Lesson 1, Topic 1
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Pinyin – the Chinese “alphabet”

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Chinese characters and pinyin

Chinese is a character-based language. Each character represents a particular syllable, with the majority of Chinese words being one or two characters long. Characters are made of several components (called “radicals”), some of which may indicate meaning or pronunciation – however there is no easy way to determine how any character should be pronounced. Therefore, in the 1950s, China officially launched the pinyin system – generally used in dictionaries or to help younger children learn to read.

Note that multiple characters may have the same pronunciation, and some characters have multiple pronunciations (for example 行 can be pronounced xíng (“OK”) or háng (e.g. 银行 = “bank”)), just to keep you on your toes!

This great video from Harbin Mandarin introduces the pinyin system:


There are 23 initials in Chinese – these are the starting letters of a syllable, for example “m” in “mā”. Many of these have identical pronunciation to the English alphabet, however some (marked in red) do not. 

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The 35 finals of Chinese are the ending letters of a syllable, for example “a” in “mā”. Again, many are similar to the sounds in English, although not all (e.g. “ü”, “ang” and “iong”).

Additionally, some words add an extra “r” sound (儿) on the end, particularly in the Beijing accent of Chinese, although this is technically an additional character rather than classed as a final sound.


As well as the standard Roman letters we may be more familiar with, Chinese also has four tones. While it may be tempting to ignore these as a beginner, take care to always learn the tones with each new word. Changing the tone can completely change the meaning of the word, and it is more challenging to “unlearn” incorrect tones later on.