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01 July, 2007:
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Transcription Systems 誊写


Over the years, many different systems have been developed for writing, or transcribing, Chinese words phonetically. While many of these systems aim to give foreigners a means of reading Chinese words without learning Chinese characters,汉字 han4zi, other systems are simply designed to provide a phonetic alphabet to aid Chinese readers in learning and remembering scarcely used  words, or even to replace the complicated system of hanzi. In fact, in the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a movement among liberal intellectuals to adopt a Romanized script as a replacement for characters. Fortunately, this movement did not gain much ground.

Why Not Use an Alphabet?

The Chinese language is not well suited for a phonetic writing system because of its unusually large number of homonyms. Even when tones are transcribed, many different words have the same appearance in a phonetic transcription. The Chinese linguist Y. R. Chao,  赵元任 Zhao4 Yuan2Ren4, wrote the following poem to make a point about classical Chinese, but it has subsequently been used by many other authorities as an argument against a Chinese alphabet:

Discounting tones, every character in the above poem has the same pronunciation when read in the Mandarin! Including tones, there are only four different possible pronunciations, so a phonetic transcription is very confusing although the characters are very clear in terms of meaning. Eradicating the characters would mean eliminating a level of meaning from chinese language. It would still be possible to write a comprehensible script, such as Latinhua xinwenz 新文字 xin1wen2zi, a romanization developed in the 1900s. However, even with a phonetic script there is still confusion that is not present when characters are used.

Implementing a phonetic system for written Chinese would also create confusion for the millions of Chinese speakers who do not speak a Mandarin dialect. Since Hanzi characters are the same regardless of the writer's speech, written Chinese has always served as a bridge between speakers of different dialects. While not everyone can understand their countrymens' speech, the writing is crystal clear. How would an alphabet work? Would everyone simply learn to write in Putonghua, or would each dialect have its own spellings? An alphabet could actually serve to divide a Nation that has been liguistically unified for thousands of years.

In other words, Characters are here to stay.

Different Systems

So if unity is the goal for Chinese writing, why are there so many different ways to transcribe the sounds of Chinese phonetically? To the casual reader, alphabetic versions of Chinese words are insufferably foreign, and the worst part is that every book seems to have its own system of spelling them. Somehow, the name of the linguist previously mentioned can be spelled Yuen Ren Chao, Zhao4 Yuan2ren4, Chao Yüan-jen, or even the extremely odd looking  Jaw Yuanrenn . It certainly does not look like "ch" and "zh" should have the same pronunciation, but in Chinese there is only one way to say this name.

In Fact, there are several "standards" used for alphabetic transcription of Chinese. They have been used in different places and times, and the system used for a given text reflects the background of that text's writer. In order to avoid confusion, transcription systems should not be mixed. Nevertheless there are countless instances where certain words will be transcribed according to one standard while other words are transcribed according to another. There are also countless times when the rules of a standard are ignored by a writer or publisher, and the resulting text is almost impossible to definitively understand. If the rules of Chinese transcriptions are broken, then the only result is confusion.

The following sections give overviews of the major transcription systems used to transcribe Chinese. The overviews include information about where and when you can expect to see these systems, what their rules are and how they are broken, and information on pronunciation. None of the systems described here are intended to replace Chinese characters, but with a bit of understanding, they do help understand how to pronounce the sounds of Chinese.

Hanyu Pinyin 汉语拼音

Hanyu Pinyin, 汉语拼音, is the official system used in Mainland China to phonetically transcribe spoken Chinese. Nowadays, it is generally accepted in the United States and other non-Chinese countries as the standard alphabetic variation of Chinese. For these reasons, it is probably the most useful Romanization system with which to be familiar.
Pinyin was developed in the middle of the twentieth century. By the time the communists came to power in 1949, Chinese leftists and Soviet linguists had already worked on developing a Romanization that could replace Chinese characters clearly without having to mark tones. They came up with a system called “sinwenz” or in Pinyin, xinwenzi 新文字. Although this approach was supported by such important figures as Qiu Qiubai and Lu Xun, it never succeeded in replacing Chinese characters. However, the work done on sinwenz contributed to the development of Pinyin.
Pinyin uses the same twenty-six letter alphabet used in English, although the sounds that each letter represents are considerably different than their English counterparts. In other words, if you read the menu in your favorite Chinese restaurant as if it were printed in English, then your pronunciation is probably way off (which might explain why you are often surprised by the dishes that you are given!).

