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«A Non-Exhaustive Euro-Hannic Transcription Engine»

English, French, German, and Chinese Romanisations of Chinese


English, French, German, and Chinese Romanisations of Chinese
Points for Confusion
The Remains of Earlier Conventions
Order of Elements in Personal Names and Word Division
Concrete Examples of Some Problems
Frequently asked Questions (FAQ)

English, French, German and Chinese Romanisations of Chinese
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In one regard, writings in western European languages that deal with China manifest as an immense collection of transcription systems that differ both in space and over time. It is hoped that the information below will be of some aid, however modest, to comrades seeking to take decades-old documents in one of these languages and translate them into another, including in this process use of the transcription system - Pinyin - which is now increasingly seen in all parts of the world where the Latin alphabet is the norm.

By convention, a syllable in the Hannic ("Chinese") languages is regarded as consisting of the first consonant of the syllable (called the «initial»), plus the remaining vowel or vowel + consonant segment (called the «final»). On this basis then, "Mao Zedong" is divisible as follows:

m/ao  z/e  d/ong.

The following table is a list of the initials and finals of Putonghua ( ="Standard Chinese", "Pekinese", "Mandarin"), on which the transcription systems are generally based, and from which table the correspondences - sometimes insufficiently direct - amongst the systems, can be seen.

EFEO is a system still used to certain degree in French. Lessing-Othmer was used in German. Beifangxua Latinxua Sin Wenz (Northern Latinisation), usually known by the acronym "Beila", was a leftist proto-script in the 30s and 40s; personal names spelt in this system might occasionally be encountered in Stalinist reportage from that era.


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Pinyin Wade-Giles Lessing-Othmer EFEO Beifang Latinxua Notes
p p b  
p' p' p  
t t' t t' t  
g k g k g  
k' k k' k  
h h h x  
ts ds ts z for Wade-Giles variation see FAQ question 2
ts' ts ts' c for Wade-Giles variation see FAQ question 2
s s s s [sseu] s for Wade-Giles variation see FAQ question 2
zh ch dsch tch zh  
ch ch' tsch tch' ch  
sh sh sch ch sh  
r j j j rh  
ch  dj  k,ts  g,z  
ch' tj k',ts' k,c  
hs hs s,h x,s  
m m m m m  
f f f f f  
l l l l l  
n n n n n  
v - not used
w u,w ou,w u,w (L-O & EFEO convention unclear)
y y i,y i,y i,j (L-O & EFEO convention unclear)


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Pinyin Wade-Giles Lessing-Othmer EFEO Beifang Latinxua Notes
o o o o o  
o,ê ö ö,é o,e  
er êrh örl eul r  
i û e? eu (none) (after Pinyin z, c, or s)
i ih e? (none) (after Pinyin zh, ch, sh, or r)
i i i i i (after Pinyin any other letter)
ü ü y (after Pinyin y, j, q, or x)
u u u ou u (after Pinyin any other letter)
ai ai ai ai ai  
ei ei ei? ei ei  
ao ao au ao ao  
ou ou ou eou ou  
an an an an an  
ang ang ang ang ang  
en ên ën en en  
eng êng ëng eng eng  
ia ia ia ia ia  
ie ieh ie ie  
iao iao iau iao iao  
iu iu iou ieou, iou iu  
ian ien ian ien ian  
in in in  in in  
iang iang iang iang iang  
ing ing ing ing ing  
ua ua ua ua ua  
uo uo,o uo ouo uo,o  
uai uai uai ouai uai  
ui ui ui ouei ui  
uan uan uan ouan  uan  
un un un ouen un  
uang uang uang ouang  uang  
ong ung ung oung ung  
ue üeh  üa iue ye,yo (after Pinyin y, j, q, or x)
uan üan  üan  iuen yan (after Pinyin y, j, q, or x)
un ün ün iun yn (after Pinyin y, j, q, or x)
iong iung iung ioung  yng  


Points for Confusion
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Out of convenience, y- and w- are treated above as initials. Actually, since they are not consonants (or even real semi-vowels) they are not initials, unless in a purely graphological sense. The various systems thus either do or don't write the sounds [i] and [u] at the beginning of a syllable as y and w. Lessing-Othmer and EFEO usage in this regard is unclear. Pinyin though does so write them, and it is important to note that in Pinyin when final -iu is preceded by y-, or -ui is preceded by w-, the resulting syllables are written not "yiu" and "wui" but "you" and "wei".

