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An Introduction to Mandarin Chinese Pronunciation

Initials and finals

Unlike in European languages, initials and finals—and not consonants and vowels—are the fundamental elements in pinyin (and most other phonetic systems used to describe the Han language). Nearly each Chinese syllable can be spelled with exactly one initial followed by one final, except in the special syllable er and when a trailing -r is considered part of a syllable. The latter case, though a common practice in some sub-dialects, is rarely used in official publications. One exception is the city Harbin, which is from the Manchu language originally.

Even though most initials contain a consonant, finals are not simple vowels, especially in compound finals, i.e., when one "final" is placed in front of another one. For example, [i] and [u] are pronounced with such tight openings that some native Chinese speakers (especially when singing or on stage) pronounce yī (衣, clothes, officially pronounced /i/) as /ji/, wéi (围, to enclose, officially as /uei/) as /wei/. The concepts of consonant and vowel are not incorporated in pinyin or its predecessors; there is no list of consonants or vowels.

Rules given in terms of English pronunciation

All rules given here in terms of English pronunciation are approximate, as several of these sounds do not correspond directly to sounds in English.

Pronunciation of initials

Pinyin Explanation
b unaspirated p, as in spit
p strongly aspirated p, as in pit
m as in English mummy
f as in English fun
d unaspirated t, as in stop
t strongly aspirated t, as in top
n as in English nit
l as in English love
g unaspirated k, as in skill
k strongly aspirated k, as in kill
h like the English h if followed by "a". It is pronounced roughly like the Scots ch and Russian х (Cyrillic "kha")).
j No equivalent in English. Like q, but unaspirated. Not the j in jingle. Not the s in Asia, despite the common English pronunciation of "Beijing". The sequence "ji" is the same as the true pronunciation of the Japanese じ(ジ) ji.
q No equivalent in English. Like cheek, with the lips spread wide with ee. Curl the tip of the tongue downwards to stick it at the back of the teeth and strongly aspirate. The sequence "qi" is the same as the true Japanese pronunciation of ち(チ) chi.
x No equivalent in English. Like she, with the lips spread and the tip of your toungue curled downwards and stuck to the back of teeth when you say ee. The sequence "xi" is the same as the real Japanese pronunciation of し(シ) shi.
zh j or dr in English with no aspiration (a sound between joke and drew, tongue tip curled more upwards); similar to merge in American English but not voiced
ch as in chin, but with the tongue curled upwards; very similar to nurture in American English, but strongly aspirated
sh as in shoe, but with the tongue curled upwards; very similar to marsh in American English
r Similar to the English z in azure and r in reduce, but with the tongue curled upwards, like a cross between English "r" and French "j". In Cyrillised Chinese the sound is rendered with the letter "ж".
z unaspirated c, similar to z in zip or between suds and cats
c like the English ts in cats, but strongly aspirated, very similar to the Polish c.
s as in sun
w as in water.*
y as in yes.*
' new syllable*

Pronunciation of finals

The following is a list of finals in Standard Mandarin, excepting most of those ending with a -r.

To find a given final:

  1. Remove the initial consonant. Zh, ch, and sh count as initial consonants.
  2. Change initial w to u and initial y to i. For weng, wei, you, look under ong, ui, iu.
  3. For u after j, q, x, or y, look under ü.
Pinyin Form with zero initial Explanation
-i (n/a) -i is a buzzed continuation of the consonant following z-, c-, s-, zh-, ch-, sh- or r-.

(In all other words, -i has the sound of bee; this is listed below.)

a a as in "father"
o o Approximately as in "office" in British accent; the lips are much more rounded.
e e a back, unrounded vowel, which can be formed by first pronouncing a plain continental "o" (AuE and NZE law) and then spreading the lips without changing the position of the tongue. That same sound is also similar to English "duh", but not as open. Many unstressed syllables in Chinese use the schwa [ə] (idea), and this is also written as e.
ê (n/a) as in "bet". Only used in certain interjections.
ai ai like English "eye", but a bit lighter
ei ei as in "hey"
ao ao approximately as in "cow"; the a is much more audible than the o
ou ou as in "so"
an an starts with plain continental "a" (AuE and NZE bud) and ends with "n"
en en as in "taken"
ang ang as in German Angst, including the English loan word angst (starts with the vowel sound in father and ends in the velar nasal; like song in American English)
eng eng like e above but with ng added to it at the back
ong ong starts with the vowel sound in book and ends with the velar nasal sound in sing
er er as in "teacher" in American English
Finals beginning with i- (y-)
i yi like English bee.
ia ya as i + a; like English "yard"
io yo as i + plain continental "o". Only used in certain interjections.
ie ye as i + ê; but is very short; e (pronounced like ê) is pronounced longer and carries the main stress (similar to the initial sound ye in yet)
iao yao as i + ao
iu you as i + ou
ian yan as i + ê + n; like English yen
in yin as i + n
iang yang as i + ang
ing ying as i but with ng added to it at the back
iong yong as yu + ong
Finals beginning with u- (w-)
u wu like English "oo"; pronounced as ü [y] after j, q, x and y
ua wa as u + a
uo wo as u + o; the o is pronounced shorter and lighter than in the o final
uai wai as u + ai like as in why
ui wei as u + ei; here, the i is pronounced like ei
uan wan as u + an; pronounced as üan [yɛn] after j, q, x and y
un wen as u + en; like the on in the English won; pronounced as ün [yn] after j, q, x and y
uang wang as u + ang; like the ang in English angst or anger
ueng weng as u + eng
Finals beginning with ü- (yu-)
u, ü yu as in German "üben" or French "lune" (To get this sound, say "ee" with rounded lips)
ue, üe yue as ü + ê; the ü is short and light
uan yuan as ü + ê+ n;
un, ün yun as ü + n;



