How to Pronounce Chinese Names

I see names like 'Qin', 'Xu', 'Zhu', and I am not sure how to say Chinese names like these.
What you see is pinyin, literally 'spell out the sound'.  It's a system for romanizing Chinese ideograms, used in mainland China for Mandarin, a.k.a. putonghua.
Different systems are used in Hong Kong,Taiwan, and Singapore, where the following is not applicable.

Can you tell me how to read Chinese names?
Sure, you can learn pinyin in 5 minutes.
  • the good news: pinyin has fixed rules.  E.g. 'g' always sounds like 'game', no confusion to 'germ'.
  • the bad news: the notation is not entirely designed with English speakers in mind.

Um, how does pinyin differ from English?
The ones you should know first (assuming American English):

(approximate) English sound
ah, the sound when a doctor wants to see your throat
cats, now you know 'can' is really ts-ah-n!
her, without the 'r' sound (yes the British accent)
he, not 'eye'
or, without the 'r' sound (British accent again)
child, e.g. 'quan' is chew-ah-n
too, not 'you'


What about other pinyin?
Most others are the same as in English.  Let me list them: ch, b, d, f, g(game), h, j(john), k, l, m, n, ng(song), p, r, s, t, w(want), y(young).  The vowels may pile together: ao, ai, iu, ou..., just read them one by one.

(At this point you will be able to pronounce names like Xiaojin Zhu.  It's Shiaojin Dru, not Kz-yo-jin Zoo.)

Wait, doesn't Chinese have tones?
Yes, there are 4 or 5 tones depending on how you count them.  The proper form for tones is as diacritics (-, /, v, \, .) above the first vowel (in most cases).   Obviously it's not easy to type tones with an English keyboard!  Sometimes tones are written as a number after pinyin, like xiao3 jin3 zhu1.  But most people omit tones when writing pinyin as English.  You don't need to worry about them for the time being.


Want to learn more?
The Devil is in the details.  There are a few exceptions.  Beware
  • zi, ci, si, zhi, chi, shi, ri: the 'i' here is not like he
    • For zi, ci, si, try the sound of a flying bee zzz (or the word 'buzz').  zi = dszzz, ci = tszzz, si = szzz.
    • For zhi, chi, shi, ri, when making the buzzing zzz, curve the tongue up a little bit.
  • yan, ian: a is almost always ah, e.g. 'pan' is pahn not pan; Except in the combination 'ian' (or 'yan') when it's indeed like indian.  But if the combination is 'iang' or 'yang' it goes back to ah
  • ie, ue, ye: here e sounds like yes.
  • ju, qu, xu, yu: here u is a rounded front vowel, not found in English. It helps if you know French. For instance to pronounce 'xu', first say she, then keep everything fixed but round your lips.  The rounded front vowel may appear elsewhere in pinyin, and may be informally written as 'v'. Formally it is represented by umlauted u, i.e. a 'u' with two dots on top. 
Also keep in mind some English sounds in the above table are only approximations.  But at this point you are already a master of pinyin, congratulations!


What else should I know?
  • In Chinese people write family name before given name.  However many, including yours truely, choose to switch the order in pinyin.  Either way is acceptable.  It's not a bad idea to ask which is which.
  • Unlike western families, a huge number of unrelated Chinese families share the same family names. Chinese family names have lost their function in distinguishing families. To make things worse, many different family names sound the same and have the same pinyin. For instance 'Zhu' can be at least 4 different family names!  Ramifications:
    • More confusing paper citations, where traditionally one cites only the family name.
    • Please be considerate when creating email / computer accounts. lastname@address is not a good idea: It almost surely invites conflicts.
  • Some common Chinese family names (pinyin, English sound) 


    ts-ai, not kai
    she, with rounding
  • Some Chinese university names
  • Tsinghua (Qinghua) University
    ching hua
    Peking (Beijing) University
    bay jing 
    Zhejiang University
    dr-er ji-ah-ng
    Fudan University
    foo dahn
    Nanjing University
    nahn jing
    Huazhong University of Science and Technology
    hua drone
    Shanghai Jiaotong University
    sh-ah-ang hai jiao tone
Finally, practice pinyin with your fortune cookies!

Xiaojin Zhu
Last Modified August 1, 2005