The Chinese Language


The goal of this unit is not to teach Chinese per se, but to create an appreciation for one of the world's oldest surviving languages and to encourage students to see a connection between language and culture.

Students may ask what their names are in Chinese, but there are not direct translations. English names are transliterated into Chinese, i.e., given Chinese names that sound like English names but may mean something very different. Pronunciations of foreign names are often meaningless in Chinese!

Since Chinese uses characters rather than an alphabet, many different systems of romanization have been developed over the years to help Americans and Europeans learn to pronounce the Chinese characters. Until the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Wade-Giles system had been the predominant system, and it is still used as the official romanization system in Taiwan. In their attempts to simplify the Chinese language and to increase literacy among the Chinese people, the PRC developed a new system, known as the pinyin system. This system is now used by U.S. newspapers and many book publishers.

Following are a few tricks to pronouncing Chinese words which are romanized using pinyin:

The letter is pronounced as... Some examples
c ts, as in "its" cai (pronounced "ts-eye"; n. vegetable)
q ch, as in "check" Qing Dynasty is pronounced "Ching" Dynasty
x sh, as in "she" Deng Xiaoping is pronounced "Deng Shiaoping"
zh "j"

Zhou Enlai is pronounced "Joe Enlai";
Zhou Dynasty is pronounced "Joe Dynasty"

All other sounds can be pronounced as they are written.

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Guide to Pronouncing Romanized Chinese (Wade-Giles and Pinyin)

Wade-Giles Pinyin Pronunciation in English
ch' (aspirated) q ch
(The name of Mao's widow is written "Chiang Ch'ing" in Wade-Giles, "Jiang Qing" in Pinyin, and would be pronounced "Jiang Ching.")
ch (unaspirated) j or zh j
("Chou Enlai" in Wade-Giles is spelled "Zhou Enlai" in Pinyin and would be pronounced "Joe Unlie.")
k' (aspirated) g k
("Hua Kuofeng" in Wade-Giles has become "Hua Guofeng" in Pinyin)
k (unaspirated) g g
p' (aspirated) p p
p (unaspirated) b b
(The capital of Taiwan is no longer written Taipei but Taibei.)
t' (aspirated) t t
t (unaspirated) d d
(The t in Mao's name changes to d: Mao Zedong.)
ts' and tz' (aspirated) c ts
ts and tz (unaspirated) z a or ds
(ds as in "woods".)
hs x sh
(The first part of Deng Xiaoping changes from Hsiao to Xiao.)
j r French j plus r
(No exact English equivalent.)
a a a (as in star)
e e e (as in set)
i i e (as in he) or i (as in machine)
ou ou o (as in over)
u u oo (as in too)
en en un (as in under)
ih i ir (as in bird — no exact English equivalent.)
u u German u (no exact English equivalent)
ai ai ie (as in lie) or i ( as in i)
ei ei ay (as in day)
ao ao ow (as in now)
uo uo oo ( as in too) plus ou (as in ought)
ui, uei ui oo (as in too) plus ay (as in day)
ung ong oo (as in book) plus ng (as in thing)
Chart courtesy of TEXPERA (Texas Program for Educational Resources on Asia)

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The Chinese Language

Chinese is one of the oldest written languages in the world. While there are many different spoken languages and dialects in China, there is only one written language. (The same written symbol is pronounced differently in different dialects, although it has the same meaning.)

