The Introduction of Pinyin and Its Four Tones 

 January 8, 2020

By  Vicky Yi

Do you want to learn how to speak and read Chinese? Do you want to understand what the Chinese native speakers are saying? If your answer is yes to these questions, then you have come to the right place.

If you want to learn Chinese especially in the areas of listening, speaking, and reading, here we have a good friend who can help you ---Pinyin.

You are probably aware already that there are nearly 100,000 Chinese characters in Chinese. The native Chinese speakers can read about 10,000 Chinese characters, and the commonly used Chinese characters are only about 7,000. So, what do Chinese native speakers do when they encounter unrecognizable Chinese characters? 

Yes, here we need our good friend, Pinyin.

What is Pinyin?

Each Chinese word has its own fixed pronunciation, and Pinyin shows how to read the word.  Just like phonetic symbols in English, Pinyin is a complementary tool to transfer the sounds of Chinese words into the Roman alphabet.

Quick Background on Pinyin

Pinyin was established by Chinese linguists in the 1950s, and it is used to teach Standard Chinese, spell Chinese names in foreign publications and type Chinese characters on computers and mobile phones. It is also the very first lesson for Chinese children to learn Chinese language at school.

 In addition, there is another set of phonetic symbols called Zhuyin symbols, which were established in 1920s and are currently widely used in Taiwan.

Here, I need to apologize to readers from Taiwan and those who are interested in learning Zhuyin symbols. Sorry for my limited knowledge and personally, I have never learned Zhuyin symbols. This article and all further pronunciation articles will mainly discuss Pinyin.

The Importance of Pinyin

If your goal is speaking Chinese fluently and naturally, learning Pinyin is very important!

Pinyin Will Help You Pronounce Chinese Characters

Pinyin assists you in identifying and memorizing pronunciation effectively and precisely. As long as you have Pinyin, you can try to read any Chinese characters you see, including words you don't know.

Pinyin Will Help You Improve Your Listening Comprehension

Pinyin can also help you improve your listening comprehension. Pinyin system shows you every potential sound and when you can accurately analyze the Pinyin composition of every Chinese character you hear, it will also enhance great confidence in learning Chinese.

Pinyin Will Help You Use a Chinese Dictionary

What’s more, Pinyin can help you locate the words or phrases you hear in your daily life in the dictionary, because you need to know equivalent Pinyin to check it.

In the first few pages of the Chinese dictionary, it gives the page number of the Chinese characters for each pronunciation in Pinyin alphabetical order.

The Composition of Pinyin

The pinyin of each word can be divided into three parts: initials, finals and tones (And they are called Shengmu, Yunmu, Shengdiao in Chinese). 

Sometimes, there may be no initials; sometimes, there may be no tones; sometimes, there may be no initials and tones. But it is certain that each Pinyin syllable must at least have a final. For instance, in the syllable mā 妈 (means“mom”): m is the initial, ɑ is the final and “-” over the final is the tone.

Some things to remember:

  • There are 21 initials (Shengmu) and 36 finals (Yunmu) in Chinese Pinyin system
  • The finals can be divided into Simple Finals, Compound Finals, and Nasal Finals.
  • Chinese Pinyin has four tones,first tone, second tone, third tone and forth tone.
  • There is also a case called natural tone,that is no tone as we mentioned above. Some people regard natural tone as the fifth tone, which is also right.

Four basic tones of Chinese Pinyin

There are four tones in Chinese Pinyin, and different tones in the same syllable may represent different meanings. The following is an example of the syllable ma.


Tone mark




First tone

high, level pitch

妈 mā


Second tone


starting high and rising

蔴 má


Third tone


falling first, then rising

马 mǎ =


Forth tone


starting high and falling

骂 mà


Fifth Tone

There is also a neutral tone and some people regard it as a fifth tone. It is unaccented and soft. Its pitch relies on a natural extension of the preceding tone.

When you encounter a neutral tone, you don't need to write any tone mark on the Pinyin syllable, for example, 吗ma.(modal auxiliary at the end of the interrogative sentence).

As you can see, for syllable ma, four (or five) different tones may represent different meanings. 

Don't be too hard on yourself if you don't get this right away. The Chinese tone is very difficult for Chinese beginners. At the very beginning, you may not be able to pronounce these tones well, especially the second tone and the third tone.

You should practice a lot and try to mimic it as closely as possible. If you have Chinese friends around, ask them to correct you. 

A Few Extras

  1. A tone mark should be placed over the main vowel (a, e, u, i, o, ü, will learn later). When the vowel i is marked with a tone mark, the dot over it should be omitted.
  2. In addition, because the tone mark is very inconvenient to type on a computer or smart phone, sometimes the number is used instead of the tone mark, for example, ma1 is equivalent to mā.

Keep Practicing. . .

Today, we used the example of “ma” to learn the tones of Chinese Pinyin. You can try to practice the four (or five) tones by yourself.

In the next few lessons, we will learn the initials and 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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