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Pronouncing Chinese characters

There are several systems for pronouncing Chinese characters; however, in the Peoples Republic of China the pinyin system is used.

Pinyin is a system devised after 1949 by the Peoples Republic of China for transcribing Chinese words (characters) into letters of the western alphabet. Many letters approximate their English (American) sounds; however, a number do not. You will want to familiarize yourself so you can read aloud or say reasonably correctly many street signs, geographic names, and personal names. Of course, Chinese (Mandarin) is a tonal system in which the same transliterated word, say "ma" may be pronounced four ways, with different meanings: a flat or level sound; a rising sound; a sound that starts level, dips and then rises again; and, a falling sound.

Consonants

  • C is pronounced like an American TS--its; for example, citong; Lancang River

  • Q is pronounced like an American CH--chair; for example, Qin Dynasty, Daqing

  • X is pronounced like an American SH--she; for example, Wuxi city, Xinjiang, Xi'an

  • Z is pronounced like an American DS—buds; for example, jiaozi, Mao Zedong

  • ZH is pronounced like an American J—jump; for example, Zhou Enlai, Zhengzhou

Vowels and vowel combinations

  • A is pronounced like an American A—father; for example, Han Dynasty; Shanghai city

  • AI is pronounced like an American AI—aisle; for example, Hainan, Shanghai, Mount Tai
  • E is pronounced like an American OO—hook; for example, Hebei, Zhejiang

  • EN or ENG is pronounced like an American U—sun; for example, Deng, Zhenjiang

  • I has several pronunciation rules:
    • I is pronounced like an American I—machine; for example, Jilin, Harbin
    • I after C, S, or Z is pronounced like an American I—did or vibe ; for example, Ci Xi
    • I after CH, R, SH, ZH is pronounced like an American IR—sir; for example, Qin Shi Huangdi, Shashi
    • IA is pronounced like an American YA—Jiayuguan,Ziamen
    • IAN/YAN is pronounced like an American YEN—for example, Qian Long, Tiananmen, xian, but not in the name of the city Xi'an which is two characters, not one
    • IU is pronounced like an American EO—Leo (emphasis on the "o"); for example, Liuzhou, Jiujiang
  • O is pronounced like an American AW—law; for example, Bo Hai, Zhongguo

  • OU is pronounced like an American O—joke; for example, Zhou Dynasty, Hangzhou

  • U has several pronounciation rules:
    • U as in prune; for example Hubei, Gansu, Wuhan
    • U as in pudding when followed by an "n" (UN); for example, Sun Yat Sen
    • U after j, q, x, y as the American EW—few; for example, Qufu, Jiayuguan
    • UI is pronounced like an American WAY—for example, Sui Dynasty, Guilin, Anhui

photo of the Pudong skyline from the Bund in Shanghai, China, photo by Susan Kullmann

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Council on China Exchange (CCE China) specializes in bilateral cultural and educational programs in China and the United States. We provide high quality cultural, educational and professional experiences to the interested public, students and teachers from the U.S. as well as from China.