This was an important element in keeping a very diverse country unified. Centuries ago the only way people from different regions in China could communicate was through the written language, which we know as classical Chinese (wen yan, or gu wen). Classical Chinese was, and is, used for scholarly works and literature. Many of the words and phrases used in classical Chinese are not meant to be spoken and would have no meaning if spoken because they do not correspond to speech. This is somewhat like the difference between spoken English and the English used in scholarly journals, or in literature. As in all languages, a person does not write exactly as one speaks. For much of Chinese history the written language was known only by scholar-officials, who were members of the educated class. To be a member of the scholar-elite was quite an honor since very few people were educated.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Chinese have developed what is known as standard Mandarin or normal Chinese (baihua), which is the spoken form of the written language. The dialect chosen by the government to be the spoken language in China comes from the area of Beijing which is populated by the Han people, the largest ethnic group in China. There are other dialects in China which amount to different spoken languages such as Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fukinese. (Locate on the map the area of Guangdong — also known as Canton Shanghai — and Fujian.) A person speaking Mandarin cannot communicate with a person speaking Cantonese. When foreigners learn Chinese they generally learn standard Mandarin, also called Han yu (meaning language of the Han), or Zhongguo hua (Chinese language). Sometimes it is also referred to as Guo yu (national language).

Pronouncing Chinese: The Tones

Note to teacher: In the following text the tones will be indicated by the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 in brackets — [1], [2], [3], [4] — appearing after the Chinese words rather than the symbols — ¯, /, V, \ — which are often placed over the words, as these latter are difficult to format.

Chinese is a tonal language. Cantonese, for example, has nine, but Mandarin has four tones. The first tone [1] ( ¯ ) is a high pitched tone like a hum, or like me in the following sentence: "Who would like to go outside? MEEE!" The second tone [2] (the rising tone / ) is similar in English to the rising of the voice at the end of a question, or a greeting: "Hello. Who is it?" "Is that your bicycle?" The third tone [3] (dipping tone V ) sounds like the head master in the play "Oliver" as Oliver approached to ask for more porridge: head down, but looking over his spectacles he says "yes…?" The "yes" comes from deep in his throat. The fourth tone [4] (the falling tone \ ) similar to a command: "sit!" "no!" Try to pronounce each tone using your head to indicate the direction of the sound. The dramatics of your head rising and falling, either slowly or quickly, will demonstrate what is meant by the tonal quality of the language.

First tone [1]: Move your head slowly from left to right saying "ma" continuously.
Second tone [2]: Look down at your left side and slowly move your head upwards and to the right as you say "ma" as if in a question, so that your head ends up tilted back with your nose pointing to the ceiling over your right shoulder.
Third tone [3]: Slowly drop your chin to your chest while saying "ma" continuously deep in your throat.
Fourth tone [4]: Look up and a little to the left, and then say "ma" as you drop your head down and to the right quickly as if to say no!

Congratulations! You've just said four words in Chinese: ""Ma" with macron for the first tone" [1], mother; ""Ma" with macron for second tone" [2], a questions word; ""Ma" with macron for third tone" [3], horse; and ""Ma" with macron for fourth tone" [4], to scold. Imagine how embarrassing it could be to say a word with the incorrect tone. This is one of the reasons Chinese is considered a very difficult language. The other reason has to do with writing Chinese.

Writing Chinese: The Characters

Chinese symbols are called characters. Each character contains a radical or a sign which indicates meaning, and a phonetic which suggests how the character is to be pronounced. Chinese is a pictographic language in that its earliest renderings were pictures. The written language has evolved from its earlier pictorial roots to a standardized form. In addition, it has also been simplified in the PRC. In 1956, the communist government in China, in an effort to raise the literacy rate and make it easier for the central government to communicate with everyone, reduced the number of strokes it takes to write Chinese characters by almost half in some cases. This means that in the traditional or complex form, a simplified character such as 机 looks like this 機. The traditional characters are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In addition to simplifying the written language, the government also introduced a romanization system called pinyin to teach the Chinese people how to render their language in roman letters. The romanization used in this essay is from the pinyin system of romanization. There are other systems still in use such as Wade-Giles, which pre-dates pinyin and it still used in Taiwan. (See the pronunciation guide, above, for a comparison of the two systems.) Most of the official documents and all of the newspapers produced in the PRC use the simplified characters, but journals, newspapers, and books produced in Taiwan or Hong Kong use the complex characters.

