What is Pinyin?

Pinyin is also known to ‘Hànyǔ Pinyin’ or ‘Mandarin Chinese Pinyin’, it is a way to use Roman letters to represent the pronunciation of the Chinese characters, like English Phonetic Alphabet. Pinyin was adopted in 1955, while Chinese characters have over 5000 years of history.


Why did Chinese people adopt the Pinyin system?

The main reason was to facilitate Chinese learning and teaching. Unlike English, Chinese characters did not have phonetic clues. They originally come from Oracle Bones of the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century B.C.), which are using signs or symbol to represent a particular idea or thing rather than words. Thus, it was quite hard for Chinese people to learn without Pinyin.


The structure of Pinyin

Pinyin consists of three parts.

       Shēngmǔ    Yùnmǔ    Shēngdiào

        声母   +    韵母   +    声调

        Initial        Final        Tone

Each Pinyin is a syllable which corresponds to one Chinese character. 


Initials and Finals

In Chinese, there are 23 initials and 24 finals (in other versions, you may be informed that there are fewer initials and more finals, I am going to explain the reason why I divide the finals only to 24 here later). Initials are equal to consonants, finals are equal to vowels. (table is shown as below)

  • Initials: b p m f d t n l g k h j q x z c s zh ch sh r y w
  • Single finals: a, o, e, i, u, ü
  • Compound finals: ai, ei, ui, ao, ou, iu, ie, üe, er
  • Front nasal sounds: an, en, in, un, ün
  • Back nasal sounds: ang, eng, ing, ong

As you can see, most Pinyin letters are same as the English alphabet except for the letter ü. The basic pronunciation rule is: Initials cannot be pronounced by themselves, but need to combine with a final. However, finals can be pronounced with or without initials. (link: see the corresponding sounds in English)


The Whole-syllable

Apart from initials and finals, there is also one group of Pinyin in the Chinese language, their pronunciation is a little strange, we call them ‘the whole syllable’, 整体认读音节 (zhěngtǐ rèndú yīnjié).

Showing as follows…

zhi, chi, shi, ri, zi, ci, si, yi, wu, yu, ye, yue, yin, yun, yuan, ying

The reason we call them ‘the whole syllable’ is that their pronunciation is fixed, even if the consonants and the vowels possess their own inherent sounds. These syllables can be read directly without being spelling from consonant to vowel. In brief, the pronunciation is special.


Who are they?

üan, uo, uai, ua, uan, uang, ia, ian, iang, iong, iao

Maybe you are going to ask me, why I did not classify these finals?

The reason is simple, if you have already mastered the 24 finals that I mentioned before, for those finals, you just need to spell them directly from the first vowel to the second.

  • ‘üan’ = ü+an, written also as ‘yuan’
  • ‘uo’ = u+o, written also as ‘wo’
  • ‘uai’ = u+ai, written also as ‘wai’
  • ‘ua’ = u+a, written also as ‘wa’
  • ‘uan’ = u+an, written also as ‘wan’
  • ‘uang’ = u+ang, written also as ‘wang’
  • ‘ia’ = i+a, written also as ‘ya’
  • ‘ian’ = i+an, written also as ‘yan’
  • ‘iang’ = i+ang, written also as ‘yang’
  • ‘iong’ = i+ong, written also as ‘yong’
  • ‘iao’ = i+ao, written also as ‘yao’

In fact, the reason why Chinese phonetic alphabet is called ‘Pinyin’ is — ‘Pin’ in Chinese means ‘spell’, ‘yin’ is ‘sound’ — Then together ‘Pinyin’ means ‘the sounds can be spelt’. Therefore, from my opinion, 23 initials + 24 finals are already enough to be able to pronounce the rest of any combinations in the Chinese language. Of course, for the whole syllables, you need to remember them separately.

So, do you have a clear image for Pinyin now? If not, please leave me a message below.



Hi, I’m Ling, a Chinese tutor and a language learning amateur. I create this blog with a goal to help Mandarin learners and Chinese culture lovers to study and know about this language by self-learning. Welcome to visit me from time to time and give me your precious advice! Thank you! 😛

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