The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #27 May / June 2017
A Peek into Pinyin
by Tarja Jolma
May / June 2017 | 

When people think of Chinese language, they are often both fascinated and a bit intimidated about its writing system. Fortunately memorizing thousands of complex characters is not the only way to learn written Chinese. Most Mandarin Chinese learners are very familiar with its parallel support script Hanyu Pinyin, and probably consider it indispensable in the studies. This writing system has also made possible to use only one standardized romanization system for Chinese names in other languages, which has made dealing with Chinese names much easier. Before Pinyin, Chinese names, as well as all kinds of words, were transcribed in Latin letters in various ways. The Wade-Giles romanization system, named after its creators, was the most common for about a hundred years.

The situation changed when in the 1950s the government started an ambitious project to reform the language to increase literacy. The task consisted in setting Mandarin Chinese as the national language, creating simplified Chinese characters (in Chinese, hànzì, 汉字) and developing a unified romanization system for the characters. A group of linguists developed the Hànyǔ Pīnyīn system, originally 汉语拼音 (traditional Chinese 漢語拼音), and the head of them was Zhou Youguang (周有光 i.e. Zhōu Yǒuguāng). They based their romanization system on the several existing systems used at the time, and finally, Hanyu Pinyin became officially adopted in China in 1958. Zhou Youguang is nowadays known as the "father of Pinyin." He could enjoy this accomplishment for six decades, as he passed away this January at the respectable age of 111 years (and one day).

So nowadays Pinyin is the standard romanization system of Mandarin Chinese in languages that use Latin letters, even though it took some time for the international instances to start using it systematically. The United Nations adopted it in 1986, a few years after the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Along with its arrival, the century-old use of Wade-Giles system ended. However, the way a Chinese speaker romanizes his/her name sometimes tells something about the person's origin or age or both, because there are several phases in this development, and mainland China is not the only area to need a romanization system. In Taiwan, Hanyu Pinyin wasn't officially adopted until 2009. The different romanization systems may have some advantages and disadvantages when compared, but having a systematic, officially recognized system was and still is important in international relations.

So what is the essence of Pinyin and why is it needed? Every Chinese character, i.e. hanzi, represents a syllable, and the pronunciation of these syllables can be described by Pinyin. Its pronunciation rules have to be memorized just like those of any written language, as there are special combinations to learn. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, so these syllables are pronounced using five tones that are marked with a diacritic on the significant vowel of the syllable, and they are represented by numbers. 1 is high (ā), 2 is rising (á), 3 is low/dipping (ǎ), 4 is falling (à) and 5 is neutral (a). As especially the diacritics for high and low are often difficult or impossible to write using keyboards, they can be described as numbers placed after the syllables. That is also a way to write Pinyin with tones using a Chinese language computer input. However, the tones are important, as simple letters are not enough to distinguish words. One of the most common examples of this is ma. Here are some examples: 吗 ma, toneless question particle; 马 mǎ, 'horse'; 妈 mā, 'mother'; 麻 má, 'hemp'; 骂 mà, to scold/abuse/curse. There are even more meanings and characters representing these syllables in Pinyin.

According to the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Chinese Language, the number of characters has grown over the past few thousand years, as dictionaries show, and the Giant Dictionary of the Chinese Language (1990) records up to 54 678 characters. Fortunately much less is needed for everyday use. Characters in general use in modern China are estimated to be about 7 000, and the average Chinese speakers frequently use about 3 500. The highest level of Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì 汉语水平考试, a language test commonly known as HSK, requires the knowledge of 2 865 characters to pass the highest level test, HSK6. The number of characters is significantly greater than the number of different syllables, so lots of characters are pronounced the same way.

So technically Mandarin Chinese can be written with Pinyin, but as there are lots of homonyms, using characters is more exact. The characters tend to have some component that gives a hint both of the pronunciation and the meaning. Some study books for language learners focus on spoken Chinese only and concentrate on Pinyin, like Working Mandarin (for beginners) by Yi Zhou and M. Lynne Gerber, but many study books use both characters and Pinyin in basic and intermediate level. In advanced level, Pinyin might no longer be used except maybe in the vocabularies. Pinyin is employed along with the characters in the national HSK languages test for language learners in elementary levels 1 and 2, but not after that. However, nowadays there are two possibilities, the traditional paper-based test, and the internet-based test.

