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Chinese Pinyin Lesson 2: Initials 

 January 9, 2020

By  Vicky Yi

In the previous lesson, we introduced what Chinese Pinyin is and explained the four tones of Pinyin. We already know that Pinyin consists of three parts: initials, finals and tones.

Let's strike while the iron is hot! Today we will learn another important part of Pinyin, the initials.

chinese pinyin initials

Quick Background on Chinese Pinyin Initials

The initials are the consonants used in front of the finals, together with the finals to form a complete Pinyin syllable, if there is one. (Sometimes, there is no initial, only a final, can also constitute a complete syllable).

According to the Scheme of the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet which was officially published in mainland China in 1958, there are 21 initials in Chinese Pinyin. However, in the customary spelling, there are 23 initials, and the extra two are y, w, we call them half vowels in Chinese.

Now let us divide the initials into 7 groups to learn. are you ready?

First Group – b, p, m, f

For b, p, m, f, upper and lower lips are the active parts used for pronouncing. The difference between “b” and “p” is that “b” is unaspirated and “m” is a nasal sound. “F ” is the sound produced by the natural contact between the upper teeth and lower lips. 


For Pinyin beginners, these initials are not difficult to pronounce because they are very similar to English, or almost exactly the same as English.

Initials

Used in Pinyin

Characters

Meanings

As in English

b

n. dad

like "b" in "bad" (unaspirated)

p

Pǎo

v. run

like "p" in "pop"

m

n. mom

like "m" in "meet"

f

Fēi

v. fly

like "f" in "food"

Second Group – d, t, n, l

For d, t, n, and l, the tip of the tongue is against the front of the upper gum of your teeth, and when you try to produce the sound, the airflow in your mouth is going to break through the tip of your tongue.

Initials

Used in Pinyin

Characters

Meanings

As in English

d

adj. big

Like "d" in "day"

(unaspirated)

t

pron. he

like "t" in "talk"

n

pron. you

like "n" in "need"

l

lái

v. come

like "l" in "love"

Third Group – g, k, h

For g, k, h, you need to use the tongue root bulge against the soft palate to block the sound.

Initials

Used in Pinyin

Characters

Meanings

As in English

g

n. elder brother

like "g" in "go"

k

n. lesson(s)

like "k" in "kill"

h

v. drink

like "h" in "hello"

One thing to note is that j, q, and x cannot form a syllable with “u”, but can form a syllable with “ü”. When spelling pinyin, when “j”, “q”, “x” and “ü” meet, the two points of “ü” should be omitted, written as “u”.

j - ü -> ju

q - ü -> qu

x - ü -> xu

Fourth Group – j, q, x

 When pronouncing these sounds, the front of the tongue is against or near the front of the hard palate, and the airflow is obstructed in this part.

Initials

Used in Pinyin

Characters

Meanings

As in English

j

n. chicken

close to "j" in "jeep"(without protruding the lips)

q

v. go

ch harder than “ch” in cheap

x

xīn

n. heart

close to "sh" in "shirt"

Fifth Group – z, c, s

When pronouncing these sounds, the tip of the tongue is pressed against (just slightly touching) or close to the back of the upper tooth, and the airflow is blocked in this part.

Initials

Used in Pinyin

Characters

Meanings

As in English

z

zuò

v. do

like "ds" in "words"

c

cuò

adj. wrong

like "ts" in "rats",with aspiration

s

v. tear

like "s" in "Sunday"

Sixth Group – zh, ch, sh, r

When pronouncing these sounds, the tip of the tongue is tilting up and touching the front of the hard palate to block the airflow. This set of initials is also referred to as  “curled tongue initials”, often compared with initials z, c, s, which is called “flat tongue initials”.

Initials

Used in Pinyin

Characters

Meanings

As in English

zh

zhī

v. know

like "dr" in "draw"

ch

chī

v. eat

like "ch" in "touch", aspiration

sh

shī

湿

adj. wet

close to "sh" in "shy"

r

n. sun

close to "r" in "roll"

Seventh Group – y, w

In the official Pinyin initial system, Scheme of the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet, “y” and “w” are not included. They are an orthographic convention for “i”, “u” and “ü” when no initial is present.

They are not real initials, but they appear in the same position as the initials, they are called half vowels in Chinese. To make it simple and easier to use, some people categorize them as initials here.

For example:

  • when only the final “i” appears, write as “yi”
  • when only the final “ü” appears, write as yü
  • when only the final “u” appears, write as “wu”

Initials

Used in Pinyin

Characters

Meanings

As in English

y

zhī

v. know

like "dr" in "draw"

w

five

like woo in English word wood

For other i, u,ü spelling methods,see the table below.

Another point to note is that when “ü” meets “y”, same as “j”, “q”, “x” the two points of “ü” need to be omitted.

Original spelling

W modified spelling

Original spelling

y modified spelling

ua

wa

ia

ya

uo

wo

ie

ye

uai

wai

iao

yao

uan

wan

iang

yang

uang

wang

iong

yong

ueng

weng

i

yi

u

wu

in

yin

ui

wui

ing

ying

un

wun

iu(iou)

you

Cell

ü

yu

üe

yue

ün

yun

üan

yuan

A Few Extras

Sometimes, there are cases where only the finals exist but no initials. That’s for syllables that start with a, o, or e, and we just need to write finals here.

In addition, just as a second review, for the syllables that start with “u”, we use “w” to make syllables complete; and for the syllables that starts with “i” or “ü”, we use “y” instead. And for initials j, q, x, and half vowel y, when they meet final “ü”, two dots of “ü” should be dropped and written as “u”.

Keep Practicing. . .

Today, we have learned 21 initials and 2 half vowels of Chinese Pinyin. You can try to practice these initials by yourself. In the next few lessons, we will learn the finals of Pinyin. By then, you will have more practice material. The more you speak, the more opportunity you’ll get to practice them and the more perfect your Chinese will be! 

If you know any native Chinese-speakers, try and practice what you’ve learned with them.

Good luck and have fun!

Vicky Yi


Vicky Yi is a language enthusiast. She has some experience in teaching Chinese to foreigners. Previously a journalist in one of the most influential press media in China, she now devotes herself into experiencing various cultures and the beautiful world.

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