Not all ideas can be written in simple pictures, so the Chinese have developed other symbols to represent ideas, and sometimes combine them to create new ideas. For example, the concept of "good" is expressed in the character 好, "hao". This character is the picture of a kneeling woman 女 and a child 子. Woman and child together means good. Similarly, the character for pen is 筆. It is made up of the character for bamboo 竹, and the character for hair 毛. In ancient China, pens or writing brushes were often made of bamboo with animal hair attached (like a modern paint brush). Today, the specific character for a calligraphy writing brush is ("maobi") 毛筆, the word for hair or fur and the word for pen. Often, two characters meaning different things are put together to create a new meaning. Take the word for crisis, 危机, "weiji" (or 危機) It contains the character 危 "wei" which means danger, and the character 机 "ji", which means opportunity, or crucial point. A crisis presents a moment of opportunity as well as great danger. A language reflects the understanding that culture has of itself and influences how people in that culture think. The following essay demonstrates the way characters may be put together to form different words, and how different meanings can have the same sound, but different tones.

qing [1]
"Qing" 青 means blue or green, young, or green grass. In general, 青 has a positive connotation in Chinese. But put together with other characters, 青 has different meanings.
qing[1] tian[1]
青 + 天 = blue sky. "Tian" 天 means heaven.
qing[1] chun[2]
青 + 春l = youthfulness. "Chun" 春 means springtime. Literally it is a picture of planted fields nurtured by the sun 日.
Now, if we add different radicals to the character 青, (remember, radicals give meaning), we will get a new meaning. For example, add the radical for sun 日. The new character, qing[2] 晴 (note change of tone), means fine, or clear. So then...
qing[2] tian[1]
... means clear, sunny day.
Next we'll add the radical for speech 言, "yan," (a picture of a mouth reading lines or words). Now qing[3] 請 (again, note tone change), means to request, to ask for, or to say "please." So then...
qing[3] ke[4]
... means play the host or give a dinner party. "Ke" 客 means guest. Literally, to invite guests to come under your roof 宀.
qing[3] an[1]
... means pay respects to, or wish someone good health. "An" 安 means peaceful, tranquil, secure, and in good health. Literally, woman 女 under a roof 宀.
Now, if we add the radical for water, written either氵or 水, we get qing[1] 清, which means unmixed, clarified, pure, or cleaned up. Thus...
qing[1] shui[3]
... means clear water.
qing[1] bai[4]
... means pure, stainless. "Bai" 白 means white.
qing[1] xiang[1]
... means delicate fragrance. "Xiang" 香 means fragrant; literally the smell of ripe rice 禾 in the sun 日.
Finally if we add the heart radical, which is written忄or 心, we get qing[2] 情, which means feelings, affection, favor, or kindness. So ...
qing[2] yi[4]
... means tender regards, or good will. "Yi" 意 means idea or intention.
qing[2] ren[2]
... means sweethearts. "Ren" 人 is the character for person.
As you may have noticed, 青 and 清 have the same tone, as do 晴 and 情. Therefore, the meaning of the spoken word would have to come from the context of the conversation since they sound the same.

As you may have guessed, mastering Chinese takes many years, but unlike English, Chinese grammar is simple. A big difference is that in Chinese one does not conjugate verbs to show tense. Instead, a time word is used to indicate that the action is in the past, present, or future. Also, because Chinese is a monosyllabic language, (each character having only one syllable like no, see, air, sing), it is easier to learn to speak than many other languages. (Compare names like Beijing or Taipei to Philadelphia or Mississippi!) While the Chinese language consists of over 50,000 characters, one need only know 3,000 to 5,000 to read newspapers and books. It is said that for a person to become a real scholar of Chinese (and know all 50,000 characters), he or she would have to study nothing but Chinese for ten years. The written language is very difficult, but writing beautiful Chinese characters is an art encompassing in its simplicity, symmetry, and variety. It is also fun.

Unit Consultant: Catherine H. Keyser

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© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University |