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The Hanyu Pinyin 漢語拼音 Transcription System

March 25, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Hanyu pinyin 漢語拼音 transcription is a modern transcription of the standard Chinese language that uses the letters of the Latin alphabet. It has been developed in the 1950s in the People's Republic of China and has become the standard transcription for Chinese words and names in the last decades. Competitive systems are the zhuyin alphabet exclusively used in Taiwan, as well as the transcription developed by Wade and Giles that was mainly used in the west but gradually loses importance because of its unnecessary complexity.

Already in October 1949, after the foundation of the People's Republic, the Committee for Language Reform in China (Zhongguo wenzi gaize weiyuanhui 中國文字改革委員會) was founded under which a research committee for a phonetic system was established (Fangyan yanjiu weiyuanhui 方案研究委員會). In February 1952 it was expanded to a group developing a phonetic system (Pinyin fang'an zu 拼音方案組). In December 1954, the Committee for Language Reform was officially subordinated to the State Council (Guowuyuan 國務院).

The alphabetization committee was headed by Wu Yuzhang 吳玉章 (1878-1966) and Hu Yuzhi 胡愈之 (1896-1986), among its members were important linguists like Luo Changpei 羅常培 (1899-1958), Wang Li 王力 (1900-1986), Lu Zhiwei 陸志韋 (1894-1970) and Lü Shuxiang 呂叔湘 (1904-1998). After considering some characters used by the common population it was decided to switch to the Latin alphabet as the most convenient way for a transcription of Chinese. The first draft to a phonetic alphabet was finished in February 1956. This version contained six additional letters not included in the basic Latin alphabet. After revision, a second, and then adopted, version was issued in October 1957.

The pinyin alphabet is the result of the strengths of all earlier attempts at latinizing the Chinese script, like in the Gwoyeu Romatzyh alphabet 國語羅馬字, the Ladingxua sin wenz alphabet 拉丁化新文字, the Wade-Giles transcription, and the zhuyin alphabet.

From 1958 on the pinyin alphabet was used in all elementary schools throughout the country. Pupils first learn the pinyin alphabet, and then take a step further to use this alphabet to learn Chinese characters. The pinyin alphabet was an important instrument in the propagation of the Mandarin language as the national standard language. It has since become the sole standard in the People's Republic and is accepted worldwide as the standard transcription of the Chinese language. In 1977 the UNO adopted the pinyin system for the transcription of Chinese names and terms. Virtually all important dictionaries, monolingual as well as bilingual, use the pinyin system for an alphabetic arrangement of the characters and words, for example, the Xinhua zidian 新華字典, or the Xiandai hanyu cidian 現代漢語辭典.

All letters of the Latin alpabet were used for the pinyin alphabet. The letter v was only to be used for foreign words and names and word of the languages of the National Minorities.

The tone pitches are expressed by accents written above the vowel, in case of interstitial vowels on the final vowel (, but guò; , but xián). The accents are virtually signs of the voice movement. An even dash like in ā signifies the high level tone pitch, an acute sign the raising tone pitch like in á, a reverse circumflex the falling-raising tone pitch like in ǎ , and a gravis sign the falling tone pitch, like in à. The light tone (qingsheng 輕聲) is not indicated, like in guānxi for 關係.

Quite uncommon for most foreigners is the use of the letters c, q, x, c and z. The dorsals [dʝ], [tɕʰ] and [ɕ] are transcribed as j, q and x, the blade-palatals [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ] and [ʐ] as zh, ch, sh and r, and the dentals [dz], [tsʰ] and [s] as z, c and s. Inspite of all obstacles the letters j, q and x have been used to make use of as much Latin letters as possible and not to be forced to create new symbols or combinations.

A similarly confusing rule is the use of the letter i for the vowelless "hummed" syllables [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ], [ʐ], [dz], [tsʰ] and [s] that are written as zhi, chi, shi, ri, zi, ci and si.

The retroflex approximant [ɑɻ] is written er as a syllable (like in the words 兒 or 二), but only –r if used as a suffix, especially for the Beijing dialect, like nar for the word 那兒.

The solitary syllable [ɛ] is written ê, like in the word 欸.

All syllables beginning with the sounds [i] and [ʝi], [u] and [ωu], [y] and [ʝy] are written with the initial letters y, w and yu, like yi for [(ʝ)i], yang for [ʝaŋ], you for [ʝoʊ̯], yong for [ʝʊŋ], ye for [ʝɛ], wu for [(ω)u], wang for [ωaŋ], wei for [ωeɪ̯], wen for [ωən], wo for [ωɔ], yu for [(ʝ)y], yue for [(ʝ)yɛ], yun for [(ʝ)yn] and yuan for [(ʝ)yɛn].

