Phonetic Representation of Chinese Characters

Hanyu Pinyin (Chinese romanization system)

If you have ever studied Chinese, you must have come across the Pinyin phonetic alphabet which can be seen next to Chinese characters in Chinese dictionaries.
The Pinyin transcription system uses the Roman alphabet and can, therefore, be easily understood by anyone interested in learning Chinese. Furthermore, since they always appear in introductory course textbooks, they are considered an integral part in the process of learning Chinese.
Here are a few concrete examples.

Example: jīntiān tiānqì hǎo
              今   天   天   气   好

This sentence means "The weather is nice today" in Chinese, and the symbols displayed above the vowels indicate the tone.
Considering that one Chinese character always represents one syllable, in this example "今" is "jīn", "天" stands for "tiān", and so on. When taught to students, Pinyin symbols are separated into two categories: the "first consonant" and the "following vowels and nasal stop" parts. For instance, "jīn" is composed of "j" and "īn", while "tiān" is made of the "t" and "iān" groups, and a variety of pronunciations are possible depending on these combinations.

Zhuyin Fuhao (Supplementary phonetic symbols)

Now, have you ever seen the following type of characters?

ㄐーㄣ   ㄊーㄢ   ㄊーㄢ   ㄑーˋ   ㄏㄠˇ

These phonetic symbols are known as "Zhuyin Fuhao" and were promulgated by the Republic of China (or today’s Taiwan) in 1918. They were created by abbreviating parts of Chinese characters, and hence can be compared to katakana in Japanese which evolved in a similar way. In 1958, new phonetic signs influenced by the Roman alphabet (Pinyin) were established by the People's Republic of China and replaced Zhuyin Fuhao in Mainland China. But Zhuyin Fuhao symbols remain in use in the Republic of China (Taiwan) to this day, where they can even be seen on computer keyboards and mobile phone keypads.

The Zhuyin Fuhao symbols above also transcribe "今天天氣好" ("The weather is nice today") presented earlier on. They can be decomposed as follows.

ㄐーㄣ  /  ㄊーㄢ  /  ㄊーㄢ  /  ㄑーˋ  /  ㄏㄠˇ
   今     /     天    /     天     /     氣   /    好。

ㄐ = j
ー = i
ㄣ = n

ㄊ = t
ー = i
ㄢ = an

These symbols are taught to children in Taiwan before they start learning thousands of formal Chinese characters. They are sometimes displayed beside ideograms in children’s books, like furigana in Japanese.
Moreover, they are used to express words proper to the Taiwanese vernacular that cannot be written in formal characters (such as certain fashinoable expressions, mimetic words or onomatopea), and can also be seen on posters and advertisements in Taiwan.

Consonants(top: Zhuyin Fuhao, bottom: Pinyin)
  ㄅ    ㄆ    ㄇ    ㄈ    ㄉ    ㄊ   ㄋ    ㄌ    ㄍ    ㄎ    ㄏ    ㄐ
  b     p     m     f     d      t     n     l      G     k     h     j

  ㄑ    ㄒ     ㄓ     ㄔ    ㄕ     ㄖ    ㄗ    ㄘ    ㄙ
  q      x     Zh    ch    sh     r      z      c     s

Vowels (top: Zhuyin Fuhao, bottom: Pinyin)
  ㄚ     ㄜ    ー     ㄨ     ㄛ    ㄩ     ㄝ     ㄞ     ㄟ     ㄠ     ㄡ
  a      e      i       u      o     ü      ê      ai      ei    ao    ou

  ㄢ     ㄣ        ㄤ         ㄥ             ㄦ
  an    en      Ang     eng,-ng       er,r

This is a comparative table between Pinyin and Zhuyin Fuhao characters. Even people who know Chinese may not be very familiar with Zhuyin Fuhao but, if you are interested, please take a look and compare them to their Pinyin equivalents.

Written by Masanori Itoh, Translation/Localization Department

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