What is Pinyin? An excellent guide, plus a handy Pinyin chart

What is Pinyin? An excellent guide, plus a handy Pinyin chart

Learning Chinese without learning Pinyin is like learning to ride a bike without training wheels.

Learning Chinese without Pinyin is like trying to ride a bike without training wheels. Although Pinyin shouldn't be relied on as fluency develops, it's a crucial tool for beginners. Most Mandarin classes introduce Pinyin as a starting point to help students get comfortable with the language. Developing a strong foundation in Pinyin will prove beneficial in the long run.

What is Pinyin?

Currently, Pinyin is the prevailing Romanization system and the sole one recognized by the Chinese government. Learning Pinyin will improve pronunciation and tone accuracy, enable speaking sooner, and help input characters on devices. Pinyin is the most common Romanization system used today and assigns each character a monosyllabic Roman equivalent with an accent mark corresponding to its tone.

While Pinyin is useful for learning new vocabulary, it can quickly become a crutch. Maximizing exposure to characters without Pinyin is necessary to gradually reduce reliance. It's vital for beginners to spend ample time perfecting Pinyin pronunciation to enhance their vocabulary and ease learning a vast number of Chinese characters.

How Pinyin works

Pinyin is a method of Romanization that approximates the sounds of Chinese words using letters from the Roman alphabet. However, Pinyin is not a flexible system where Roman letters can be used arbitrarily to represent sounds. In fact, it is quite a rigid system, with each Chinese character having a specific corresponding Pinyin Romanization.

Every Pinyin syllable consists of three components:

  • Initials: These are one or two consonants at the beginning of a word. While the majority of Chinese words have initials, not all of them do.
    • Finals: These are vowels and consonants that go at the end of the word. In some cases, the -i sound at the end may mark the absence of a final instead of an actual final.
    • Tone marks: Most Pinyin syllables are pronounced with one of the four tone marks. If a syllable doesn't have a tone mark, it is pronounced with a neutral tone.

    While initials and finals are like any other letters in the Roman alphabet, tone marks require extra attention to master Pinyin.

    The four tones of Chinese

    Mastering the Chinese tones is a gradual process that requires patience and time. It will take years of practice to differentiate all the tones perfectly. In this section, we'll provide an overview of the basics to help you get started.

    We will explain how each tone works and tone pairs. As you progress in your studies, you'll realize that most Chinese words are made up of two characters, making it crucial to master tone pairs.

    If you're a beginner, focus on differentiating each of the four tones and replicating them accurately. Once you've achieved this, practice tone pairs to enhance your skills. Without further delay, let's delve into each of the four tones of Mandarin Chinese.

    The first tone

    The first tone in Mandarin Chinese is the flat tone, which means the pitch of your voice stays flat as you pronounce the vowel without any rise or fall. It's easy to recognize this tone since the Pinyin tone mark for it is a flat line: ¯.

    Here are some example words:

    Word Pinyin Pronunciation Meaning
    tah He, him
    e One
    zhōng jong Middle
    shuō shuoh To speak


    The second tone

    The second tone in Mandarin Chinese is a rising tone. This means that it starts with a low pitch and rises to a higher pitch. In English, we often use a rising tone when asking a question, for example, a confused "wait, what?". The rising intonation at the end of the phrase resembles this tone. The accent mark for the second tone is appropriately a rising sign: ´.

    Here are some example words:

    Word Pinyin Pronunciation Meaning
    rén rehn Person
    yuán yuan Garden
    wén wehn Writing
    nah To take


    The third tone in Mandarin Chinese is challenging for non-native speakers. It falls and rises, creating a sound similar to "huh??" as spoken by Scooby Doo. The tone mark for the third tone is ˇ.

    However, learning the third tone can be complicated due to several official and unofficial rules. For instance, two third tone syllables can't appear together. The initial dip should be slight, and the tone doesn't rise at the end when spoken in a sentence or word. Instead, it stays low, similar to the first tone.

    While beginners shouldn't worry too much about mastering the tones, they should keep these tips in mind while learning Pinyin. Over time, they'll improve and distinguish between the tones.

    Here are a few examples of third-tone words:

    Word Pinyin Pronunciation Meaning
    hǎo haoh Good
    woh Me, I
    zǒu tzow To walk
    yeh And, also


    The fourth tone

    The fourth tone in Mandarin Chinese is easier to learn than the third tone. It's a falling tone, starting high and ending low, and syllables in this tone start with emphasis. Imagine seeing your dog near your lunch, and you say "No!" firmly. That's what a fourth tone sounds like. The accent mark for the fourth tone is: `.

