Pinyin is Not Chinese

During my Nanjing YLF trip, I just realize one simple fact that many people outside China may not be aware of: Pinyin is not Chinese.

After I explained this to my friends, they were surprised. This is different from what they thought. I am even more surprised when people tell me that they think the Pinyin (the Romanization) is Chinese itself. In case you don’t know, let me tell you more about it.

Chinese Characters and Pinyin

The Chinese characters itself are like a logo. Chinese is ideogram language. Check out this page: Chinese Characters about Chinese characters.

Pinyin is just one of the many ways to romanize the language so people at least have some idea of the pronunciation of the character. It acts as a bridge for the world to use commonly used 26 alphabetic to quote a Chinese character.

For example, someone may think my name in Chinese is Wang Jian Shuo. It is wrong. My Chinese name is 王建硕. I know it is hard for people who don’t know Chinese to read it, so we invented Pinyin to turn these characters into English style word – Wang Jian Shuo.

The Mapping

The problem is, there are 10,000 Chinese characters (the small square pictures you see on the screen), and at least 2000 to 3000 of them are commonly used in daily life. However, there are only around several hundreds of pronunciation in Chinese – even includes the tones (same pronunciation with different tones makes different sounds). With some simple calculation, you have the idea that many characters have to be mapped to exactly the same pronunciation. To make it even worse, most of the Pinyin don’t have tones printed with it, so put four different pronunciation into one.

When I am presented a name of a school (Tian Jia Xing), I said I don’t know the name. My American friends may wonder: “How come! You don’t read Chinese?” My answer was: “I do read Chinese, but Pinyin is not Chinese itself.” Since so many characters maps into the same Pinyin, it is very hard to decode it and get back to its original characters.

Just give you a quick example about the mapping.

My last name is Wang. However, look at how many characters reads exactly as Wang:

These are just some samples of the 50+ characters mapping to Wang.

So, Pinyin is not Chinese at all.

17 thoughts on “Pinyin is Not Chinese

  1. Yes…as a beginner to learning the Chinese language, I can’t emphasize how useful pinyin as a tool for verbal language acquisition in advance of becoming literate (memorizing characters)…my only request is that when people use pinyin they clarify the tone. Pin1yin1? Helpful post with a great explanation why Chinese requires the characters and can never be only a phonetic language.

  2. I just wish the anglicized way of writing had more in common with the actual way Chinese words are pronounced.

    I have never known anyone who thought what you describe as Pinyin was Chinese. Any more than what you might get a a Chinese restaurant in the US is necessarily Chinese or what you might get at a Mexican restaurant is Mexican.

    I am quite certain that you know many more people than I so I am sure that you have encountered people who think that you can truly represent Chinese with the same letters with which English is written. Since whomever did the translation was doing some other than accurately representing Chinese phonetics, sometimes it’s not even close!

  3. “Chinese is ideogram language”. Please. The written Chinese language is not ideographic, it is generally logographic, that’s why the word “character” is used to describe a single word and surely most foreigners (even the Americans you love to single out) know that pinyin is not the same as Chinese characters.

    I also suggest you look to who “invented” pinyin and discover it was a system of romanization (just one of many, and although adopted as the international starndard to romanize Mandarin it is to many readers among the worst) drafted with the help of grammarians from Eastern Europe.

    The difficulty of romanization is not in denoting tones, which can actually be represented by the addition of the numeral 1, 2, 3, 4 representing the four tones behind each word (e.g. “xing2”, or no numeral to represent the neutral tone) but, as becomes obvious from the example, the great number of homophones present in Mandarin. Still, most often the meaning in colloquial Mandarin can be gathered from simple context as in this sentence romanized in pinyin from the written Chinese: Ciqi de shiyong zai Tangdai geng wei puji, ciqi shao zao xunsu fazhan (瓷器的使用在唐代更为普及,瓷器烧造迅速发展). You can see I have purposely chosen a rather unusual subject to illustrate my point. Of course, understanding simply through context fails miserably if one were to romanize poetry or classical Chinese.

  4. I like the mainland Chinese pinyin the best, because it is the most phonetical one. You just need to know a few rules, like that the X is pronounced like the German “ch” in “ich” for example. The only people I know who had real problems with it were…. native speakers of English, seriously. I think the problem native speakers of English is that English is not a phonetical language at all. They tend to make the mistake of mixing up English spelling rules and international phonetical transcription. If you look into an English dictionary for pronunciation, you will see that the phonetical transcription is often VERY different from the spelling. To pronounce English properly, you definitely need to know more rules than for Chinese pinyin.

