Understanding The Difference Between Pinyin and Zhuyin

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If you’ve studied Chinese you’ve either studied Pinyin or Zhuyin. Pinyin is the most common way to first teach Chinese pronunciation and tones. But what is Pinyin? What is Zhuyin? Why does China use Pinyin and not Zhuyin? When did it start? What are the advantages and disadvantages of either? Let’s explore!

Understanding Pinyin and Zhuyin

Pinyin uses the English (Latin) alphabet to represent Chinese. Zhuyin (Bopomofo) has slightly more than three dozen symbols (21 initials, 16 finals, and 4 tone diacritics) that represent the sounds that you hear in every single sentence you will ever say in Chinese. Zhuyin and Pinyin are both acceptable ways for a Chinese as a second language learner to learn how to pronounce Chinese.

zhuyin to pinyin chart

The Quick History of Zhuyin and Pinyin

classical chinese

Around the 20th century, literate Chinese all used  “Classical Chinese” (文言文, Wényánwén). Classical Chinese is a traditional style of written Chinese that evolved from the classical language, making it different from any modern spoken form of Chinese. It was used for all formal writing up until the early 20th century.
The government was very interested in achieving full literacy in China. In the early 20th century, the basic literacy level of Chinese males was about 30%-45% and females were at 2%-10%. It was Hu Sh 胡適 who made the first major step by pushing to write in a more ‘vernacular’ style instead of Classical Chinese. Following that, there was a big push toward simplifying the Chinese language.

By the 1920s, two Latin-based orthographies had been developed for Chinese. A tonal spelling system (國語羅馬字, Guóyǔ luómǎ zì) was created by linguists working with the KMT (國民黨, Guómíndǎng) government, and a toneless system meant for illiterate farmers (新文字, Xīn wénzì) created by the Chinese and Russians.

When the communists won the civil war in 1949, Hanyu Pinyin (a direct descendant of 新文字, Xīn wénzì) became the new standard for teaching Chinese and was officially adopted in 1958. Taiwan, however, stuck with Zhuyin. Zhuyin comes from a system was called 國音字母第一式 (Guóyīn Zìmǔ Dìyīshì), “National Phonetic Alphabet (now known as “Zhuyin” or “Bopomofo”) that was formally introduced in 1913. A tonal spelling system textbooks was written in Bopomofo and Gwoyeu Romatzyh, and quite a few illiterate adults were able to achieve literacy with both systems.

Guóyǔ luómǎ zì

China and Taiwan Take Linguistic Sides

The split in Zhuyin versus Pinyin is almost entirely political. In an effort to spread literacy, promote Mandarin over local dialects, and “modernize” the country, the People’s Republic of China official adopted Hanyu Pinyin in the 1950s to replace Zhuyin (as well as other systems of Romanization). The ROC, however, viewed Pinyin as a “Communist invention” that was an antagonist to traditional Chinese culture. This attitude pushed them to continue using Zhuyin.

At the same time, some Taiwanese conservatives were alarmed at the ease people could learn to read without using Chinese characters! They didn’t consider this “legitimate learning” and forbid using this method to promote “full literacy.” Both Bopomofo and GR were restricted to annotating the pronunciation of Chinese characters. Bopomofo was renamed as 注音符號 Zhùyīn Fúhào/Juhin Fwuhaw “National Phonetic Symbols” to emphasize its new, restricted role.

Pinyin and Zhuyin In Modern Times

modern taiwan

Only in the past ten years or so has Taiwan been faced with a growing number of foreigners who have learned Pinyin. Some administrators didn’t want to be seen as adopting a “PRC invention” entirely, so they inserted minor changes that are enough to be different, but not so much to confuse foreigners too excessively. In 2009, the Republic of China finally switched over to Hanyu Pinyin to transliterate Mandarin into Latin letters. However, this is mostly for the benefit of foreigners, since native Mandarin speakers in Taiwan continue to use Zhuyin to teach children and to type Chinese electronically.

So, What’s Better? Pinyin Or Zhuyin?

Neither. Both systems have their merits. However, here is a quick list of some of pros and cons of each system.

Pinyin

  1. Pinyin is more widespread
    1. There are more things meant to be used with Pinyin than Zhuyin. More Chinese learning resources, books, and texts use Pinyin.
  2. Pinyin is written with Latin characters
    1. Those use to Latin characters often find Pinyin easier and quicker to grasp, but often fall back to familiar pronunciations. Zhuyin, on the other hand, doesn’t resemble anything but Chinese, so the pronunciation is better, but slower to learn.
  3. Pinyin is easier to read out loud
    1. Just by the learning the letter pronunciations, you can now read Chinese out loud — even if you don’t know what it means.
chinese pinyin alphabet

Zhuyin:

  1. Zhuyin can be more efficient for typing (if you have the correct software!)
    1. Zhuyin is the most efficient in terms of using the minimal number of symbols to represent a given syllable
  2. Zhuyin needs specially-adapted software,
    1. This makes it harder to be used in foreign publications.
  3. Zhuyin reflects the structure of Mandarin sounds better than Pinyin does.
    1. In the above example, the three Zhuyin symbols represent the initial (ㄓ), medial (ㄨ), and final (ㄤ) of that syllable. This is not as obvious in Pinyin: “zh-“, “-u-“, and “-ang”
    2. Zhuyin represents the phonemic organization of initials, finals, and tones more neatly than pinyin.
  4. Zhuyin doesn’t rely on someone’s idea of the proper English representation of a sound.
    1. For example, x in Pinyin is totally different than x in English. Z in Pinyin is totally different than the z in English. Zhuyin doesn’t have that problem because there’s no “translation” back to English which may be confusing.
  5. Zhuyin is side by side with characters
    1. It’s easier to be able to recognize characters with a corresponding sound and this just really isn’t possible with Pinyin. You can’t help but kind of look at both – the character and the Zhuyin at the same time.
    2. Zhuyin helps Taiwanese children to acquire Chinese radicals and traditional characters more effectively. Symbols of Bopomofo are derived from Mandarin or ancient characters; they are similar in pronunciation or appearance. For example, 「ㄉ」is related to radical「刀」(“dao”) and 「ㄋ」is related to 「乃」(“nai”).
zhuyin keyboard

Conclusion

There is no right or wrong way to learn Mandarin. No matter if you choose Pinyin or Zhuyin, once you find a way that works for you and you like the method, then that’s a great way for you to learn a new language. If you’ve reached an intermediate level, it’s still worth trying out another method. Not only do you can have more access to materials but you’re able to gain a different perspective on various aspects of Chinese culture.