Pinyin, why?

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Pinyin, why?

Post by Michalis » Thu Apr 25, 2002 9:07 am

Hi all!

For a western guy like myself, pinyin is THE way to get to understand Chinese. Not just the pronnunciation of the characters, but also the four different tones.

But my Chinese girlfriend has great trouble with pinyin, because to her it seems quite unlogical. For "dog" she would write "kou" rather then "gou". For "photofilm" she would write "tjowtjwan" , rather then "jaojuan".

How do Chinese in general deal with pinyin? It's the official manner of transscribing Chinese, but do they actually use it when dealing with foreigners? Do they study it at school, like we study Spanish of French? Why would China be concerned acceping pinyin as offical transcribing language in the first place, while it's generally a western's tool to understand Chinese (mandarin)?

It would be nice if Chinese readers could give me an awnser.

Kind regards,


Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by ppk » Thu May 23, 2002 3:37 pm

depends where ur gf comes from and wad kind of phonetic symbols system or keyboard input system she uses. pinyin was initially promoted in mainland china but not in hk or taiwan.

Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by Andrew » Fri Jul 05, 2002 8:30 am

I am looking for a dictionary that has the english word, mandarin writing, pinyin w/ roman characters, and then the pinyin characters like those I see on my girlfriend's handheld electronic dictionary. I like learning to pronounce the words w/ the chinese pinyin characters better than using the roman characters.
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Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by Mark » Sat Jul 06, 2002 12:02 am

wtf? Pinyin and roman characters ARE THE SAME THING.

Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by ichi » Sat Jul 06, 2002 5:13 am

I do belive he means bopomofo (Taiwanese phoneticization).

to the Andrew: I'd look for a dictionary out of Taiwan, and I would recommend one but I can't :(

Additionally, it may be well worth your while to learn pinyin; the substitution process shouldn't be incredibly difficult as the bopomofo symbols have direct roman equivalents. Additionally, there is a great deal more literature available in pinyin as it is the standardized phoneticization method.
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Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by Mark » Sat Jul 06, 2002 12:00 pm

To Ichi:

Generally that's true, as Zhuyin is used mostly in children's books and learners' material, and you'll have a hard time finding any real literature in Zhuyin.

Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by lailai » Fri Jul 12, 2002 1:52 pm

Maybe I can tell something. First, pinyin is the official roman systems for
Chinese language in mainland China, while in Taiwan it is a different system
called Zhuyin Fuhao. Second, Everybody in China knows pinyin, and every
student learns it as early as from primary school. So there is no problem
that anybody in China does not recognize pinyin. Pinyin to Chinese students
is not like French or Spanish to English-speaking students. It is a roman
system for the same language rather than some other languages.

The last thing I have to tell you is, the pinyin system only represents the
sound of the Chinese characters, which means that it lost the structure or
the picture of the character itself, which is the most important and meaningful part of Chinese language (and also its culture). Also only using
pinyin will cause a lot of ambiguities, because a pinyin word may represent
several characters. That's the reason that China will never use pinyin as
a replacement of the characters, as some radical people suggested in
early 20th century, because it would have caused much more problems
than the problems it could have solved.

I am a native Chinese Mandarin speaker, and anyone interested in
Chinese language or literature is welcome to contact me via email:
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Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by Anatoli » Thu Sep 19, 2002 7:41 am

That's interesting, Lailai.

I have a question: as a native speaking you are saying that if you would use pinyin instead of hanzi, there would be a lot of ambiguities and misunderstanding. Then when Chinese people talk, they wouldn't be able to understand each other. You don't ask another person how he spells what he just said. You understand by the context, by the word order or by using clearer or longer words to avoid misunderstanding. In French they use sometimes extra signs above the letters to differentiate between synonyms (not always they are pronounced differently).

Other languages also have homophones, maybe not as many as Chinese and in other languages they have joke about it.