Another point of possible confusion is this: Pinyin u when preceded by y, j, q, or x always represents the sound of German ü; it thus only is written with the umlaut when preceded by n or l (after which ü and u are both possible). Sometimes this is written -yu, resulting in "nyu" and "lyu" instead of "nü" and "lü". But more often, in English language newspapers, they usually appear simply as "nu" and "lu" without umlaut.

Likewise, in non-academic usage, apostrophes ['], umlauts and all other diacritical marks are omitted from Wade-Giles spellings. Attempts to transliterate this deformed Wade-Giles into national systems for French or German is sometimes not without deleterious consequences.


The Remains of Earlier Conventions
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Traditional Anglo-Saxon usage includes the following toponyms which are an inheritance of the eclectic "Postal System", which includes: (1) pre-Wade systems such as that of Morrison, and (2) not a different spelling of Pekinese but forms based on pronunciations of local languages:


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Postal Pinyin Notes
Peking Beijing  
Nanking Nanjing  
Chungking Chongqing  
Kiangsu Jiangsu  
Chekiang  Zhejiang  
Szechuan Sichuan  
Sinkiang Xinjiang ["Chinese Turkistan", "Eastern Turkistan"]
Tientsin Tianjin  
Hangchow Hangzhou  
Sian Xi'an  
Shansi Shanxi  
Shensi Shaanxi  
Tseki Ciqi  
Foochow Fuzhou  
Keelung Jilong  



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Postal Pinyin Notes
Amoy Xiamen  
Quemoy Jinmen  
Hokkien Fujian  
Hokien Fujian  
Fukien Fujian  
Kongmoon Jiangmen  
Canton Guangzhou actually an early French spelling of 'Guangdong'
Pakhoi Beihai  
Pokpak Bobai  
Shiukwan  Shaoguan  
Swatow Shantou  
Jehol Rehe  
Mukden Shenyang  

In the case of the first situation, there are some predictable matches to Pinyin:

-peh to Pinyin -bei
-ow to Pinyin -ou
-oo to Pinyin -u
-ee to Pinyin -i
k- and ts- if followed by the letter 'i', to Pinyin j- or q-
the syllable sze to Pinyin si
the syllable tse to Pinyin zi or ci

(Names of certain books/philosphical schools were also sometimes written in this manner - Lao Tse [Laozi], Chuang Tse [Zhuangzi], etc.).

Hong Kong (Xianggang) and Macau (Aomen) belong in the 2nd category, but in European languages are almost never pinyinised.

Correspondingly earlier layers of transcription (i.e. earlier than EFEO and Lessing-Othmer) no doubt also exist for French and German as well as other languages (eg French "Pekin", Italian "Pechino", Portuguese "Pequim"). Information concerning this is welcome.

Order of Elements in Personal Names and Word Division
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As in Hungarian and Japanese, the family name precedes the given name. Unlike with Hungarian or Japanese, this same order is retained in translation into western European languages. Discounting spelling differences, the following conventions have been seen for division of personal names:

  1. Mao Zedong
  2. Mao Ze-dong
  3. Mao Ze Dong
  4. Mao-Ze-Dong
  5. Mao ZeDong

The first is the mandated form for Pinyin usage, and is recommended. The second is the mandated form for Wade-Giles usage. The third sometimes appears in English language journalism in some areas of the world. The fourth is or was frequent in French. The fifth is a recent internet fashion.

Two of the better known names from recent history are (in English usage) Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. Both of these are based on Cantonese; in Pinyinised Putonghua they are "Sun Yixian" and "Jiang Jieshi". Sun Yat-sen had several names; to his admirers he is Sun Zhongshan (or, in GMD-Taiwan, where he is an Atatürk figure, "Guofu" [State-father]); to non-admirers he is "Sun Wen", his name at birth. Likewise, "Jiang Zhongzheng" (adopted after entering politics) is a more admiring name for Chiang Kai-shek than is "Jiang Jieshi" - and thus to be avoided.

Since "Chiang Kai-shek" and "Sun Yat-sen" (and the other European forms thereof) already possess a high degree of recognition, whether or not they ought to be pinyinised is a moot point.

Note that the Sunist "Nationalist Party" (Kuo-Min-Tang/KMT) is to be written as one word - Guomindang/GMD.

Concrete Examples of Some Problems
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In some parts of "Le Tigre de Papier - Sur le Développement du Capitalisme en Chine 1949-1971" (editions Spartakus), particularly those sections reprinted from "Bilan" or translated from English, are found certain EFEO (and Pinyin) anomalies. Some of these seem to be the product of transliterating from misunderstood or degenerate Wade-Giles into EFEO; others are simply inexplicable.