    Here are some examples of fourth-tone words:

    Word Pinyin Pronunciation Meaning
    choo To go
    shàng shahng Upper
    boo No
    ài ay To love


    The fifth tone of Chinese?

    The fifth tone of Mandarin Chinese is actually the lack of a tone, also known as the neutral tone. This tone is lighter than the other tones, but it's not typically considered as a separate tone since it cannot stand alone. Neutral syllables always follow a character from a different tone, and their pronunciation varies depending on the preceding tone.

    Here are some examples of words with neutral tone characters.

    Word Pinyin Pronunciation Meaning
    妈妈  ma mah mah Mother
    什么 shén me shehn muh What?
    你呢  ne knee nuh And you?
    我们  men woh men Us, we
    朋友 péng you puhng yo Friend


    Chinese tone pairs

    As you're aware, correctly pronouncing tone pairs is more important than mastering individual tones. It's crucial to practice and understand how the tones interact with each other by going through examples of each set. Therefore, it's essential to spend time on this aspect of Mandarin Chinese pronunciation.

    First tone pairs

    When it comes to first-tone pairs, pronouncing the second syllable is straightforward since the first tone doesn't affect it. The only exception is for 1-3 pairs, where the first syllable is emphasized. For instance, in the word 桌子 (zhuō zi, table), the first syllable 桌 is emphasized, and the third tone in the second syllable 子 (zǐ) is dropped. However, this doesn't occur when the second syllable is emphasized, as in the example of 喝水 (hē shuǐ, drink water) below.

    Here are some examples of first-tone pairs in Chinese:

    Word Tone pair Pinyin Pronunciation Meaning
    今天 1-1 jīn tiān gene tiahn Mom
    中国 1-2 zhōng guó jong gwoh Ahina
    喝水 1-3 hē shuǐ heh shuay To drink water
    工作 1-4 gōng zuò gong tzuo To work


    Second tone pairs

    Mastering second-tone pairs can be challenging, especially with 2-2 and 2-3 pairs. There are no specific rules to follow; the key is to remember to pronounce the second tone in the first syllable, regardless of the tone of the second syllable.

    Word Tone pair Pinyin Pronunciation Meaning
    时间 2-1 shí jiān shih jian Time
    如何 2-2 rú hé roo huh How
    没有 2-3 méi yǒu may yo To not have
    文化 2-4 wén huà wehn hua Culture


    Third tone pairs

    Mastering third-tone pairs can be challenging. Remember that 3-3 tone pairs don't exist, so when you encounter a word that should be a 3-3 pair, switch the first syllable to a second tone. For all other tone pairs, use the "half" tone that we discussed in the third tone section, which is less emphasized.

    Here are some examples of third tone pairs:

    Word Tone pair Pinyin Pronunciation Meaning
    北京 3-1 běi jīng bay jeeng Beijing
    爱情 3-2 ài qíng ay ching Romance
    你好 3-3 (2-3) nǐ hǎo knee haw Hello
    暖气 4-4 nuǎn qì nuan chee Heating


    Fourth tone pairs

    When it comes to fourth-tone pairs, there's not much to worry about. The only thing to keep in mind is 4-4 pairs, where both syllables are fourth tones, but the first syllable should be emphasized more than the second. On a scale of 1 to 10, the first syllable would be a 10, and the second syllable would be a 6. 

    Here are some examples of fourth-tone pairs:

    Word Tone pair Pinyin Pronunciation Meaning
    唱歌 4-1 chàng gē chang guh To sing
    问题 4-2 wèn tí wehn tee Question or problem
    汉语 4-3 hàn yǔ han you Chinese language
    动物 4-4 dòng wù dong woo Animal


    Funny tone mistakes to avoid

    Making tone mistakes is a common occurrence in every Chinese learner's journey, and it's almost a rite of passage. Similar to the subtle difference between "papa" and "papá" in Spanish, tone errors can significantly alter the meaning of words in Chinese. In fact, Chinese learners are often more prone to making unintentionally humorous tone mistakes than others.

