Pinyin Guide | Pronunciation, FAQs and more

What is Pinyin?

Pinyin (拼音 - pīn yīn), also referred to as Hanyu Pinyin, is the most popular romanization system for Mandarin Chinese. Its history reaches back to to the 1950s and gradually established itself as the go-to romanization system for Mandarin.

Today Pinyin is used for a broad range of use cases starting from teaching Chinese in and outside of China over display of Chinese names and words in Western letters to input of Chinese characters on computers and smartphones. There is a fantastic article on Wikipedia which goes into almost every detail there is to know about Pinyin history, how Pinyin is set up, how to write it, how to pronounce certain initials and finals, etc. This guide here builds on top of the Wikipedia article by providing audio files for each of the Pinyin sounds and answering frequently asked questions that might not be obvious from reading the article on Wikipedia, which you can find here.

Pinyin Pronunciation

This Chinese pronunciation tool below is probably the most valuable part of this Pinyin guide, especially if you just start out learning Chinese, so we put it at the top. If you click on any of the buttons, 4 audio files will load that represent the Pinyin sound with all four Chinese tones. To learn more about Pinyin, scroll further down to the FAQ section.

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FAQs

Below you can find a quick list of frequently asked questions about Pinyin. For more information, make sure you visit the Pinyin Wikipedia page here.

How many Chinese tones are there and how do they work with Pinyin?

There are a total of 4 tones, actually 5 if you count the neutral one as well. Tones in Pinyin are usually shown using special characters. Let's see how that looks like using the standard example of ma: First tone: mā, second tone: má, third tone: mǎ, fourth tone: mà and neutral tone: ma. To create the tones, you can use a Pinyin Editor like this one here. To find out more about tones, go to Wikipedia here (Pinyin article) or here (Mandarin Chinese article).

Can you translate Pinyin to Chinese characters?

Generally speaking, no, but in many cases you can guess. Chinese is a highly contextual language, so depending on the situation, you can usually guess what is meant. As an example let's take the word gān. On its own, it can mean several things, two of which might be "dry" and "liver". On the other hand, if you have the sentence wǒ xǐ huan chī gān then it is pretty clear that gān means liver. Because of this contextual nature, it is quite hard for automatic systems to directly convert Pinyin to characters, however, what you can do is put Pinyin into the dictionary of your choice and it should be able to show you all relevant characters. The work to pick the correct one is then up to you.

Is there a Chinese to Pinyin editor?

There is actually. To create Pinyin directly from Chinese characters, try the Pinyin converter on Pin1yin1.com. This should work most of the time, however, be aware that some characters can have multiple pronunciations and tones and that the automatic converter might get some of them wrong. For more important things, manually check the output with a dictionary of your choice like e.g. MDBG

Is there something like a Pinyin translator or a Pinyin to English dictionary?

Most Chinese dictionaries like this one here allow you to enter Pinyin with or without tones to see what words the Pinyin might stand for. Be aware that one term in Pinyin can potentially mean a lot of things, mostly the exact meaning can only be determined within the context of a sentence or paragraph. However, given the choices the dictionary presents you and the context you should have, it should be possible for you to find out what the word/phrase means.

Where can I find a Pinyin converter or Pinyin input tool?

To create nice Pinyin with tones on the right letter is fairly straight forward using our online tool Pinyin-Editor.com. If you want to convert Chinese characters to Pinyin, go for any good Chinese dictionary like e.g. MDBG.

Can I type Chinese using Pinyin?

Yes, in fact Pinyin is one of the most common input methods for Mandarin Chinese. Given the huge amount of devices and operating systems today, it would take ages to explain how to install a Chinese input method for your device. However, you can use any search engine and search for either "Chinese input method" or "Chinese keyboard" followed by your operating system or device, e.g. "Windows", "Mac", "iPhone", "Samsung", etc. Then you should be able to find tutorials on how to install a Pinyin keyboard or Pinyin input method on your device.

Is there an English to Pinyin dictionary?

Most Chinese dictionaries do not only show Chinese characters as result but also provide Pinyin and other information. For English to Chinese translation, MDBG is a good choice. To translate longer phrases, full sentences or whole paragraphs from English to Pinyin, the best choice is probably Google Translate as it not only translates English to Chinese characters but also shows the respective Pinyin below the results. If Google Translate isn't a viable choice, Baidu Translate or Bing Translate might be good options to first get the phrase in Mandarin. These automatic translations usually won't be perfect, so don't solely rely on them alone.

Where can I find a Pinyin chart?

With Pinyin chart you probably refer to Pinyin tables based on initials and finals. As so often, Wikipedia is your best friend and provides a great table with initials on the X axis and finals on the Y axis.

What is Zhuyin?

Zhuyin was one of the predecessors of Pinyin and is still used in Taiwan to this day. Bopomofo, as it is also called, is not using letters but 37 characters that cover all possible sounds in Mandarin. Given that you have to basically learn another little alphabet, Pinyin is probably the easier solution for foreigners, but Zhuyin is still heavily used in Taiwanese primary schools to teach Mandarin at an early stage. To find out more about Zhuyin, go to the article on Bopomofo on Wikipedia.

How can I get a Chinese Pinyin keyboard?

Given the broad range of devices and operating systems, the best answer here is to refer you to the search engine of your choice. You can then search for either "Chinese input method" or "Chinese keyboard" followed by your operating system or device you are using, e.g. "Windows", "Mac", "iPhone", "Samsung", etc. Then you should be able to find tutorials on how to install a Pinyin keyboard or Pinyin input method on your device/operating system.

Is Putonghua Pinyin and Hanyu Pinyin the same?

Yes, it is the same. 普通话 (pǔ​ tōng ​huà) and 汉语 (hàn​ yǔ) aren't exactly the same, but are often used to describe Mandarin in general. Pinyin isn't only used for Mandarin but also for several other Chinese dialects. For more information on this, please refer to the great Wikipedia article about Pinyin here.

Is there a Mandarin Chinese alphabet based on Pinyin?

Not really. There might be some dictionaries (online or offline) that target foreigners which use the Pinyin initial to order the words, but in general strokes and radicals might be what comes closest to Western alphabets in Chinese. Strokes are the building blocks of characters and all come with their own names. Radicals on the other hand are basically very basic characters which act as building blocks for more complex ones. Radicals are also used for most good Chinese dictionaries, something that might take quite a bit of time and learning for Chinese language learners to get used to.

What is a Pinyin table?

A Pinyin table is a table containing all Pinyin sounds. To have a look at such a table, go to Wikipedia where you can find a Pinyin table with initials on the X axis and finals on the Y axis.

Is there a Pinyin generator to type Pinyin with tones?

To create Pinyin with tones please refer to our Pinyin generator on Pinyin-Editor.com

What are Chinese initials and finals?

Initials and finals are the two parts that build one sound in Pinyin. The initial thereby is the front part and finals represent the latter part of the sound. There are also sounds like a or er that only consist of finals. You can learn more about initials and finals as well as their pronunciation by clicking here. To learn more about how initials and finals are put together to build sounds, click here.