The sound of [y] is transcribed as u, but sometimes also as ü (which is quite a problem for most foreign countries when using the pinyin transcription). It is written ü after the initial consonants l and n, like in ([ly] 綠) and ([ny] 女), and also if the sound [y] is an interstitial vowel, but only in the syllables lüe ([lyɛ] 略) and nüe ([nyɛ] 虐). While the syllables nüe and lüe are quite unambiguous if writing them without the dots, and can easily be confounded with lu and nu by nations that do not know the letter ü.
[bɔ], [pʰɔ], [mɔ] and [fɔ] are written bo, po, mo and fo, but all other combinations are written with –uo (like duo, guo, zhuo and zuo for [dωɔ], [gωɔ], [dʐωɔ] and [dzωɔ]). [ωɔ] is written wo.

The syllable [ʝoʊ̯] is written you (like for 友), but final [ʝoʊ̯] is written –iu (like in jiu for 九).

The syllable [ωeɪ̯] is written wei (like for 為), but final [ωeɪ̯] is written –ui (like in gui for 貴). The syllables [leɪ̯], [ʂeɪ̯] or [geɪ̯] are written lei, shei and gei.
The final [-ʊŋ] is written –ong (like in long for 龍).

An inconsistency is to be found with the sound of [ɛ] that is written in two different forms, depending on the closure of the syllable: jie for [dʝiɛ] (like 接), but jian for [dʝiɛn] (like 間) and juan for [dʝyɛn] (like 卷).

A symbol important for the orthography of the pinyin alphabet is the syllable separator (geyin fuhao 隔音符號), which is a kind of apostrophe. It has to be used if the second syllable of a word begins with a vowel, like in Xi'an 西安 [ɕi an] (to distinguish it from the syllable xian [ɕʝiɛn]) or Chang'an 長安 [tʂʰaŋ an] (to prevent a possible misreading as chan gan). The syllable separator must not be used if the second syllable begins with a consonant, like in the place name Xingan 新淦 [ɕin gan].

The general principle of the pinyin orthography is that words (ci 詞) are written as one unit, like in the sentence Dàjiā lái xuéxí pǔtōnghuà 大家來學習普通話 "Everybody is going to learn the common language." This rule is not very easy to perform and may not be interpreted equally by different persons that have a different feeling of grammar or coherence of words.

Names of persons, places and countries are written with large letters, like Zhōngguó 中國 "China", Běijīng 北京 "Peking" or Hú Jǐntāo 胡錦濤. These rules are often not respected, and Chinese tend to either separate all syllables (DA JIA LAI XUE XI PU TONG HUA) or to write whole sentences in one word (DAJIALAIXUEXIPUTONGHUA). A recent trend is to write the letter of a new syllable as a capital letter (PuTongHua), but this is not the pinyin standard.

Although the pinyin transcription is tought in each elementary school, many Chinese are not really proficient in the alphabet's letters. Southerners have often problems to look up in a dictionary with a pinyin arrangement because they do not use the standard pronunciation in everyday language (confusing [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ] with [dz], [tsʰ] [s], or [l] with [n] or [ʐ]).

Table 1. The Hanyu Pinyin 漢語拼音 transcription system
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u ü v w x y z
Consonant initials
IPA symbol Hanyu pinyin 漢語拼音 letter
[b] b
[pʰ] p
[m] m
[f] f
[v] v (only for non-Chinese terms and names)
[d] d
[tʰ] t
[n] n
[l] l
[g] g
[kʰ] k
[h][x] h
[dʝ] j
[tɕʰ] q
[ɕ] x
[dʐ] zh (ẑ)
[tʂʰ] ch (ĉ)
[ʂ] sh (ŝ)
[ʐ] r
[dz] z
[tsʰ] c
[s] s
Symbols for tone pitches
ā á ǎ à , ē é ě è , ê̄ ế ê̌ ề , ī í ǐ ì , ō ó ǒ ò , ū ú ǔ ù , ǖ ǘ ǚ ǜ
Vowel combinations (jiehe yunmu 結合韻母)
[ʝi] yi, -i
[ʝia] ya, -ia
[ʝiɔ] yo (rare)
[ʝiɛ] ye, -ie
[ʝiai] yai, -iai (obsolete)
[ʝiɑʊ̯] yao, -iao
[ʝioʊ̯] you, -iu
[ʝiɛn] yan, -ian
[ʝin] yin, -in
[ʝiaŋ] yang, -iang
[ʝiŋ] ying, -ing
[ωu] wu, -u
[ωa] wa, -ua
[ωɔ] wo, -uo
[ωai] wai, -uai
[ωeɪ̯] wei, -ui
[ωan] wan, -uan
[ωən][-un] wen, -un
[ωaŋ] wang, -uang
[ωəŋ][-ʊŋ] weng, -ong
[ʝy] yu, -u, -ü *
[ʝyɛ] yue, -ue, -üe *
[ʝyɛn] yuan, -uan
[ʝyn] yun, -un
[ʝiʊŋ] yong, -iong
* -ü- only in the syllables lü, nü, lüe and nüe
Zhou Youguang 周有光 (1988). "Hanyu pinyin fang'an 漢語拼音方案", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言•文字 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 157-159.