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Transcription and Pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese

Q: "Dr. Wheeler, one book I have read spells Taoism as Daoism. Which spelling is correct?"

A: "They both are."

Q: "Which way do I pronounce it?"

A: "Somewhere between the two."

Often, the sounds used in other languages do not match exactly with those used in English. For instance, in the English, the capital of China is sometimes written as Beijing and sometimes as Peking. Both refer to the same city, they are just two different attempts to "transcribe" or "transliterate" the Mandarin sounds into compatible or comparable English ones. In other cases, Chinese words like Ku Li (modern English "Coolie") are fairly easy to transliterate.

The Italian Jesuit called Matteo Ricci founded the first major Catholic mission in China (1583-1610). He first transcribed Mandarin into the Roman (European) alphabet. Since his day, linguists have engaged in some two dozen or more attempts or more to reduce Chinese sounds into readily understandable equivalents in Western languages. The problem is compounded by the fact that the original Chinese texts represent words by using some tens of thousands of separate pictograms. For a long time, three systems of European transcription predominated.

These three European systems are:

  1. the Wade (or Wade-Giles) system used in America and Britain
  2. the Ecole Français de l'Extême-Orient used in France
  3. the Lessing system used in Germany

Since 1958, the Chinese themselves have struggled to create one single phonetic transcription using the Lessing system, which they call hanyu pinyin fang'an ("Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet"). Most scholars refer to it briefly as pinyin, and since January 1, 1979, all foreign language books published in China have used the pinyin system, and it is now being taught in public Chinese schools using the standard Chinese characters.

However, many of the primary scholarly reference books printed in America and Europe still use the Wade-Giles system: Derk Bodde's Essays on Chinese Civilisation, William Hinton's sociological study Fanshen and Shenfan, Twitchett and Loewe's Cambridge History of China, Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, Fairbank and Reischauer's China, Tradition, and Transformation, Jacques Gernet's A History of Chinese Civilization, Hucker's China's Imperial Past, and Sickman and Soper's The Art and Architecture of China, to name but a few.

To figure out how to pronounce a word using the Wade-Giles system, the following may serve as a rough guide, as I have reproduced here from Edgar Snow's The Other Side of the River, David Wingrove's authorial notes to his fiction series Chung Kuo, and the student reference book, Chinese Vocabulary: An Introduction.


Chi is pronounced like English Gee!

Ch'i sounds like "Chee." For instance, Ch'in is exactly like English chin.

Chu is roughly the same as English Jew, as in Chu Teh ("Jew Duhr").

Ch'u is pronounced like chew in English.

Tsung is pronounced "dzung,"

Ts'ung is prounced like the ts in Patsy or tse-tse fly

Tai sounds like the English die.

T'ai sounds like the English tie.

Pai sounds like the English buy.

P'ai sounds like the English pie.

Kung is like "Gung" (as in Gung a Din).

K'ung with the apostrophe has a k that sounds like the k in kind.

J is the equivalent of r, but it is slurred as in "rrrrun."

H before an s, as in hsi, is the equivalent of an aspirant but it is often dropped (Sian for Hsian, etc.)


Vowels in Chinese are generally short or medium, not long and flat. Thus, Tang sounds like "dong," never like the drink that American astronauts imbibe. "T'ang" is pronounced "tong."

a--as the a in father

e--as the u in run

eh--as the e in hen

i--as the vowel in see

ih--as the e in her

o--as the vowel in look

ou--as the vowel in go

u--as the vowel in soon.

Does all this seem overwhelming? Have patience and you will master it! Remember the wonderfully alliterative Chinese proverb:

Chih yao yu heng hsin t'ieh ch'u mo ch'eng chen....

If only there is persistence, even an iron pillar will be ground into a needle....



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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2018. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated April 24, 2018. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.