Original Wade-Giles Pinyin
Tsou-Fou Ssû-fu [Liu] Sifu (or Shifu)
Tsiou Tsiou-Bo Ch'ü Ch'iu-po/pai Qu Qiubai
Jen-Min-Dji-Pao Jen-Min Jih-Pao Renmin Ribao
Wan Tin-Wei Wang Ching-wei Wang Jingwei
Youan Tchi-Kay Yüan Shih-kai Yuan Shikai
Tchen Du-Siou Ch'en Tu-hsiu Chen Duxiu
Kiang-Kan-Hu Chiang K'ang-hu Jiang Kanghu
Kian-Kan-Hu  Chiang K'ang-hu Jiang Kanghu
Zhu Enlai Chou En-lai Zhou Enlai

Some of the information presented above, especially with regard to Lessing-Othmer, no doubt contains error. Correction is solicited, as well as information about any pre-Pinyin system that may have been used in Italian.

Frequently asked Questions (FAQ)
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Are There more romanisations?
Why do I sometimes see tzu tz'u and szu and other times tsû, ts'û, and ssû?
What's Peiping?
Surnames are sometimes written entirely in upper-case letters. Why?
What is the main obstacle to cross-transliterations among the systems?
What about tones?
What's the difference between latinisation and romanization?
What's used in Taiwan?
Isn't it a fact that Pinyin is based on Russian Cyrillic transliteration, particularly its c, zh and x?
Isn't it true that Pinyin letter-use defies international convention?
But I consider Wade-Giles [or EFEO ... etc.] elegant. I can't even guess how Pinyin spelling are pronounced.
What do Putonghua, Pinyin, Chinese, Mandarin... mean?
Why do the systems all look so different?

Q: Are There more romanisations?
A: Many. Since the early 1600s, when Jesuits did the first romanisations (the first three of which used the now much politicised x to represent Pinyin sh), there have been over 35 done by persons from either side of Euro-Asia. There's also a very interesting Russian system in current use, but since it's a cyrillicisation rather than a romanisation, encoding conflict prevent it from being included in the above table. There are two romanisations worth mentioning that are not found in the above table. They are probably seldom encountered outside of anachronistic pedagogic use in the US. (1) Gwoyeu Romatzyh (Guoyu Luomazi in Pinyin; National Romanisation in English). G.R. uses letters to indicate tone. Before it became a simple instrument of pedagogy, it was at one time promoted as auxiliary alphabetic script to the hanographs. (Not a mere transcription system) This resulted in a battle between it and the similarly intended Beila. The Peking-centric and tonal Gwoyeu Romatzyh was said to be right-wing; the more broadly based and non-tonal Beila was said to be left-wing. From 1928 to 1986 G.R. was official (but almost never used) transcription system of the Republic of China, both on the mainland and in its Taiwan incarnation. (2) The Yale System. Its letter sound-values are transparently based on North American English, so, for example the syllables that appear in Pinyin as zhi chr shi zi ci si are written in the Yale system as jr chr shr dz ts sz. [back]

Q: Why do I sometimes see tzu tz'u and szu and other times tsû, ts'û, and ssû?
A: The Pinyin syllables zi ci si appear in newer Wade-Giles as tzu tz'u and szu; in older Wade-Giles they are tsû, ts'û, and ssû. [back]

Q: What's Peiping?
A: Peip'ing (restoring its apostrophe) is Wade-Giles for Beiping, and Beiping is the same city as Beijing. In 1928 the GMD moved its capital to Nanjing and Beijing's name was changed. [back]

Q: Surnames are sometimes written entirely in upper-case letters. Why?
A: This is to disambiguate cases where order of surname and given name are reversed. So, no matter if written CHEN Cheng or Cheng CHEN, LI Dawei or Dawei LI, it is clear what is surname and what is not. [back]

Q: What is the main obstacle to cross-transliterations among the systems?
A: Where Wade-Giles is involved it is its loss of apostrophes and diacriticals. Taking an extreme example, there is no telling if such a name as Lu Tsu-chun is what it appears to be (thus in Pinyin, Lu Zuzhun) or if various attributes have been lost, such that in Pinyin it could variously be Lyu Zichun, Lyu Zujun, Lyu Cizhun, Lu Zuchun, Lu Ziqun etc. [back]

Q: What about tones?
A: Pekinese has four. In its uncompromised form Pinyin indicates them by means of macron, acute accent, reverse circumflex, and grave accent over the main vowel of a syllable. Wade-Giles used superscript numbers. Outside of pedagogy, tone indication of whatever nature is seldom seen. Beila was not based on locality-specific pronunciation and so eschewed tone indication altogether. [back]

Q: What's the difference between latinisation and romanization?
A: They're the same thing. Stalinists seemed to favour the one term, Presbyterians the other. [back]