The paper-based test requires handwriting skills, and lots of test centers in every continent organize these tests on a regular basis. The internet-based test makes it possible to use Pinyin to type Chinese characters, which means knowing Pinyin and recognizing the character among others with the same pronunciation, instead of writing it stroke by stroke. This sounds promising to those who struggle with the handwriting. However, much fewer test centers organize the internet-based test, and not necessary every level of HSK. There are 175 test centers in China, but in Oceania, only Australia offers it, in Africa no place. In the American continent, only Canada, Colombia and USA offer this possibility. In Asia, the test can be taken in South Korea, Japan, India, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia. In Europe, it can be taken in Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Denmark, UK, the Netherlands, Ukraine, and Russia.

With the amount of characters in existence, for a language learner Pinyin is a great tool to get past illiteracy and enhance one's reading skills. Reading and recognizing characters passively is much easier than remembering how to write them stroke by stroke. It's not too easy for native Chinese speakers, either: learning to read and write is clearly much more demanding for Chinese children than let's say for Finnish children who sometimes learn to read before going to school without systematic teaching. Nowadays, Chinese children use Pinyin systematically as a stepping stone before starting to learn the characters, and later on, Pinyin annotates the pronunciation of all new characters. As the knowledge of characters increases, the need for Pinyin decreases gradually. This also means that children learn standard Chinese, Putonghua, as they learn to read and write. The characters are not pronounced equally all around China, as there are many dialects and even languages. Pinyin represents the standard language pronunciation used in schools, and it's mandatory in mainland China elementary schools. The older generations do not necessarily know Pinyin at all or have studied it only later in life, possibly to use the computer or mobile phone.

Even after all the hard studying of characters, Mandarin Chinese speakers may still need Pinyin from time to time because it's useful to show how a new word should be pronounced, even though a phonetic component included in the character may give an idea of it. Moreover, in the era of technology Pinyin is a useful tool for typing in Chinese, even though it's not the only one. For a language learner using Pinyin input method means being able to use a regular keyboard by just switching the language setting to Chinese, typing Pinyin with or without tone numbers and then choosing the intended character(s) from a list. Recognizing characters does not equal being able to write them. In this aspect, Pinyin is very useful.

It can be discussed if Hanyu Pinyin is the best possible romanization system, but personally, I think that having a standardized, internationally used and unifying system has without a doubt had a huge impact for language learners. The same kind of international system would be very practical also in other languages, like Arabic, Persian, and Russian. It would help in learning the language if dictionaries and studybooks used the same type of Romanization style. It would also help in dealing with names when using other languages. At the moment the same names are romanized in multiple ways, like for instance the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat who was Anouar el-Sadate in French, Anwar al-Sadat in Italian, Anwar as-Sadat in Polish, Anwar el-Sadat in Spanish and Enver Sedat in Turkish. Not even internationally known country leaders’ names are romanized the same way in different languages that use Latin letters. The implementation of Hanyu Pinyin has made all this a lot easier in Mandarin Chinese.

Tarja holds a Master's degree in Italian Philology with studies in Finnish, Spanish, and cultural history. Her daily work as a tv-subtitler writing subtitles for the deaf and the hard-of-hearing consists mainly of her native Finnish language, but all kinds of language skills are useful. She simply can't stop studying languages, especially the ever challenging and fascinating Mandarin Chinese.

More to Explore:

The Wubi 98 keyboard based on the structure of the characters:

A chart of all possible syllables:

A comparison of Pinyin with other orthographies and IPA:

An interview of Zhou Youguang at the age of 102 years:

Information about Bopomofo, i.e. Zhuyin, a non-Latin-based phonetic annotation system:

A Peek into Pinyin
Writer: Tarja Jolma
Petey: China plaza; Kids letter board; Sound glyphs; Zhou Youguang
• "Zhou Youguang" Wikipedia <>
• "Pinyin" Wikipedia <>
• "The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Chinese Language", edited by Chan Sin-Wai, associate editors James William Minett & Florence Li Wing Yee, Routledge, 2016
• The Chinese Testing International website <>
• "Tania Branigan: Zhou Youguang Obituary in The Guardian" The Guardian <>
• "Tania Branigan: Sound principles in The Guardian" The Guardian <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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