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The official romanisation of Chinese used in mainland China (and Singapore) is a system called "pinyin" ( hànyǔ pīnyīn - "Chinese sound-spelling"), designed to represent the national language, commonly referred to as pǔtōnghuà (the "common speech") or Mandarin. Students from mainland China will spell their names in pinyin. Students from Taiwan, however, will use any one of several different romanisations of Mandarin; students from Hong Kong or from Malaysia or other regions of the diaspora will typically use a romanisation of one of the South China dialects - Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, Hokkien. Thus the spelling of a Chinese name can be an indication of where the bearer of that name comes from.

This page provides some broad guidelines for the pronunciation of Pinyin spellings. For a more technical letter-by-letter guide, see the Wikipedia page Pinyin Opens in a new window.

Chinese is a syllable-based language: each Chinese character is pronounced as a single syllable, and Chinese words typically consist of one or two syllables (characters).

In describing Chinese pronunciation, it is traditional to analyse the syllables into two parts, the "initial" (the initial consonant, if there is one) and the "final" - the rest of the syllable. (A third component is the "tone" of the syllable - whether the voice rises, falls or stays steady in pronouncing the syllable; but we don't go into that here; again, refer to the Wikipedia page, at Tones Opens in a new window)

Syllable Initials (consonants):

cai, cao, cang, cong

zai, zao, zang, zong
tsai, tsao, tsahng, tsoong

dzai, dzao, dzahng, dzoong
(for the vowels, see below)
cha, chao, chang, chen, cheng, chong close to English "ch" in "Charles"
zha, zhao, zhang, zhen, zheng, zhong close to English "ge" in "George" not the sound in the middle of "pleasure" and "measure"
xi, xin, xing a sound close to English "sh" in "she", or sometimes "s" in "see"
qi, qin, qing close to English "ch" in "cheese"
ji, jin, jing close to English "j" in "jihad"
xu, xun

qu, qun

ju, jun
the same consonants followed by " (see below)
Other consonants pretty much as in English

Syllable Finals (what comes after the initial consonants):

chen with the neutral sound of "kitchen" not the sound of "Chelsea"; similarly

ce, che, de, ge, he, ze, zhe, te

ben, cen, gen, hen, men, pen, wen

ceng, cheng, deng, geng, heng, meng, peng, zeng, zheng
all with the same neutral vowel sound, not the sound of "get" the word he (river) sounds like Australian "her", not "he". Exceptions to this:
ye, jie, qie, xie

yue, jue, que, xue
have the sound of "get" like "yeah", but shorter.
bi, bin, bing

di, ding

li, lin, ling

mi, min, ming;
the vowel i is pronounced "i" as in "bin" or "ee" except in the following syllables:
si, ci, zi, ri pronounced with a narrower version of the neutral sound at the end of "letter" in standard British or Australian English not to rhyme with "see"; similarly,
shi, chi, zhi pronounced with the same neutral sound with an 'r' flavour added the last sound of "letter" in standard American English.

the "u" vowel is close to that of English "put", lips rounded, tongue well back in the mouth; for " the lips are rounded, but the tongue is forward in the mouth, in the position of "ee" (cf. French doux/du, pour/pur)


The same contrast is heard in these pairs
bo, cuo, duo, fo, guo, huo, luo, mo, nuo, po, suo, tuo, wo, zuo, zhuo all with the sound of Australian "law"
chou, dou, hou, lou, mou, tou, you, zou, zhou all rhyme with English "hoe"
cong, chong, song, dong, kong, long, tong, zong rhyme with "boong" not with "bong"
cang, fang, gang, hang, liang, mang, sang, tang, wang, zhang with the vowel of "ah", close to "sung" not like "sang"
can, dan, fan, gan, han, man, nan, pan, ran, zhan with the vowel of "ah", close to "fun" not like "fan". But note the following:
dian, jian, lian, mian, pian, qian, tian dyen, jyen, lyen, myen, pyen, chyen, tyen with the vowel of English "ten" ( not "tan" or "tarn"). Also:
xuan, juan, quan, yuan shen, jen, chen, yen
bai, cai, chai, dai, gai, lai, mai, nai, pai, sai, tai, wai, zai, zhai rhyme with 'refined' English "eye"
bei, gei, lei, mei, pei, shei rhyme with 'refined' English "day"
chui, dui, kui, rui, sui, zui chuei, duei, kuei, ruei, suei, dzuei
liu, niu, jiu lyou, nyou, jyou
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