A common question about the ‘Chinese alphabet’ we get from students is: “I heard Chinese is a box-like ‘character language’, does it have an alphabet?”
And yes, opposite to the English language, the Chinese language is an ideographic language. However, Chinese people have always been working on different methods to show how the characters are pronounced. The system we are using now is called “Hanyu Pinyin”, or just Pinyin, which consists of Roman letters, therefore, these letters are what people referred to as the Chinese alphabet. Pinyin was created in the 1950s in mainland China and is widely adopted internationally since 1982.
Pinyin is based on Roman letters, but one letter is missing: the v (which is replaced by “ü” instead, which is different from u). Pinyin was introduced to assist the learning of the Chinese language. Before Pinyin there were different methods to figure out how a Chinese character is pronounced, but it was too complicated. Another reason Pinyin was required was the use of conventional typewriters.
The Chinese government and the educational development wanted to promote Pinyin in Mainland China starting from the 1950s, so that also people that know nothing about Chinese characters could still read. And so, a group of linguistics created the Hanyu Pinyin system (汉语拼音), choose one set of coding/decoding system to show the real pronunciations of all Chinese characters, so the illiterate Chinese people and foreigners can learn this language more easily. In the end, they found that many sounds of Roman letters are fairly close approximations of Mandarin, with exception of some cases.
Based on this idea, rather than letter by letter, one Chinese Hanzi character has a corresponding set of roman letters (which is called Pinyin syllable) to indicate its sound. When someone is learning Chinese, at the very beginning, words are shown just in Pinyin, and later, when one is learning characters, the Pinyin syllable will be marked above the character to help you to memorize the character.
Pinyin in daily life is very common. Here’s a road sign in Suzhou, with the Chinese hanzi characters and the Chinese pinyin beneath: 南施街Nán shī Jiē (but there are no tone-marks on the Pinyin on the traffic sign).
The pinyin pronunciation of a Chinese character/syllable (brown) is actually made up of three components:
- Initial (Pink)
- Final (Blue)
- Tone (Green)
A meaningful set of roman letters for a character (or one Pinyin syllable ) contains the following three parts:
- Initial, which usually is a consonant from roman letters. There are in total 23 initials
- Final, which is the following part after the initial, and it contains at least one vowel
- Tone, the little symbol above. There are in total four tones in the Chinese language
An example of a Chinese character and the corresponding Chinese character: zhōng 中
The complete 23 initials for Chinese alphabet (Pinyin):
The complete 24 finals for Chinese alphabet (Pinyin):
The 4 tones for Chinese alphabet (Pinyin):
How are the Chinese alphabet and Pinyin used?
Now we understand that “Pinyin” is not real Chinese, nor the real alphabet, we understand that it’s used to show the pronunciations of Chinese characters. So if you write in Pinyin to Chinese people, they probably won’t understand what you mean. However, Pinyin is extremely important in modern life in China, mainly in the following aspects:
- To indicate the pronunciations for Chinese characters so all nation-wide can understand these characters. In 1949, 80% of the population was still illiterate. So to have Pinyin marked over Chinese characters on the signs, newspapers, etc would help lots of people to understand.
- To assist in teaching Mandarin. Pinyin is widely adopted in primary schools and other adult education textbooks, making it easier for children or formerly illiterate people to continue with self-study after a short period of Pinyin literacy instruction. In addition, Pinyin has become a tool for foreigners to learn Mandarin pronunciation.
- Used for the sorting of dictionaries and dictionaries, and the indexing of books and scholarly works.
- The spelling of Chinese geographical or personal names in Pinyin has become the most common way to transcribe them in English.
- Pinyin has also become the dominant method for entering Chinese text into computers, phones, and other digital products.
Therefore, nowadays it’s not a huge deal if you can not write Chinese characters stroke by stroke yet, as long as you know the right Pinyin and the overall of the character, because you can type and choose the right one out of the bunch that the computer/cellphone input system provides.
To learn more about Pinyin or to get started with your Mandarin learning, check out these pronunciation videos by GoEast Mandarin.