I am not advocating changing to pinyin and abolishing characters. It's only in my view that this change more problems than create new ones. I saw a discussion somewhere where people learning Chinese say that Chinese is only for Chinese and not for all even. It's so hard to learn because of the writing system, even Chinese kids spent years at school. Chinese language could become more popular among non-Chinese people.

I respect Chinese culture and like to learn foreign language, my Chinese is very basic. At the moment I am concentrating on Japanese though.

Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by PPK » Sat Sep 21, 2002 6:32 am

modern chinese terms are usually made up of 2 characters/words, some 4(yeah, chinese is sometimes obssessed with pairing things up), unlike ancient chinese, where single character terms are common. so by linking up to different combinations and also context of the conversation, chinese speakers usually would not misunderstood each other. this has to do with chinese sentence structure too. certain terms, i make an example, 2 chinese terms 'ab' and 'cd', may sound identical, although they are made up of different characters. but one is a verb and one is a noun. from the rules of common sentence structure, chinese speakers will know which fit in best. even if both are verbs, people will know which one to fit in by looking at the context of the sentence. just like if i say this man is a 'phreak' in english, people will relate to the word 'freak' and not 'freight'.

to put things simple pinyin and zhuyin symbols gives only the pronouciation of chinese characters but doesnt include the meanings. it is a tool for learners to know the pronouciation of different words, like the phonetic symbols in an english dictionary. its not a vocab builder.
James Campbell

Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by James Campbell » Sat Sep 21, 2002 4:00 pm


There are two kinds of Chinese: spoken and written. The spoken language can be very colloquial, and not even written in this way at all. On the other hand, the written language is very much like an art, I guess you can call it rhetorical. If you read a sentence aloud, it will not sound like the way people speak. And people should be familiar with what is being read in order to understand. There is also a lot of abbreviation in the language, usually into 4 or 2 syllables. There are many 4-character sayings I haven't learned yet, and when I hear them, I cannot understand their meaning. I have to see it written to understand its meaning. But, what if we used pinyin? Then I still wouldn't understand its meaning, it would just be a copy of what was just said.

In addition, the way Chinese is, it is not necessary for children to use a dictionary past elementary/high school. Most dictionaries are for children, and there are hardly any for adults or college students. Only on this website do we mention sometimes and discuss these specialty dictionaries.

Mandarin has many fewer sounds than Ancient Chinese or other languages such as Cantonese or Min. So, it is actually easier to understand the spoken forms of more literary terms in these languages than it is in Mandarin. But there is one complication in Min is that there is a colloquial pronunciation and a literary pronunciation for everything. So actually, even if you speak the language well, does not mean that you could understand something being read aloud using literary pronunciation.

So if special words are difficult to understand in spoken Chinese, then how do we spell them out in speech, or over the telephone? How do you tell an operator, or a hospital attendant your name over the telephone so that she can look up your records? Basically, you have to use the word in context (context is everything!), one that the other person would know. For example, my name is ya-ke, but how do you write it? I use a chengyu to describe: wenren-yake de yake. Just by saying this, then people know how to write it. Some people's names have special radicals and may not appear in any literature that people would know, then we just say add such-and-such a radical to the rest of the character we might be familiar with.

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Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by Anatoli » Mon Sep 23, 2002 1:45 am

Thank you for your answers. I understand this possible problems. The examples with Chinese text that could be understood only if it is read from the book but not understood when it said reminds of some puns and word games that you come accross in other languages. The proverbs do come from ancient times. And when the meaning of the words is too ambiguous that it can't be understood then it should be substitued with a different word or described? As far as I know the stucture of Vietnamese is similar to Chinese and they also have one syllable words with various meaning. Lots of homophones that can be understood by the context. They did use Chinese characters, which are no longer in use.

I know Russian proverbs that use old words meanings of those is either forgotten or changed (good example: Red Square in Moscow didn't mean "red" at all but "beautiful". "krasnaya" (feminine adjective for "red" in modern Russian and feminine form of adjective "beautiful" in old Russian)).