Pinyin was largely influenced by Soviet linguists, so although the characters are all familiar to English speakers, some of the sounds they represent are not intuitive. Qs Cs and Zs in particular tend to confuse English readers. Fortunately, with only a little practice, anyone can master the Pinyin Romanization.


The Wade-Giles Romanization was devised by British Sinologists Sir Thomas Wade and Herbert Allen Giles at the end of the nineteenth century. The system was the standard Romanization used in printed works in the West for most of the twentieth century. It is from the Wade-Giles system that we get such spellings as “Mao Tze-dung” (Pinyin: Mao Zedong). In addition to Western publications, Wade-Giles is also used in Taiwan for Romanization of signs and similar documents that must be read by non-Chinese speakers. On the mainland, such items are printed in the standard Hanyu Pinyin.

Unfortunately, the Wade Giles system is riddled with problems. Its main fault is that it is not very intuitive. Several sounds that are quite distinct from each other look rather similar in Wade-Giles and are often only distinguished by an apostrophe. Therefore t- is quite different from t’-: with an apostrophe, t’- is pronounced like the Pinyin t-; without an apostrophe, t- is pronounced like the Pinyin d-. This is why you have heard of both “Taoism” and “Daoism” even though they are the same belief system! The problem of the apostrophes is compounded by the fact that many printers don’t understand their importance, and edit them out. In the process, and essential distinction is lost, and a monumental problem is created.

Another problem with the Wade-Giles system is that it takes advantage of characteristics of Chinese that non-speakers (and many speakers who don’t have an interest in linguistics) are unaware of. For example, the retroflex affricates (Pinyin: Zh- and Ch-) are written the same as the alveolar-palatal affricates (Pinyin: j- and q-). This is viable in Wade-Giles because the front vowels –i- and –ü- cannot be preceded by a retroflex initial, and the front vowel –i- contrasts with the buzz, –ih. Wade-Giles also compensates for its problem areas with unusual spellings such as “ssu” for the Pinyin “si.”    

It should also be noted that Wade-Giles is particularly bad about marking the tones of words. Technically, the transcription accounts for tones by using superscript numbers at the end of a word. Therefore, the word 道 dao4, would be written as "tao4." Needless to say, this looks cluttered, especially when you take into account the apostrophes and other oddities of Wade-Giles that cause problems for most readers. Like the apostrophes, it is easier to leave out the superscripts and not worry about tone at all, which severely diminishes the accuracy of the system.

Although most people involved in writing and printing in the West have adopted the Pinyin system in the last twenty odd years, some artifacts of the old Wade-Giles spellings remain. “Mao Tze-dung” will probably always be spelled from institutional memory, and there will always be those who follow the “Tao.”  Most casual readers need only be familiar with common names in Wade-Giles and very familiar with the pronunciation of Pinyin. However, for any scholarly work that requires reading texts from before the 1980s, it is important to be well versed in the Wade-Giles system.

A convenient way to learn the differences between the different systems is through examination of our comparison table.

Gwoyeu Romatzyh 国语罗马字

Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR), 国语罗马子 (Pinyin: Guoyu luomazi), may be the least frequently used Romanization system for Chinese. It was developed in the twentieth Centuries by Y.R. Chao and Lin Yu Tang, two great Chinese thinkers who spent most of their professional lives in the United States. The system has the potential to be a powerful tool for accurate spelling of Chinese words, but it never caught on because its spellings are bizarre and the system is complex.

The most important characteristic of this system is that it incorporates the tones into the spelling of the finals. The system is completely unintuitive, so unless you have taken the time to study the different spellings, words transcribed in GR are unintelligible. For example, in GR, “Mao Zedong” would be spelled “maur zer dong.”

Because the untraditional spellings make GR more or less unfit to print, the only situation in which it could be useful is an educational setting. Learning the GR spellings could help students memorize tones more easily than remembering tone markers that can easily be left out. However, since most textbooks are published using Pinyin, especially if they were written in the PRC, then any student of Chinese would need to learn Pinyin in addition to any other transcription system. In other words, it would probably be a waste of time to study GR.

Today, Gwoyeu Romatzyh is still seen from time to time in Taiwan and overseas communities.