    Characters Pinyin Meaning
    Pairing 1
    我可以你吗? wǒ kě yǐ wèn nǐ ma? Can I ask you?
    我可以你吗? wǒ kě yǐ wěn nǐ ma? Can I kiss you?
    Pairing 2
    我爱我老板 wǒ ài wǒ lǎo bǎn! I love my boss!
    我爱我老伴 wǒ ài wǒ lǎo bàn! I love my wife!
    Pairing 3
    你怎么没有经理 nǐ zěn me méi yǒu jīng lǐ? How do you not have a manager?
    你怎么没有经历 nǐ zěn me méi yǒu jīng lì? How do you not have experience?
    Pairing 4
    我吃了一碗 wǒ chī le yì wǎn tāng I ate a bowl of soup.
    我吃了一碗 wǒ chī le yì wǎn táng I ate a bowl of sugar.
    Pairing 5
    水饺多少钱一 shuǐ jiǎo duō shǎo qián yì wǎn? How much for a bowl of noodles?
    睡觉多少钱一 shuì jiào duō shǎo qián yì wǎn? How much for a night of sleep?
    Pairing 6
    我找不到我的眼镜 wǒ zhǎo bú dào wǒ de yǎn jìng I can’t find my glasses.
    我找不到我的眼睛 wǒ zhǎo bú dào wǒ de yǎn jing I can’t find my eyes.
    Pairing 7
    你是中国人,你怎么不会说汉语 nǐ shì zhōng guó rén, nǐ zěn me bú huì shuō hàn yǔ? You’re Chinese, how can you not speak Chinese?
    你是中国人,你怎么不会说韩语 nǐ shì zhōng guó rén, nǐ zěn me bú huì shuō hán yǔ? You’re Chinese, how can you not speak Korean?
    Pairing 8
    这家饭馆怎么没有杯子 zhè jiā fàn guǎn zěn me méi yǒu bēi zi? How does this restaurant not have cups?
    这家饭馆怎么没有被子 zhè jiā fàn guǎn zěn me méi yǒu bèi zi? How does this restaurant not have quilts?
    Pairing 9
    我爱熊猫 wǒ ài xióng māo I love pandas.
    我爱胸毛 wǒ ài xiōng máo I love chest hair.
    Pairing 10
    你什么时候去山西 nǐ shén me shí hou qù shān xī? When are you going to Shanxi?
    你什么时候去陕西 nǐ shén me shí hou qù shǎn xī? When are you going to Shaanxi?


    There are a total of 23 initials and 36 finals in Pinyin, resulting in hundreds of possible Pinyin combinations. However, not all combinations of initials and finals are valid. A complete chart of all the possible Pinyin combinations is available, which you can refer to for guidance.

    Converting Chinese characters to Pinyin

    Regrettably, there is no set method for converting Chinese characters into Pinyin or vice versa. However, if you are familiar with some of the Chinese radicals, you may be able to make an educated guess on the Pinyin based on the radical. Alternatively, you can use digital tools to convert between Pinyin and characters.

    The good news is that modern Chinese language resources allow you to search for words using both Pinyin and characters, making it simple to find the Pinyin equivalent of any character.

    Pinyin was only invented in 1958, and many systems before it tried to romanize Chinese characters. Though most of them aren’t used anymore, you’ll still see them every now and then, particularly in proper nouns and names of historical documents.

    Alternative romanization systems

    1. Wade–Giles system

    The Wade–Giles romanization system was the most popular before Pinyin was introduced. Today, it is still very commonly used in Taiwan and in proper names. For example, have you ever wondered why the city of Beijing is sometimes referred to as Peking? That’s because the Wade–Giles romanization for 北京 (běi jīng) is Peking!

    That doesn’t mean that Beijing used to be pronounced as pay-king, though. Each romanization system has different spelling and pronunciation rules that attempt to get as close as possible to the actual pronunciation of the characters. Even Pinyin isn’t perfect, so you’ll still have to learn how to pronounce each character when learning Chinese!

    2. Yale system

    The Yale romanization system was developed by George Kennedy of Yale university in 1943. This system was specifically developed to help members of the US military learn Chinese faster, and it became the standard romanization system across most of the US. However, this system became less popular as Pinyin started gaining traction, and it all but disappeared after the 70s.

    While you likely won’t run into this system anymore, it does have one key legacy: the tone accent marks. The Yale system introduced the four tones (mā má mǎ mà) that are still used by Pinyin today.

    3. Bopomofo

    While Pinyin is pretty much the only transliteration system you will find in Mainland China, bopomofo is what you will find in Taiwan. Also known as 注音 (zhù yīn), this is another attempt at helping learners pronounce characters. However, bopomofo is nothing like Pinyin as it doesn’t use the roman alphabet. In fact, it doesn’t actually look like any other language.

    Bopomofo was designed not to help foreign learners understand how to pronounce Chinese characters, but to help children. This system uses uber-simplified characters to represent specific sounds, much like letters do. They are used alongside accent marks to indicate the tone of the word.

    Make the most of Pinyin

    Learning the basics of Pinyin can really unravel a whole new era in your Chinese learning. Now, you can easily look up words in the dictionary, look up the pronunciation of a word you’re unsure of, and perfect your pronunciation! Remember that nailing every single tone takes a long time, so don’t feel discouraged if you still get a few (or most!) tones wrong even after hours of studying. Consistent practice makes perfect, and you’ll get there too in enough time!