Phonetic transcription of Chinese

Many different ways have been devised to represent the sounds of spoken Chinese phonetically. Most use a version of the Latin/Roman alphabet and are known as 'romanization' or 'latinization'. The first people to attempt the romanization of Chinese were Jesuit missionaries mainly from Spain and Portugal who began to arrive in China during the early 16th century towards the end of the Ming dynasty. The first romanization systems were created by Matteo Ricci, in 1605, and Nicolas Trigault, in 1625, who used them only as an aid to study Mandarin.

When Protestant missionaries were permitted to work in China after the Opium War of 1839-1842, at first they had to confine their activities to the coastal provinces of the southeast, where people didn't speak Mandarin and were mainly illiterate. The missionaries created romanization systems for many varieties of Chinese spoken in those areas, taught their converts to read and published millions of copies of religious works and other materials.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there was a general discontent with the policies of the Manchu Qing dynasty which lead to calls for reform in many areas, including language. Many phonetic scripts were devised by Chinese patriots who saw them as a way of making China "wealthy and strong" again. There was also much debate about whether the transcription systems should be used in conjunction with Chinese characters to show their pronunciation, or whether they should replace the characters altogether. Another issue was which variety of Chinese should be represented by the transcription systems: some favoured Mandarin only, others argued that separate systems would need to be devised for other varieties of Chinese.

Eventually it was decided that a northern dialect of Mandarin, as spoken by educated people in northern China, would be used as the basis for a new form of written Chinese. It also became the standard spoken language for the whole country. The new written form of Chinese was known as báihùa (plain language) and writers were encouraged to use it rather than Classical Chinese. Not all writers were keen to adopt the new style and to this day, a classical or semi-classical style is still used by some.

Examples of Chinese phonetic transcription systems

Hànyŭ Pīnyīn (Mandarin)

Rénrén shēng ér zìyóu, zài zūnyán hé quánlì shàng yīlù píngděng. Tāmen fùyǒu lǐxìng hé liángxīn, bìng yīng yǐ xiōngdì guānxì de jīngshén hùxiāng duìdài.

Wades-Giles (Mandarin)

Jen2-jen2 sheng1 erh2 tzu4-yu2, tsai4 tsun1-yen2 he2 ch'üan2-li4 shang4 i1-lü4 p'ing2-teng3. T'a1-men fu4-yu3 li3-hsing4 he2 liang2-hsin1, ping4 ying1 i3 hsiung1-ti4 kuan1-hsi4 te ching1-shen2 hu4hsiang1 tui4-tai4

Bopomofo/Zhùyīn fúhào (Mandarin)

ㄖㄣˊ ㄖㄣˊ ㄕㄥ ㄦˊ ㄗˋ ㄧㄡˊ, ㄗㄞˋ ㄗㄨㄣ ㄧㄢˊ ㄏㄜˊ ㄑㄩㄢˊ ㄌㄧˋ ㄕㄥˋ ㄧ ㄌㄩˋ ㄆㄧㄥˊ ㄉㄥˇ. ㄊㄚ ㄇㄣ˙ ㄈㄨˋ ㄧㄡˇ ㄌㄧˇ ㄒㄧㄥˋ ㄏㄜˊ ㄌㄧㄤˊ ㄒㄧㄣ, ㄅㄧㄥˋ ㄧㄥ ㄧˇ ㄒㄩㄥ ㄉㄧˋ ㄍㄨㄢ ㄒㄧˋ ㄉㄜ˙ ㄐㄧㄥ ㄕㄣˊ ㄏㄨˋ ㄒㄧㄤ ㄉㄨㄟˋ ㄉㄞˋ.

Yale (Cantonese)

Yàhnyàhn sàangchēutlàih jauhhaih  jihyàuh ge, hái jyùnyìhm tùhng kyùhnléih seuhng yātleuht pìhngdáng. Kéuihdeih geuihyáuh léihsing tùhng lèuhngsàm, yìhche yìnggòi yuhng hìngdaih ge gwàanhaih laih wuhsēung deuidoih.

Details of transcriptions systems for:

Cantonese, Dungan, Gan, Hakka, Mandarin, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, Teochew, Xiang

Learn Chinese with AIChinese

Recommended books

Books about Chinese characters and calligraphy
Mandarin, Shanghainese, Hokkien, Taiwanese and Cantonese language courses, dictionaries, etc.

Chinese pages

Written Chinese: Oracle Bone Script, Simplified characters, Bopomofo, Types of characters, Structure of written Chinese, Evolution of characters, How the Chinese script works, Xiao'erjing, General Chinese

Spoken Chinese: Mandarin, Dungan, Wu, Shanghainese, Wenzhounese, Yue, Cantonese, Weitou, Min, Jian'ou, Taiwanese, Teochew, Fuzhounese, Puxian, Hakka, Xiang, Gan, How many people speak Chinese?

Other Chinese pages: Chinese numbers (數碼) | Chinese classifiers (量詞) | Electronic dictionaries | Chinese links | Books: Chinese characters and calligraphy | Cantonese | Mandarin, Shanghainese, Hokkien and Taiwanese

Semanto-phonetic writing systems

Akkadian Cuneiform, Ancient Egyptian (Demotic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieratic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieroglyphs), Chinese, Chữ-nôm, Cuneiform, Japanese, Jurchen, Khitan, Linear B, Luwian, Mayan, Naxi, Sawndip (Old Zhuang), Sui, Sumerian Cuneiform, Tangut (Hsihsia)

Other writing systems

Page last modified: 15.03.23


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