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Introduction to pinyin

This article is simply an introduction to what pinyin is, from a learner's perspective. For a list of all pinyin sounds, see the pinyin page. To learn pinyin as a beginner, see the pinyin quick start guide. And to see and hear all pinyin syllables together on one useful chart, see the pinyin chart.

What Pinyin Is (and Is Not)

Pinyin was developed in the 1950s to help improve literacy rates in the newly founded People's Republic of China. Pinyin is a system for romanizing (writing using the Roman/Latin alphabet) the sounds of the Chinese language. Pinyin was never meant as a pronunciation guide for foreigners, so please don't think of it that way! Some letters that look familiar to you have been repurposed to represent the special sounds of Mandarin Chinese.

Because pinyin was created by Chinese people for Chinese people, who already speak Chinese fluently, it can seem a bit counter-intuitive to us non-Chinese learners at times. Stick with it! It's still way easier to learn the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese using pinyin than any other way.

How to Learn Pinyin

Obviously, a learner needs to learn the Chinese sounds that the different letters of pinyin make. Some are familiar, some not.

Unfortunately, the syllables of pinyin aren't always just straightforward combinations of sounds like in Spanish or Japanese. Certain syllables will not sound how you expect, often because the pinyin syllable omits a few letters for the convenience of the native speakers of Chinese. For this reason, it's important to systematically study the sound of every syllable, which you can do with our pinyin chart and by going through our pinyin quick start guide. If you already mostly know pinyin, it might be faster to simply review our list of "pinyin gotchas."

A Brief History of Pinyin

While pinyin is not the first romanization method developed for Chinese, it is the first created by the Chinese government for its own people. Its full name is Hanyu Pinyin (汉语拼音), and was officially adopted by the People's Republic of China in 1958.

Over the years, Hanyu Pinyin has gradually replaced older romanization systems used in the west, and pinyin is now the standard for learning Mandarin Chinese, even in Taiwan, which resisted the adoption of the mainland's Hanyu Pinyin for a long time.

Sources and further reading