Zhuyinfuhao 注音符号

The Republic of China's Zhuyinfuhao is the only phonetic transcription system used to describe Chinese that doesn’t use characters from a foreign alphabet. The Zhuyin characters are similar to the characters of Japanese’s Hiragana and Katakana “alphabets” in that they are phonetic symbols derived from actual characters. Zhuyinfuhao is almost always used in conjunction with actual characters. No matter how the Chinese characters are arranged on the page, the Zhuyinfuhao should appear on the character’s right hand side, and should be read from top to bottom.

Zhuyinfuhao is based on the traditional Chinese method of “spelling.” The first symbol in a Zhuyinfuhao transcription represents the initial, and the following one or two symbols represent the syllable final. Tones are represented with symbols similar to those used in Pinyin, only they appear to the side of the transcription intead of on top. A character with it’s Zhuyinfuhao reading looks like this: Zhuyinfuhao is a useful system to understand if you are in Taiwan. It can be used on computers and cell phones as an alternate input system to typing in Pinyin and selecting characters. However, Zhuyinfuhao has not been used on the Mainland since the 1950s, and a majority of Chinese in the PRC do not even recognize the Zhuyin symbols.


In addition to the four transcription methods described above, there are several other systems used to write Chinese words phonetically. These systems are less important to actually learn because they are rarely used. Nevertheless, they are worth mentioning because you might come across a strange transcription that doesn’t seem to match any of the above categories, and are not included in the comparison chart below.


One such infrequently used transcription system is the Yale system. The Yale system used to be used in some academic texts in the US, but rarely anywhere else because Wade-Giles was more common.

The Yale initials are more similar to the Pinyin initials, and the finals tend to be similar to those of Wade-Giles. The one advantage to the Yale system is that it can allegedly be used to transcribe dialects other than Mandarin, particularly Cantonese.

This transcription is interesting historically because of its origins. During World War II, the US government set up a program to employ linguists and language instructors to rapidly teach foreign languages to soldiers heading abroad. The Yale spellings were devised specifically for American students. Therefore, by simply reading a text in the Yale spelling as you would read something in English, you are more likely to pronounce it correctly than if you read another phonetic transcription. However, the Yale system has a limited usefulness, which is to say that outside of the US it is almost worthless, so it is almost never used anymore.


A system that is still occasionally used today is the Postal spellings. Naturally, these spellings are only used to transcribe place names. It is from the old postal spellings that we get “Peking” for “Beijing,” “Nanking” for “Nanjing,” and “Canton” for “Guangdong.” Many maps still mark Peking. Additionally, because many authors and publishers feel that people have become accustomed to these spellings, there are many printed works that generally use Pinyin, but persist in calling cities by their postal spelling.

In case you were wondering how Beijing came to be called Peking, the answer is fairly simple: The spelling was not devised by English speakers. The postal spellings were established by Jesuit missionaries in the 1500s, so they reflect Italian pronunciation of an outdated Chinese pronunciation. Therefore the “P” in “Peking” actually has the same pronunciation as the b- in Pinyin. The “k” in “Peking” and “Nanking” is a “k” because at that time the initial for the second syllable of Beijing was pronounced as a [k]—this pronunciation persists in some dialects.

Foreign Languages

While the major transcriptions discussed above are used around the world, we have only discussed them in relation to English. Speakers of other languages have also developed their own ways to write Chinese words because their alphabets and pronunciations mesh with Chinese pronunciation in a unique way. For a simple example, in France, Beijing is known as "Pekin" as opposed to "Peking" or "Beijing." However, the pronunciation is actually more accurate than what you get from "Peking."

That said, speakers of different languages have different problems with the established alphabets. These are similar to the problems native English speakers have when they try to read French or Spanish in an English or American accent. Some writing systems are more intuitive than others, but none are perfect for everyone.


Despite all of the established standards of transcription, there are still those free spirits who throw caution to the wind and try to spell out Chinese pronunciations without any regard for common practice or logic. You may have experienced such freestyle transliteration in Chinese restaurants and on packaging for various imported products. There is no final –oo in any established transcription system, yet Moo Shoo Pork is found in countless restaurants across America. In the event that such a freestyle transcription is the only available option, there is nothing to do but guess what the writer had in mind.