Chinese Character Types, Phonetic Systems, and Romanization Systems
Mandarin Chinese - The Official Spoken Language of China
At A Little Dynasty Chinese School, we teach Mandarin Chinese (also known as Guoyu, Putonghua, and
Standard Mandarin), the official language of mainland China (since 1982) and ROC Taiwan (since 1932). Mandarin Chinese is also one of the four official languages of Singapore, and one of the eight official languages of the United Nations. Other traditional Chinese languages, such as Cantonese and Hokkien, are still widely spoken, especially among older people, but almost all Chinese can communicate in Mandarin to some extent.
As difficult as Mandarin seems to native English speakers, it is actually the simplest of the major Chinese languages and dialects. Compared to other Chinese languages and dialects, Mandarin has the fewest number of tones and all Mandarin syllables end in a vowel. Not including variations in tone, there are only about 400 Mandarin syllables. English, by comparison, has several thousand basic syllables. Mandarin syllables consists of an initial sound (sometimes), a final sound (always), and usually a tone. Each Mandarin syllable could be a word by itself, but most Mandarin words are polysyllabic.
A Little Dynasty Chinese School teaches Traditional characters and any Simplified forms, through the Proper Mandarin™ Curriculum. A summary of each character system is described below.
Traditional Characters – Traditional characters were the only way of writing Chinese prior to the 1960s and is still the only way of writing Chinese outside of mainland China. Traditional characters are easier to read because they transmit more information (meaning and sound) but can be more difficult to write because they contain more brush strokes than Simplified characters. However, it is just as easy to type Traditional Characters as Simplified ones on a computer or touchscreen device with the commonly used input methods.
A person who knows Traditional characters can easily understand any simplified forms based on context and appearance of the character. It is more difficult for someone who only knows Simplified characters to read Traditional Characters.
Simplified Characters – Mainland China introduced simplified forms (Jianti) of certain characters starting in 1958. These simplified forms have fewer brush strokes than Traditional characters. However, most Chinese characters are identical in the Traditional and Simplified systems. In typical usage, only about 20% to 30% of Chinese characters have simplified forms. Overall, there are over 100,000 Chinese characters and only about 6,000 of these characters have simplified forms. Simplified characters have been used in mainland China since the 1960s.
Knowledge of Traditional and Simplified Characters is Required for Complete Literacy -
Outside of mainland China, Traditional characters are ubiquitous. Almost all overseas Chinese communities use Traditional characters. Traditional characters are also useful within mainland China for many academic, business, and tourism purposes because anything written prior to the 1960s is in Traditional charcters. A tourist needs to know Traditional characters to appreciate the inscriptions at the many spectacular historical sites in mainland China.
While it is necessary to know both Traditional and Simplified characters to be completely literate in Chinese, Traditional characters should be learned first because it is much easier for someone who
knows Traditional characters to learn Simplified than the other way around.
Chinese Phonetic Systems
The two most common Chinese phonetic systems are the Zhuyin alphabet and Hanyu Pinyin. A summary of each of these phonetic systems is described below. See The Chinese Zhuyin Alphabet for more information.
It is important to understand that Chinese use both the Zhuyin and Pinyin phonetic systems only as an aid to learning the pronunciation of Chinese characters and not as a writing system. In other words, the choice between Zhyuin and Pinyin is just a choice of method to learn Mandarin pronunciation, rather than a choice between two writing systems. There is only one proper way to pronounce Mandarin, whether that pronunciation is learned with Zhuyin or Pinyin. After late primary school when the student begins using Chinese characters without any phonetic aids, the student will probably never use Zhuyin or Pinyin again (or at least until they become parents themselves and need to help their young children with Mandarin pronunciation).
Zhuyin, The Original Mandarin Chinese Alphabet
Zhuyin is the original Chinese alphabet and was created in 1918 as part of the Mandarin Chinese
language by the same people who created the Mandarin Chinese language itself. See History of Mandarin. Zhuyin consists of 37 letters and four tones and can be used to accurately describe all of the vowels and consonants of the Mandarin language.
In 1958, mainland China adopted a phonetic and Romanization system for Mandarin Chinese called Pinyin. See History of Pinyin. Pinyin describes the sounds of the Mandarin Chinese language as established in the Zhuyin alphabet using Roman letters (“ABCs”). In other words, Pinyin and Zhuyin are just different symbols used to describe the same set of sounds of the Mandarin Chinese language. See Zhuyin-Pinyin Conversion Chart. Pinyin has been adopted in Taiwan as the official Romanization system for Mandarin but not as a phonetic system.
Neither Zhuyin Nor Pinyin are Replacements for Chinese Characters
A vital difference in how the Chinese use alphabets, whether Zhuyin or Pinyin, versus Western countries and some Asian ones like Vietnam, is that in China, alphabets are only used to describe the
sound of Chinese characters and not used as a complete writing system. Therefore, both Zhuyin and Pinyin appear only as annotations to Chinese characters, never by themselves. Nevertheless, the
alphabets are necessary for learning what an unfamiliar character sounds like.
The Proper Mandarin™ Curriculum and Textbook Series starts with phonics, progresses to Chinese characters with phonetic annotations, and finally to Chinese characters exclusively.
Phonetic Systems vs. Romanization Systems
As discussed above, phonetic systems describe the pronunciation of words. Romanization systems, in contrast, simply depicts words, usually proper nouns, in the Roman alphabet. Pinyin is both a phonetic system and a Romanization system.
Historically, the most commonly used Romanization system is the Wade-Giles system, introduced by Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles in 1892. Pinyin was adopted as the standard Romanization system by the ISO in 1982 and by Taiwan in 2009. With some exceptions, Pinyin has replaced the Wade-Giles system as the standard Chinese Romanization method in mainland China since the early 1960s, internationally since the early 1980s, and in Taiwan since the 2010s. Some examples of the differences between Wade-Giles and Pinyin are as follows:
Wade-Giles: Teng Hsiao-ping Mao Tse-tung Peking
Pinyin: Deng Xiaoping Mao Zedong Beijing
However, some historical names are still Romanized using Wade-Giles in order to preserve
continuity. For example, China's premier university Peking University, is still Romanized as Peking University and not Beijing University. Similarly, China's most famous beer is still Romanized as "Tsingtao Beer" as it was known in the pre-Pinyin days, and has not been converted to the proper Pinyin form: "Qingdao Beer."
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