    Also, there are sounds that do not exist in English, like the x in xin,… (hs?? please.. ) or the u Umlaut (ü) in lü, etc. My vote would therefore go to the PRCh pinyin to become the international standard, it is very clear and easy, a good adaptation of Latin letters to describe Chinese pronunciation.

  5. “I know it is hard for people who don’t know Chinese to read it, so we invented Pinyin to turn these characters into English style word – Wang Jian Shuo.”

    I do not fully agree as Pinyin is not just for people who ‘don’t know Chinese’; it also acts as a bridge to teach other groups of Chinese how to pronounce your Chinese name 王建硕 in the official (Putonghua, Guoyu, Mandarin) dialect if their dialect doesn’t happen to be the official one.

    Also, I also think it’s correct to say that Pinyin is a romanization or latin characters. When foreigners ask me how a Chinese word is written in ‘English’, I explain that Pinyin is NOT English, it is the phonetic system of the Chinese language.

    Pinyin IS Chinese, as it is by definition the phonetic system of (Putonghua) Chinese, it is not English, not is it Italian or French. From Wikipedia: “Pinyin, more formally Hanyu Pinyin, is the most common Standard Mandarin romanization system in use”

    You may argue that Pinyin is not the ‘original Chinese’ to which I would agree with you (Hanzi is beautiful and I never get tired of learning Chinese characters). The fact is that Hanyu in the PRC has these two official systems and they are both ‘Chinese, both are necessary and complementary in my opinion.

  6. Hanyu Pinyin or not, I think most Chinese kids outside China shun the language.

    Formerly from Singapore and now in Australia, my daughter (7 yo) is starting to learn Chinese right now. Given a free choice, she would be ecstatic not to. Math, English, Science, Japanese, anything else is fine with her except Chinese! Same situation with her Chinese friends, most of them very bright kids with some inexplicable phobia of the language.

    Same dire situation with the Vietnamese Chinese, Indonesian Chinese or Filipino Chinese. I think the current generation of kids is lost to the language.

    And to think that I learnt Chinese using ZhuYingFuHao, which is like learning another language in itself. That was tough!

  7. Wow, who thought that pinying was Chinese?

    I have recently started learning Mandarin in my home city, Madrid, Spain, and it has never come to me that pinyin could be chinese.;-)


  8. “And to think that I learnt Chinese using ZhuYingFuHao, which is like learning another language in itself. That was tough!”

    The Taiwan Zhuyinfuhao, Wade-Giles, Yale romanization and since the late 70’s pinyin have all been learnt by any English-speaking foreign student of Chinese since the 1950’s. As of today my Nokia cell phone uses zhuyinfuhao, my Chinese language software uses pinyin, my classical dictionaries and older references use Wade-Giles and I myself use a shorthand version of Yale romanization to jot down new vocabulary.

    There is no “inexplicable phobia to the language” among overseas Chinese kids under the age of 13 and living in Western culture because the language, if not the spoken then surely the written, is eventually lost unless other kids speak and use the same language. Parents and grandparents have not influence enough to impress the language upon a young child because most of what the child learns comes from and with its peers. That’s why we have our children attend Chinese language school on weekends; that’s why by the age of 15 they’ve drifted away from the language and the culture.

  9. Hello, Wang, from meilide Bulgaria.

    I read your thoughts about the topic and I think that you just don`t except pinyin as it is – a transcription based on latin letters. It is tha transcription of Chinese langage, the same as English has it`s own transcription which everybody who had ever studied English remembers. It`s a huge problem with all the shengdiao, but I would say that all depends on the teacher who`s going to teach you Chinese. If he (or she) is good anough, there will be no problems to start from pinyin, only to understand that without the characters there is no Chinese.

    But you should really understand all those foreigners, who try their best to master the language. Did you noticed, in any other country in the world you can hear foreigners to speak fluent, but not Chinese. It`s just too old, too much related with Gudai Hanyu and the history and culture, so for a lifetime you will probbably just reach a certain level, but never be brilliant. That`s the simple truth.

    I teach Chinese and wuthout pinyin we`re lost ;)



  10. hey.I am julia a chinese girl.I am so glad that you like china and chinese .nice chinese name!

    so nice to know you!!!

    goog luck!

  11. I have been studying Putonghua for the past 2 years now, and can tell you that without pinyin it would take significantly longer to learn the spoken language.

    Once you have the understanding of pinyin pronounciation it helps a lot with learning new vocabulary.

    Above someone wrote “without characters there is no chinese”. what about the spoken language and the millions of chinese that can only write a few characters, they speak chinese as it shoud be, a living language, not just marks on paper.

    My objective is to communicate verbally, yes i’m slowly learning some characters, but the primary objective is to speak the language, which is helped considerably by the use of pinyin.

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