, but pronounced with the tongue curled up against the palate; like rhotic are in North American English
ao: approximately as in "cow"; the a is much more audible than the o
b: unaspirated "p", like the English "b" but with a bit more pressure
c: like "ts"
ch: as in "chin"
d: unaspirated "t", like the English "d" but with a bit more pressure
e: a backward, unrounded vowel, which can be formed by first pronouncing a plain continental "o" and then spreading the lips without changing the position of the tongue; when followed by "n", it is pronounced more like the first sound in "an"
ê: as in French "ecole"
ei: as in "hey"
er: like e, but pronounced with the tongue curled up against the palate; similar to the vowel in rhotic her in English
f: as in English
g: unaspirated "k", like the English "g" but with a bit more pressure
h: like the English "h" if followed by "a"; otherwise it is pronounced more roughly (not unlike the Scottish "ch")
i: like English "ee", except when preceded by "c", "ch", "r", "s", "z" or "zh"; in these cases it sounds similar to e (described above), but not as open
ie: the initial i sounds like English "ee", but is very short; e (pronounced like ê) is pronounced longer and carries the main stress
iu: pronounced like iou
j: like zh, but not as "full", about halfway between zh and z (unaspirated t + s)
k: as in English
l: as in English
m: as in English
n: as in English
o: an open continental "o", as in German "Hof"
ong: here, o is a sound somewhere in between English "o" as in "song" and English "u" as in "bush"
p: as in English
q: like ch, but not as "full", about halfway between ch and c
r: similar to the English "r" in "rank" with a bit of the initial sound in French "journal" in it (I know this sounds strange at first, but try it!)
s: as in "sun"
sh: as in "shinbone"
t: as in English
u: like English "oo", except when preceded by y, x, j or q; in this case it is pronounced like ü
uo: the u is pronounced shorter and lighter than the o
ü: as in German "üben" or French "lune"
üe: e is pronounced like ê, the ü is short and light
w: as in English, but many people pronounce it as in German w; not pronounced at all if followed by u
x: like sh, but not as "full", about halfway between sh and s
y: as in English; not pronounced at all if followed by i or ü
z: like ds, but with more pressure (unaspirated counterpart of c)
zh: as in English "jungle", but with more pressure (unaspirated counterpart of ch)

Sometimes the boundaries between syllables aren't obvious. In this case, they are separated by an apostrophe. For example, the word "xian" could either be pronounced as one syllable or as two ("xi-an"). In the latter case, it would be written as "xi'an", as in the ancient city of Xi'an (previously Chang'an).


The "full" Pinyin system additionally uses tone marks (written above the vowels) to represent the four tones of Mandarin.

To listen to the tones, access this external link: Listen to the four tones (click on the blue-red yin yang symbol) (

The pinyin vowels are ordered as 'a,o,e,i,u,ü'. Generally, the tone mark is placed on the the vowel that first appear in the order mentioned. Exceptions include 'iu' for which tone is place on 'u'. The reason behind this exception is that 'iu' is the contraction of 'iou' and the tone is on 'ou'.

These tone marks normally are only used in Mandarin textbooks or in foreign learning texts, but they are essential for correct pronunciation of Mandarin syllables.

Since most computer fonts do not contain the macron or caron (reverse circumflex) accents, a common convention is to postfix the individual syllables with a digit representing their tone (e.g., "tóng" (tong with the rising tone) is written "tong2"). The digit is numbered as the order listed above, except the "fifth tone", which, in addition to being numbered 5, is also either not numbered or numbered 0, as in ma0 (嗎 question marker). Likewise, many fonts or inputs do not support diaeresis (umlaut) for ü, v is used instead by convention. Occasionally, uu (double u) or U (capital u) is used in its place.

See also: Tonal language

External links

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