Pinyin differs from other romanizations in several aspects, such as the following:

  • Syllables starting with u are written as w in place of u (e.g. ueng is written as weng). Standalone u is written as wu.
  • Syllables starting with i are written as y in place of i (e.g. ian is written as yan). Standalone i is written as yi.
  • Syllables starting with ü are written as yu in place of ü (e.g. üe is written as yue).
  • ü is written as u when there is no ambiguity (such as ju, qu, and xu), but written as ü when there are corresponding u syllables (such as and ). In such situations where there are corresponding u syllables, it is often replaced with v on a computer, making it easier to type on a standard keyboard.
  • When preceded by a consonant, iou, uei, and uen are simplified as iu, ui, and un (which do not represent the actual pronunciation).
  • As in zhuyin, what are actually pronounced as buo, puo, muo, and fuo are given a separate representation: bo, po, mo, and fo.
  • The apostrophe (') is often used before a, o, and e to separate syllables in a word where ambiguity could arise, as in Xi'an, which consists of the two syllables xi ("西") and an ("安") as opposed to xian for such words as "先". (This ambiguity does not occur when tone marks are used: The two tone marks in "Xīān" unambiguously show that the word consists of two syllables. However, even with tone marks, the city is usually spelled with an apostrophe as "Xī'ān".)
  • Eh alone is written as ê; elsewhere as e. Schwa is always written as e.
  • zh, ch, and sh can be abbreviated as , ĉ, and ŝ (z, c, s with a circumflex). However, the shorthands are rarely used due to difficulty of entering them on computers.
  • ng has the uncommon shorthand of ŋ.
  • The letter v is unused (except in spelling foreign languages, languages of minority nationalities, and some dialects), despite a conscious effort to distribute letters more evenly than in Western languages. However, sometimes, for ease of typing into a computer, the v is used to replace a ü.

Most of the above are used to avoid ambiguity when writing words of more than one syllable in pinyin. For example uenian is written as wenyan because it is not clear which syllables make up uenian; uen-ian, uen-i-an and u-en-i-an are all possible combinations whereas wenyan is unambiguous because we, nya, etc. do not exist in pinyin. See the pinyin table article for a summary of possible pinyin syllables (not including tones).



The pinyin system also uses diacritics to mark the four tones of Mandarin. The diacritic is placed over the letter that represents the syllable nucleus, unless that letter is missing (see below). Many books printed in China use a mix of fonts, with vowels and tone marks rendered in a different font than the surrounding text, tending to give such pinyin texts a typographically ungainly appearance. This style, most likely rooted in early technical limitations, has led many to believe that pinyin's rules call for this practice and also for the use of a Latin alpha ("ɑ") rather than the standard style of the letter ("a") found in most fonts. The official rules of Hanyu Pinyin, however, specify no such practice.

  1. The first tone (Flat or High Level Tone) is represented by a macron (ˉ) added to the pinyin vowel:

    ā (ɑ̄) ē ī ō ū ǖ Ā Ē Ī Ō Ū Ǖ
  2. The second tone (Rising or High-Rising Tone) is denoted by an acute accent (ˊ):

    á (ɑ́) é í ó ú ǘ Á É Í Ó Ú Ǘ
  3. The third tone (Falling-Rising or Low Tone) is marked by a caron/háček (ˇ). It is not the rounded breve (˘), though a breve is sometimes substituted due to font limitations.

    ǎ (ɑ̌) ě ǐ ǒ ǔ ǚ Ǎ Ě Ǐ Ǒ Ǔ Ǚ
  4. The fourth tone (Falling or High-Falling Tone) is represented by a grave accent (ˋ):

    à (ɑ̀) è ì ò ù ǜ À È Ì Ò Ù Ǜ
  5. The fifth tone (Neutral Tone) is represented by a normal vowel without any accent mark:

    a (ɑ) e i o u ü A E I O U Ü
(In some cases, this is also written with a dot before the syllable; for example, ·ma.)

The character "ü"

An umlaut is placed over the letter u when it occurs after the initials l and n in order to represent the sound [y]. This is necessary in order to distinguish the front high rounded vowel in (e.g. 驴/驢 donkey) from the back high rounded vowel in lu (e.g. 炉/爐 oven). Tonal markers are added on top of the trema, as in .

However, the ü is not used in other contexts where it represents a front high rounded vowel, namely after the letters j, q, x and y. For example, the sound of the word 鱼/魚 (fish) is transcribed in pinyin simply as , not as . This practice is opposed to Wade-Giles, which always uses ü, and Tongyong pinyin, which always uses yu. Whereas Wade-Giles needs to use the trema to distinguish between chü (pinyin ju) and chu (pinyin zhu), this ambiguity cannot arise with pinyin, so the more convenient form ju is used instead of . Genuine ambiguities only happen with nu/ and lu/, which are then distinguished by a trema (diacritic).

Many fonts or output methods do not support a trema for ü or cannot place tone marks on top of ü. Likewise, using ü in input methods is difficult because it is not present as a simple key on many keyboard layouts. For these reasons v is sometimes used instead by convention. For example, it is common for cellphones to use v instead of ü. Additionally, some stores in China use v instead of ü in the transliteration of their names. Occasionally, uu (double u), u: (u followed by a colon) or U (capital u) is used in its place.

Although nüe written as nue, and lüe written as lue are not ambiguous, nue or lue are not correct according the rules; nüe and lüe should be used instead. However, some Chinese input methods (e.g. Microsoft Pinyin IME) support both nve/lve (typing v for ü) and nue/lue.