I decided against learning Japanese in favor for Chinese. To begin my long quest to master Chinese, I will have to master Pinyin. Hànyǔ Pīnyīn or simply pinyin is the official way of romanizing Chinese. Pinyin is used to show how a certain character is pronounced since characters themselves don’t tell anything about pronunciation.

From Japanese to Chinese

Let’s first tackle the elephant in the room. Why did I decide to switch from Japanese over to Chinese? The reason goes back to my Korean partner. You see his family has roots all over Asia. One of those roots is Taiwan/China, a fact he is very proud of. He utterly loves Taiwan and often speaks about the country at length.

Recently we were talking where we would like to live. While Belgium is nice, we don’t see us living in Belgium forever. However, we don’t see ourselves living in Korea either. Then I suddenly got the idea: Why not Taiwan? From there we talked about it and somehow got me thinking about learning Chinese. Not only would it be great to get started now if by any chance we do end up living in Taiwan, his mom would be so happy that I’m learning Chinese as well.

So I’m switching from Japanese to Chinese due to a sudden whim. My life is quite whimsical, no?

Mastering Pinyin
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The First Hurdle: Pinyin

To begin learning Chinese, you won’t start learning Chinese characters. No, you will be learning how to write Chinese using roman characters. The reason for this is that Chinese characters don’t tell its readers how it is pronounced. Therefore Pinyin was developed, a phonetic writing system for Chinese using latin characters. Because it is designed for Chinese, the pronunciation of certain characters will be completely different from what you are used to since pinyin is a forced way of using latin alphabet for Chinese.

Let’s start exploring Pinyin.

The initials

Pinyin syllables are build using 2 building blocks: initials and finals. Initials are all simple “consonants”. While I call them consonants, don’t think they are just letters. Remember the Roman alphabet was not designed with the Chinese language in mind. Some consonants therefore use 2 letters, rather than 1.

There are 21 initials in the pinyin system. These 21 initials are:b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, h, j, q, x, zh, ch, sh, r, z, c, and s. Not all Chinese words have initials, however. Furthermore y and w are also used as initials, but these are merely orthographic and we’ll come back to them later.

The Finals

Finals are the meat of any Chinese word, they either follow an initial or are used independently. There is a limited, yet large amount of finals. The finals always begin with what Europeans call a vowel.

The list of finals is: a, e, i, o, u, ü; er, ai, an, ang, ao, e, ei, en, eng, ia, ian, iang, iao, ie, in, ing, io, iu, ong, ou, ua, uai, uan, uang, ue, ui, un, uo, üa and ün.

Please note that not all possible combinations exist; this pinyin table shows you all existing combinations.

Additional Notes on Pinyin

Because the way pinyin works sometimes certain words can end up being confusing to read. Therefore Pinyin uses 3 characters to help you read the words written in Pinyin properly. These characters are y, w and ‘.

  • When a final begins with an i, the i is replaced with a y. However, if i is the only ‘vowel’, it changes into a yi.
  • When a final starts with an u, the u changes into a w.
  • When a final begins with an ü, the ü changes into yu.

Examples: yī (一),  wǔ (五)

The apostrophe on the other hand when a second (or third, …) is written and it begins with an a, o or e to remove potential confusion over the proper pronunciation.

Example: xiān (先) compared to Xī’àn (西安)

Lastly there are a few additional spelling rules in pinyin. Because the initial j, q and x do not pair with u, combinations with ü the umlaut of ü is not written. Furthermore two finals are written differently if they are not paired with an initial:

  • “un” is written as “wen” when there is no initial;
  • And “ong” is written as “weng” when there is no initial.

Simplified or Traditional Chinese?

To end this long post I want to answer a simple question: which set of Chinese characters will I learn? As some as you might know Chinese has split into two systems. You have Simplified Chinese on the one side and Traditional Chinese on the other. The People’s Republic of China uses Simplified Chinese, where the other Chinese speaking regions use traditional Chinese. Knowing this I decided to learn traditional Chinese as that is used in Taiwan.

The difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese is more complex than the answer I give, but it is the major difference. Simplified Chinese changed various frequently used characters to reduce the amount of strokes or to make drawing them easier. However, the pronunciation of the characters remains the same in Traditional and Simplified Chinese.

If you are learning Chinese I would love to know which one you are learning. Are you learning Traditional or Simplified Chinese? Let me know in the comments below.