Pinyin Guide

Each Chinese character is a word. However, the Chinese words are not made up of letters from an alphabet. Therefore, to be able to read a Chinese document, you will need to learn the pronunciation of each individual Chinese character. Fortunately, a phonetic notation system is available that can help you sound out the Chinese chracters. This “standard pinyin” notation is especially intuitive to English-speaking learners.  

Basically, each Chinese character is sounded out as one syllable. Each syllable may consist of a single vowel sound, or it may contain one vowel sound flanked on one or both sides by a consonant sound. The following Romanization charts list the different sounds used in Mandarin Chinese. You will see that you already know how to make most of the vowel and consonant sounds.  

The following charts are taken from the book, “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”. Listen to the audio files for this book to learn the correct pronounciation of  these vowel sounds and consonant sounds.

Romanization of the Vowel Sounds using Standard Pinyin

 See             Say                       Example                                                                             

                                                    Chinese Character        Pinyin         Meaning

a                  ah                                  他                                           tā                 he

ai                 I                                     爱                                           ài                 love

an                Annette                     安                                          ān                safe, calm

ang              young                       羊                                           yáng            goat, sheep

ao                ouch                           跑                                          păo              run, ran       

e                  lake                             客                                            kè                guest

ei                 eight                          黑                                            hēi               black

en               soften                       很                                           hĕn              very

eng             strung                     等                                           dĕng            wait

i                  eel                              你                                            nĭ                you

ia                Asia                          家                                            jiā                home

ian             Appalachian         天                                           tiān              sky   

ie               yellow                      也                                            yĕ                also

iu               yeoman                   九                                            jiŭ                nine

o                orange                      我                                            wŏ               I, me

ong           song                          红                                            hóng            red

ou             owe                           有                                            yŏu              have

u                 blue                          不                                            bù               no

ua                wah                         花                                           huā              flower

uai               Hawaii                   快                                           kuài             quickly

ui                 way                         对                                            duì              correct        

uo               wok                          多                                             duō             many

uu                ü                               绿                                             lǜ                green
                    (a German umlaut)

When there is no danger of confusion, use a single “u” in place of “ü”, such as in yú (鱼 fish) and qù (去 go). In general, read the “u” after j, q, x or y as “ü”.

 Romanization of the Consonant Sounds using Standard Pinyin

 See             Say                       Example                                                                             

                                      Chinese Character        Pinyin         Meaning

b                 book                               爸                             bà                dad

c                 its                                                                 căo              grass

ch                chart                           唱                              chàng          sing

d                 dot                                 大                              dà                big

f                  fun                                 饭                              fàn               rice (cooked)

g                 go                                  狗                               gŏu              dog

h                 how                              好                               hăo              good          

j                  jeep                              鸡                               jī                 chicken

k                 king                              看                              kàn              see, watch   

l                  land                              来                              lái                come

m                mom                           妈                              mā               mother

n                 no                                 拿                              ná                take            

p                 pop                              怕                              pà                afraid          

q                 itch                             球                             qiŭ               ball

r                  rent                            人                              rén               person

s                  sun                             三                              sān               three (3)

sh                hush                         山                              shān            mountain     

t                  tea                              土                              tŭ                soil, mud

v                 (not used)             

w                 woo                           五                             wŭ              five

x                 she                             西                             xī                west

y                 yeah                          牙                             yá                tooth, teeth

z                  zoom                        坐                            zuò               sit
                   (more piercing)

zh                nudge                      站                         zhàn             stand up

When you look at the above Romanization charts, you may realize that, for the most part, the sounds used in Mandarin Chinese aren’t that difficult to produce.

I have another piece of good news for you. There are only 5 tones in Mandarin. You will only need to learn four distinct main tones, plus one “silent” tone. The “silent” tone is not really silent. It is so called because it sounds soft and brief.

 Most printed textbooks indicate the four main tones by using diacritical marks above the syllable nucleus. Alternatively, you may indicate the four tones by placing the corresponding numerals at the end of the syllables. The tone mark is usually left out for the silent tone. With the tone number system, you may use “0” or “5”, or the absence of a tone number, to represent the silent tone.

 See                                 Say                                          Example                          

1        1st Tone                the “hee” in “hee-haw”     shan1 / shān    mountain

2        2nd Tone              Yes?                                      yang2 / yáng   goat, sheep

3        3rd Tone               the “per” in “perform”     pao3  / păo     run, ran      

4        4th Tone               Done!                                    diao4 / diào  away

          Silent Tone            the “d” in “end”                  le       / le         a word particle

Read the following sentence over and over until you have it memorized:

Shān  yáng  păo   diào   le.
The mountain goat has run away. 

 “Shān yáng” is a mountain goat, and “păo diào” means to run away. The particle “le” indicates the completion of an action.

I put a video up on to show you how to sound out the 5 tones used in Mandarin Chinese.

Armed with the Romazination charts and having the five tones under your belt, you should be able to pronounce any Chinese words that are properly spelled out in pinyin.  That’s all there is to it.

Now, many pinyin notations you see on the Internet don’t show the tone marks because it takes extra work to indicate the tones with special characters. They don’t show the tone numbers because that means extra work in typing. Most Mandarin-speaking people can correctly guess the Chinese words represented by such pinyin because they already know the title or lyrics for the songs represented by the pinyin. Generally, just employing pinyin for written communication often give rise to ambiguity, not to mention omitting the tone marks.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Temlandvo Hluby Dlamini
    Oct 08, 2011 @ 01:25:59

    i think this is a very good site if u have problems in pronouncing some chinese works like jiao and zhang,etc…


  2. Giselle Philson
    Nov 16, 2011 @ 20:48:06



  3. Trackback: Pining for Pinyin – Things Beyond Z

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