Q: What's used in Taiwan?
A: As romanisation, the situation has always been unpredictable (a mix of deformed Wade-Giles, Postal and a small amount of Gwoyeu Romatzyh) and currently (Nov-Dec 1998) is in flux. The government recently decided that Juyin II (a romanisation very similar to Yale despite the fact that it's supposedly an adaptation of Gwoyeu Romatzyh) should be used on street-signs. Taipei City on the other hand is putting something fairly similar to Pinyin on street-signs. Matters are further complicated by the fact that it is quite common for a romanised surname to be accompanied by an English given name. For internal use (indication of pronunciation in dictionaries, primary school literacy etc.), a non-Roman system is used to indicate pronunciation of hanographs. For Taiwanese (Hoklo), which is about the same as the language of southern Fujian, Kao-hoe Lo-ma-ji (Church Romanisation) at one time functioned to a certain degree as a proto-script and still maintains a limited if zealous following. [back]

Q: Isn't it a fact that Pinyin is based on Russian Cyrillic transliteration, particularly its c, zh and x?
A: A lot of Easter European languages use c for a ts sound. These languages are of course not "based on Russian transliteration" anymore than is the German name for the letter c. Pinyin zh very simply derives from the fact that if you add an h after the dental sounds z c s, they become retroflex sounds, so zh has no more to do with Russian than does ch or sh. The zh in Russian transliteration to English ("Brezhnev") is a sound that doesn't exist in Pekinese and is totally unrelated to this. The Pinyin x is transliterated into Russian by Cyrillic c (= Roman s), not Cyrillic x (= Roman kh). These groundless charges were first propagated by the GMD's court-linguists when it was important to link anti-'communism' to anti-Russianism. To persons not familiar with the pronunciation of Pekinese, but know of the zh in Russian-to-English transliteration, these claims can be convincing. [back]

Q: Isn't it true that Pinyin letter-use defies international convention?
A: A similar question. Behind it lurks the premise that transcription ought to be done on a basis found conventional to anglophones. International convention is by no means monolithic; consider the varied sound values given to c, j, q, s, tr, v, w, x, y, and z found in writing systems used by Hungarian, Polish, Croatian, Czech, Albanian, Spanish, German, Vietnamese, Basque, Catalan, Portuguese, Norwegian, Turkish or Italian. It is no more reasonable to expect or demand that Pekinese be spelled in accordance with English convention than it would be to make the same demand of Italian, Turkish, or Vietnamese. [back]

Q: But I consider Wade-Giles [or EFEO ... etc.] elegant. I can't even guess how Pinyin spelling are pronounced.
A: One might consider Wade-Giles, EFEO, or the very succinct Beila, as 'preferable' to Pinyin for this or that reason, but there is a practical need for a internationally used system, and such a function can not be fulfilled by the rarefied objects found in the closets of different sinologists from the Euro-American countries anymore than by long-dead Beila. Pinyin is more or less already established as this international system. What's important is that the same graphological form be preserved across linguistic frontiers. Unless trying to orally communicate in the language involved, "true" pronunciation is not that important. 'Thatcher' can be variously pronounced depending on one's language but fortunately, English, French and German don't give it three different spellings. [back]

Q: What do Putonghua, Pinyin, Chinese, Mandarin... mean?

A: Here's some etymology:
guan- official  
-guo- state, country (regardless of monarchy, republic etc)
Han- Chinese  
Hua- Chinese  
-hua language (only spoken)
putong- general, common  
Qin   (Wade-Giles «Ch'in»; Beila «Cin»)
-ren person, -ese, etc.  
-wen language (especially written)
-yu language (especially spoken)
zhong- central, middle  
-zi grapheme, glyph  
-zu such and such an ethnicity, -ese  

China is Zhongguo, which you can see, could be put into the Latinate as 'Centralia'. Chinese (the language) is variously Hanyu, Hanwen, Huayu, Huawen, or Zhongwen. Persons of Chinese ethnicity are Hanzu, Hanren, Huaren or Huazu. Citizens of China regardless of ethnicity (around 10% of the population are Tibetan, Uighur or some fifty other non-Han groups) are Zhongguoren. "Mandarin", a word derived from Sanskrit via Malay and then Portuguese, is Putonghua on the mainland and Guoyu on Taiwan. Before 1911, and even now sometimes, it was called Guanhua, a term which unlike "Mandarin" does not connote emperors, queues or other objects of chinoiserie. "Chinese characters" are Hanzi (same as the Japanese term Kanji); for which we choose to use the neologism "hanographs". In Taiwan they are often called Guozi. Pinyin means spelling, or phoneticization. Its proper name is Hanyu Pinyin, since any alphabetic script (pinyin wenzi) is a pinyin. Supposedly, the word China is ultimately derived via Sanskrit from Qin - the name of a mini-state then mega-state about 2000 years ago. Han, in turn is derived from the name of the mega-state (or if it is preferred, dynasty) that came after Qin. In Chinese, Qin is only a historical term (also a surname). In translation it all gets muddled. When a advocate of formal independence for Taiwan declares that he's a Huaren but not a Zhongguoren, a senseless journalistic translation might well have him saying: "I'm Chinese but I'm not Chinese". When the PRC government is quoted as saying that Tibetans are "Chinese" it's of course claiming not that Tibetans are Hanren but that they are Zhongguoren. [back]

