Chinese Basic 1
First contact

This section provides a brief introduction to the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese. It uses 拼音 Pinyin, the modern standard system of romanization adopted by the People's Republic of China in the 1950s, to transcribe spoken Chinese. The main rationale for the introduction of Pinyin was to help Chinese children to acquire the pronunciation of standard Chinese 普通话Putunghua. Support for speakers of other, especially Western languages was only a secondary consideration.

Chinese syllables are made up of an optional initial and a final. In addition, each syllable has one of four tones.

Pinyin has some spelling rules that affect the way Pinyin is written in certain contexts, knowing these rules can make working with Pinyin easier and helps to avoid misunderstandings.

Some Chinese sounds are more difficult to pronounce then others or their represenation in Pinyin can mislead speakers of most Western languages.

There are 21 initials, all consonants. They are usually collected into six groups based on their point of articulation. Click on an initial to hear it.

bilabial/​labiodentalpo [pʰɔ]bo [pɔ]]mo [mɔ]fo [fɔ](formed using the lips/the lips and teeth)
alveolar te [tʰɤ]de [tɤ]ne [nɤ]le [lɤ](top of the tongue on the ridge behind the top front teeth)
alveolarci [tsʰɹ̩]zi [tsɹ̩]si [sɹ̩](top of the tongue on the ridge behind the top front teeth)
retroflexchi [tʂʰɹ̩]zhi [tʂɹ̩]shi [ʂʰɹ̩]ri [ʐɹ̩](tongue curled backwards)
palatal (dorsal)qi [tɕʰi]ji [tɕi]xi [ɕi](back of the tongue against the hard roof of the mouth, tip of the tongue behind front teeth)
velarke [kʰɤ]ge [gɤ]he [xɤ]](top of the tongue on the ridge behind the top fron teeth)

Below are the 38 finals grouped by the first vowel. Finals consist of an optional initial vowel, the core vowel and an optional final vowel or the consonants 'n','ng' or 'r'.

aa [a]an [an]ang [aŋ]ai [ai]ao [ɑu]
o/eo [wo]e [ɤ]en [ən]eng [əŋ]ei [ei]
ou [ou]ong [uŋ]er [əɹ]
uu [u]ua [ua]uo [wo]uai [wai]ui [wei]
uan [wɑn]un [wən]uang [wɑŋ]
ii [i]/[ɹ̩]in [in]ia [ja]iao [jɑu]ie [je]iu [jou]
ian [jɛŋ]iang [jɑŋ]ing [iəŋ]iong [juŋ]
üü [y]üe [ɥe]üan [ɥɛŋ]ün [ɥn]

Chinese has four main tones and a neutral tone. The tones are marked with diacritics above the main vowel.

  • The first tone is a continuous high pitched tone.
  • The second tone rises from mid to heigh pitch.
  • The third tone falls from mid to low pitch and then rises to a high pitched tone.
  • The fourth tone rapidly falls from high to low pitch.

The neutral tone is soft and short. It has no tone marker.

Example: mā, má, mǎ, mà, ma

Tone marks:
High tone: ̄ Rising tone: ́
Low tone: ̌ Falling tone: ̀

Graphic illustrating tones

Tone is often more easily perceived in pairs of syllables. Listen to the following for the various combinations of tones:

HTjiāgāotígāohěn gāobù gāo
RTbāngmángjímánghěn mángbù máng
LTānhǎohái hǎo(hěn hǎo)bù hǎo
FTzhēn lèi bú lèihěn lèishòulèi

Some tones shift depending on the context. The most notable tone shifts are the following:

  1. when two third tones follow each other the first shifts to a rising tone.
  2. (bu), meaning 'not', is a fourth tone but shifts to a second tone before another fourth tone.
  3. (), means 'one'. If appears as part of phrase it changes its tone according to the following syllable. In front of a fourth tone changes to a second tone , in front of any other tone it changes to a fourth tone . (It has a first tone when used in counting.)

Note: Sometimes tones are indicated with a number behind each syllable.

  1. When i, u and ü form a syllable on their own they are written as: yi, wu and yu.
  2. Finals begining with i and which are not preceeded by an initial replace i with y or add y.
    Examples: ia → ya, iong → yong, in → yin, ing → ying
  3. Finals begining with u and which are not preceeded by an initial replace u with w.
    Examples: ua → wa, uang → wang, uo → wo, uen → wen
  4. Finals begining with ü and which are not preceded by an initial add y and change ü to u.
    Examples: üe → yue, ün → yun, üan → yuan
  5. After j, q and x, ü is written as u.
    Examples: jü → ju, qü → qu, xü → xu
  6. After an initial iou, uei and uen are written as iu, ui and un.
    Examples: liou → liu, duei → dui, cuen → cun

The difference between b/d/g and p/t/k is aspiration (an audible puff of air after p/t/k). In some languages b/d/g are voiced (vocal cords vibrate), but this in not the case in Chinese.

The retroflex sounds zh, ch, sh, r are formed towards the back of the mouth with the tip of the tongue curled back. ch is aspirated, zh is not aspirated.

j, q, x are unusual for the speakers of many languages. The sounds are produced by keeping the tip of the tongue against the teeth and pressing the top of the tongue against the hard roof of the mouth to constrict the airflow. q is aspirated, j is not aspirated.

After j, q, x u is pronunced ü, otherwise u is pronounced u.

The retroflex r, written 儿 appears as a separate character in writing, but it and the preceding character are merged into one:

Example: wán, 玩儿 wánr