How to Pronounce Chinese Names

written by Zhenghao (Frank) He

If you are a native English speaker (or native speaker of any other western language for that matter), and you happen to have come across Chinese names, you probably have wondered how names like Qian, Zhang or Xu are pronounced. This is a quick guide to pronounce Chinese names. In fact this is a quick guide to pronounce any Chinese word when it is spelled out in pinyin, which is the most widely used system of recording Mandarin Chinese sounds with Roman letters.

You may disagree for the moment, but Mandarin Chinese is one of the easiest languages in terms of pronunciation. Here are some of the reasons:

1)      Each Chinese character is only one syllable.

2)      Each syllable starts with just one consonant (no pl-, str-, ps- or anything like that) or no consonant at all.

3)      Each syllable ends with n, ng or no consonant at all. (No -nkst or -fth or -psl please!)

4)      There are only 6 different vowels in Mandarin Chinese. (7 if you get really serious.)

5)      A Chinese name, that is, family name and given name altogether, usually consists of only 2 or 3 characters, 4 tops.

Now here is how to pronounce Chinese names.

Consonants

OK, Im Mr Cow. Even though I was born Mr Cao [tsahw]

There are 23 consonants in Mandarin Chinese. They are:

b p m f d t n l g k h j q x zh ch sh r z c s y w

You can see by the layout of the consonants that I have divided them into 7 groups, just like whats been done in Chinese elementary schools. For consonants in groups 1 through 3 and group 7, most English speakers would have no trouble pronouncing them correctly, except for, perhaps, h, which should be pronounced half way between the English h and the Greek x (as in TeX).

The trouble often comes in groups 4 to 6. Even though there are 10 consonants within these 3 groups, there are really only 2 sounds that are not familiar to native English speakers. Here is a chart showing how to pronounce them correctly.

 

pinyin

IPA (modified slightly)

How to pronounce exactly

Approximation

Examples

Group 4

j

d + ɕ

jacket

Jiang [jyahng]

q

t + ɕ

China

Qian [chyehn]

x

ɕ

As in German wichtig. Like English sh, but try to flatten your tongue a bit when you say it.

wish

Xu [sh]

Group 5

zh

d + ʂ

jacket or drive

Zhang [jahng], Zhao [jahw], Zhou [jo], Zhu [joo]

ch

t + ʂ

China or try

Chen [chan or chen]

sh

ʂ

Like English sh, but curl up the tip of your tongue.

wish or shriek

Shen [shan or shen]

r

ʐ

Like ʂ, but vibrate your vocal cord.

rice

Ran [rahn]

Group 6

z

ds

seeds

-

Zeng [dsung]

c

ts

tsunami

-

Cao [tsahw]

s

s

silk

-

Sun [swen]

 

As you can see, q and c are pronounced nothing like k, and x is pronounced nothing like ks or z. These are the three most often mispronounced consonants when appeared in Chinese names. But you know, when your name is mispronounced so many times by so many people, you learn to keep a straight face even if you feel awkward: OK, Im Mr Cow. Even though I was born Mr Cao [tsahw]

Vowels

There are basically 6 different vowels in Mandarin Chinese. They are:

Vowel

Pronunciation

Corresponding sound in English

Examples

a

ah

father

Ma [mah], Pan [pahn], Wang [wahng]

o

or without the r, or aw

law

Bo [baw], Mo [maw]

e

er without the r, or uh

taken

Ge [guh], Chen [chen], Zheng [jung]

i

ee

leaf

Li [lee], Lin [lin], Ming [ming]

u

oo

soon

Wu [woo], Zhu [joo]

(u with 2 dots above)

 

Note: when appeared in English texts, the 2 dots are conventionally omitted, making it indistinguishable from u.

The same as in German: ber. Like how u would sound in French or how y would sound in Spanish. Its half way between i and u. Your lips will form a little ring when you pronounce it. If you know how to whistle, you know how it looks like.

No correspondence in English. But its similar to you.

Yu [y], Xu [sh], Yuan [yehn]

 

You will probably see 2 or even 3 vowels piled up next to each other (making a compound vowel). You can simply read them one by one as though they were alone, but be sure to make smooth transitions. For example:

Zhao [jahw], Guo [gwaw], Huai [hwaay or why], Liao [lyahw]

But wait a minute, if u and are indistinguishable from each other in English texts, how do I know which is which? The good news is that you can usually tell which one it is by looking at the consonant before it. You will see later. The only cases in which it is hopeless to make a distinction are when the consonant l or n comes before a lone u.

Five exceptions

There are 5 exceptions when dealing with vowels: (1) iu is actually an abbreviation of iou; (2) ui is actually an abbreviation of uei; (3) un is actually an abbreviation of uen; (4) when e comes after i or u or or y, it should be pronounced eh instead of uh, as in yes; (5) when an comes after i or , it should be pronounced ehn instead of ahn. Here are some examples:

Liu [lyo], Cui [tsway], Sun [swen], Xie [shyeh], Ye [yeh], Yue [yeh], Qian [chyehn], Yuan [yehn]

Something weird and interesting about i

This is what makes many people feel completely lost and give up learning how to pronounce Chinese names:

I see your given name spells Z-H-I-Y-U, how do you pronounce it?