Q: Why do the systems all look so different?
A: Three reasons.
1) Even when writing the same sounds, the orthographies of different languages may record them differently; English ch = French tch = German tsch, English y- = German j-  etc.

2) Problems of representation.
A) To a speaker of French, Spanish, Dutch or southern Italian, the difference between p t k and b d g at the beginning of a stressed syllable has to do with use of the vocal chords (voicing). To a speaker of more or less standard English or German, the difference is mainly one of force (aspiration); voicing is a matter of secondary importance. Thus to an anglophone a Spanish pronunciation of big/pig may sound the same, like "big". The sounds represented by Pinyin p t k (also ch c and q) are aspirated; the sounds represented by Pinyin b d g (also zh z and j) are not aspirated and not voiced either. (In other words they are similar to the de-voiced b d g sounds in the English words spit, stand, and skill.). Thus to many Europeans, including certain historical Englishmen, the idea that the difference between p t k and b d g should be one of voicing rather than aspiration leads to considering p p' t t' k k' a more appropriate representation of the relevant sounds in Pekinese than b p d t g k. (By this same logic, English pack ought to be spelled p'ack.) Much to its credit, Lessing-Othmer did not hold to this un-economic dogma.
B) Another problem is the sounds that Pinyin writes as zh ch sh and j q x; to the anglophone ear (but also to some Cantonese), both sets seem to be oddly pronounced versions of English j ch sh. To the native ear however the two are very different. Zh ch sh are retroflexed (the tongue is in about the same position as for Irish or North American -r); j q x are somewhat palatalised (tongue positioned between German ich and German isch). J q x can only be followed by a high vowel (i or French u); zh ch sh only by the other vowels. Wade-Giles, with the exception of sh/x uses the same letters for the two sets of sounds. EFEO treats them in accordance with point (3) below. And Lessing-Othmer, again much to its credit, with the exception of sh/x, differentiates them.
C) Yet another problem of representation, and the area where the reader will find the most variation in the chart above, is the vowels in Pinyin zhi chi shi and zi ci si. The vowel in the first set is a retroflex vocoid; that in the second set is an fricative apical vocoid. Put simply and inexactly, the first sounds like a vague r (Irish or North American) and the second sounds like a vague z (English, not German).
D) Finally, the Pinyin initial r- is shown in other systems as j because at one time (and still now in some areas of the North) the sound was very fricative, thus impressionistically similar to a French j.

3) Historical and areal linguistics: What makes matters much more complicated is the fact that the European devised systems (but also Beila), and especially their older layers used for place names, are based on a wider spectrum of Northern pronunciation than mid-20th century Pekinese. This manifests in two areas: correlates of Pinyin e and correlates of Pinyin j q x. In Wade-Giles, Lessing-Othmer, EFEO and Beila, what in Pinyin is written as e (a sound similar to undotted Turkish i), is written o in a majority of case and e in a minority of cases. This is/was a reflection of actual pronunciation (at least outside of Beijing) and dependent on whether of not the morpheme in question was descended from a syllable ending in -p, -t or -k many centuries ago. Likewise, the j q x of today's Pekinese is a coalescence of two earlier sets of sounds (which in some areas even of the North are still distinguished); as can be seen from Beila's treatment, these two sets of sounds can be written as g k x (Beila x = h) on the one hand and z c s on the other. This is the cause behind the Postal System's plethora of k and ts in place of Wade-Giles ch, and is also why EFEO treats j q x in 'conservative' manner as k k' h on the one hand and ts ts' s on the other. It's also why Pinyin ji qi xi zi c si zhi chi shi = Beila gi/zi ki/ci xi/si z c s zh ch sh. [back]


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If you have GB (Simplified Chinese) fonts, also see Against the Myth of the Russian-Cyrillic Origin of Certain Pinyin Letters.

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