Pinyin (Chinese: 拼音, lit. “spelling sounds”) is one of the most commonly used method for romanizing Chinese characters from Mandarin Chinese, and is used for names for the majority of the Chinese community.1 As many find difficulty pronouncing Chinese names written in Pinyin (esp in academic conferences), I put together this cheatsheet in hope of helping (mostly American) English speakers pronounce them correctly with as little effort as possible.2 No training in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is required.
Bottomline: Pinyin is a romanization method for denoting Chinese characters and providing largely approximations to the actual sounds made to pronounce the characters. There is not a one-to-one mapping between each Latin letter (or small group of letters) and the corresponding sound, and I will not pretend that that is the case. Nevertheless, we can focus on the most challenging ones first, and strive for a better and better sound approximation.
I will organize this cheatsheet in a hierarchical manner, focusing on the first-order approximations before offering more details and exceptions.
The Pinyin corresponding to each Chinese character is usually of the form CVC, where one or more vowels are surrounded by a leading consonant and a trailing one. Either or both consonants can be missing in some cases, and when that results in ambiguation in pronunciation, an apostrophe or a hyphen is usually used to delimit character boundaries (e.g., Tian’anmen). The trailing consonant can only be either n or ng.
Some special cases in segmentation:
Although there is tone sandhi in Chinese, there isn’t as much sandhi of other sorts in Chinese, meaning boundaries between Chinese characters are clearly reflected in speech. Take Tian’anmen for an example, while the first instinct of most English speakers might be to say tian-<short pause>-na-men, a native speaker would say tian-an-men without mushing character boundaries.4
There are four tones (plus a neutral tone) in Mandarin, and I believe Wikipedia is truly the best material on this one. Most Chinese speakers can recognize your speech without perfect tones, given that you map sounds roughly correctly and are careful with segmentation and sandhi, though.
Matt Gardner suggested on Twitter that it would be helpful to include some examples, so I am including some examples here that feature some of the awesome people I know (plus yours truly) whose name are romanized in pinyin when they appear in publications. Try pronuncing their names with what you’ve learned:
|Peng Qi||p-uh-ng ch-ee, where uh=again, and ee=bee.|
|Yuhao Zhang||y-u how zh-ah-ng, where y-u=pronouncing the English letter u. The first name here is two characters and needs segmentation, and the common mistakes are to pronounce the a in Zhang as bat or zh as zoo.|
|Danqi Chen||dan ch-ee ch-uh-n, where uh=again and dan sounds just like the English name Dan. Again the first name here is two characters. I personally find the commonly used pronunciation of Chen where e is pronounced like bet a bit too flat, and the enunciated version where Dan sounds like spa a bit too open.|
|Ziang Xie||zzz ah-ng sh-y-eh, where zzz=prolonging the consonant a bit, ah=spa, and eh=bet. This is a bit more difficult to get right, where the first name is actually two characters, and the last name has what sounds like a double-consonant leading sound.|
Carlos Gómez Rodríguez recommended this tool for quick lookup with example pronunciation audio files available.
This Wikipedia page is also a good reference with quick examples for pronunciation.
Others, like Tongyong Pinyin and Wade-Giles are still in use for historical reasons. Also, note that not all Chinese names were romanized from Mandarin (which Pinyin is for) – some names come from Cantonese and other Chinese languages and it’s not always easy to tell. ↩
Focusing more on the “standard” American accent here because this is the accent that I personally get the most samples for (and thus am more confident about vowel/consonant mappings and common mistakes in). However, much of this is applicable to other accents as well, especially for consonant mapping. ↩
Interestingly, sandhi is actually one of the more challenging parts for many English learners whose first language is like Mandarin in this way. ↩