Drrr-y.

???

The fact is, the is (immediately) following the consonants in groups 5 and 6 (which are zh, ch, sh, r, z, c and s) are pronounced like a buzzing sound. That means you only need to vibrate your vocal cord when you pronounce them, and nothing else. Think you cant do it? Sure you can. Think when you find out some weird fact and it doesnt feel natural to you, youll say hmmm (maybe you just did it). And when you try to emulate the sound made by some electronic device, youll say bzzz. In both cases you will vibrate your vocal cord. In fact the i here is a way of signaling there is really no vowel here. However, the i still takes up one syllable, which may seem odd. But it will become less odd when you remember how the m takes up one syllable in the word realism.

Here is how to approximate this null vowel represented by i:

Zhi [drrr or jrrr (or ger as in germ but say the e as short as possible) ],

Chi [trrr or chrrr (or chur as in church but say the u as short as possible )],

Shi [shrrr (or shir as in shirt but say the i as short as possible)],

Ri [yrrr], Zi [dszzz], Ci [tszzz], Si [szzz]

How to distinguish u and from each other in English texts

There are some rules regarding which vowels can (immediately) follow which consonants. Two of the rules are:

1)      can only follow n, l, y and consonants in group 4 (j, q, x).

2)      u cannot follow y or consonants in group 4 (j, q, x).

These 2 rules together means that, when a u follows y, j, q or x, it is really a ; when a u follows other consonants except for n or l, it is definitely a u. There is no way to tell lu from l, or nu from n, unfortunately. But if there are other vowels or ending n or ng after the u, it is definitely a u. Here are some examples:

Zhu [joo], Jun [jn], Xu [sh], Mu [moo], Huang [hwahng], Yuan [yehn], Lun [lwen], Nuan [nwahn], Lu [could be loo, could be l, no sure answer]

Names of Chinese professors in CS Department, University of Kentucky

If you find the previous texts too long to follow through, here is a quick reference that I think will be helpful to folks in the CS department of UK.

Name of Professor

Pronunciation

Fuhua Cheng

[Foo-hwah Chung]

Zongming Fei

[Dsong-ming Fay]

Tingjian Ge

[Ting-jyehn Guh]

Jinze Liu

[Jin-dsuh Lyo]

Ruigang Yang

[Rway-gahng Yahng]

Jun Zhang

[Jn Jahng]

 

End remarks

Now that you are approaching the end of this article, you are an expert in pronouncing Mandarin Chinese names. But there are still some issues.

Non-Mandarin Chinese

Wait a minute, what about dim sum? What about bok choy? Or wok? Or kumquat? These dont fit in with the pinyin system that you were talking about.

The answer is that these words are taken from Cantonese Chinese, not Mandarin Chinese. Its a Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong, Guangdong Province of China, some Southeast Asian countries, and among some Chinese immigrants in US. Its a totally different topic to start talking about this and other dialects. But just to give an idea of how different they can be from Mandarin, here is a comparison between Mandarin and Cantonese:

Cantonese

Mandarin

dim sum

dian xin

bok choy

bai cai

wok

guo

kumquat

jin ju

 

The family name Ng

You may have encountered the family name Ng by chance (For example Professor Andrew Ng in Stanford University). This is a Cantonese family name. Its Mandarin equivalence is Wu. To correctly pronounce it, think of the null vowel i that we talked about. Pronounce it [nggg] or [ung] as in hung but try to say the u as short as possible.

The 4 tones

Among the major languages in the world, the Chinese language is unique in that it has designated tones bound to each character. This adds a new dimension to distinguish different characters. However, in a tone-free language context such as English, it feels awkward to pronounce Chinese names with fixed tones, in my opinion. So I feel its perfectly fine to just ignore the difference of tones.

The order of names

Chinese names have their family names at the front. But when Chinese people come to America (or any other western country), we have to conform to the conventions in that country and put our family names at the back, because all documents assume that last name is a synonym for family name. The same is true for Japanese, Korean and many other Asian names.

Chinese characters

You have seen that different Chinese dialects can be quite different from each other in terms of pronunciation. But they are still the same language because they all use Chinese characters, and grammars are also generally the same. Chinese characters are not only used in the Chinese language, but are also used in the Japanese language and (less prominently) the Korean language, and was used in the Vietnamese language before French occupation of Vietnam in the 19th century.

Why different languages use Chinese characters? And how do we, Chinese and Japanese people, remember all these characters, which are at the number of thousands? Here is something I have written up about Chinese characters.

References

1)      Our friend Wikipedia.

2)      An article on the same topic by Dr Xiaojin Zhu.