I wonder how some people in China feel about having to learn to read and write thousands hanzi, when their interest is more in learning other sciences - art, music, whatever, or maybe just because they are a bit lazy to do it. I live in Australia and I had Chinese colleagues who came to Australia as children. Some of them have very basic knowledge of Chinese and can't write Chinese at all. They lose their roots, because they find it too hard to learn to read and write in Chinese.

It takes a few years at primary school, doesn't it, to become literate. I am learning Japanese and some Chinese only because I have a deep interest in it but languages, in the modern world are used for communication, not to make people's life harder. On some site devoted to learning Chinese, they said rich people deliberately made characters harder and more complicated, so that reading and writing them could only be accessible to upper class not ordinary people.

Again, I am not suggesting anything (like changing over to phonetic writing), just asking people's opinion on the topic.

fewer sound? maybe not

Post by floreo » Thu Oct 03, 2002 5:10 am

Well, I will begin with your original issue " PinYin" alphabetic system for chinese pronunciation. It's quite odd, tho we chinese use Letras Romanas( roman letters) we don't acutally pronouse them like they should be in latin language. The reason is because after the liberation of China, yet under the influences of those very radical linguists, originally this kind of influence came from Sovient Union as they use roman letters, we chinese thought we should have ourselves more close to the system which seemed in everyway better than our own's, including the language system. The most celebrated linguist 王力 said the romanization of the chinese language was possible and there would be one day all the chinese use letters instead of the characters. This above you can find in his early linguistic works. That's why we started to use roman letters in representing the unique sound of the old chinese and this is why there are some characters which are pronounced very different in Mainland China and in Taiwan. It's because they use the chinese dictionary which were compiled around 1930 titled 辞海. If you go for that dictionary you will find those typical Taiwan pronouciations are not truely unique at all as they were supposed to be prounuced like that before the 1949 Liberation.
The saying that modern madarin has fewer sounds than ancient chinese is so wrong. Ancient chinese don't possess so many sounds as we have today. We don't have sound like F in our archaic language. Let's say the letter" R "in Pinyin which you will be more familiar with than other ones cause its distictiveness. Here in Wu dialect we don't have that retroflection sound and kids who attend their primary schools often have problem with that sound. All because it doesn't exist in our dialect. Obivously, Wu dialect preserves many unique features of Anicent Chinese. This is the very reason that we can't make that sound right when we were very young. And this is the reason we say 日 like 你 here in Wu dialect. And this has been proven by those linguists far back in Qing Dynasty and is no longer a point of disscusion which sure made my sesquipedalian explanation pointless on account of that.
And about the picturesqueness of chinese characters I should say Pinyin does not and could not debilitate that pintorous conveyance of chinese characters. Actually, Pinyin helped the learing of chinese for both natives and foreigner tho the original motive for creating the alphabetic chinese pronunciation system didn't purely aiming at the facilating of the chinese study, yet it helped ultimately!
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Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by Mark » Mon Oct 07, 2002 8:08 pm

In romanisations of Russian, X is usually used as a KH sound, Q is usually not used at all, ZH is usually used for a ZH sound as in PLEASURE, etc.
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Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by iforem » Tue Oct 15, 2002 7:13 am


I admin Chinese is very hard to learn,but Chinese is not only for Chinese.Anybody will be able to master.

The other day i watched the CCTV-4 and found some foreigners who
spoke Chinese very fluently.I was very surprised and admired them.

My english is poor,i am regretful than i can not express myself optionally.

I am very glad to helper someone who are in trouble in learning Chinese.

Re: Pinyin, why?

Post by Polack » Fri Oct 25, 2002 7:58 am

Hanyu Pinyin was created when the mainland was under Soviet influence. That's why it uses "x" where Taiwanese use "hs". In cyrilic script "x" denotes quite a similar sound, but for non-Russian speakers it does not make any sense.