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The "ch" "sh" and "zh" sounds

The sounds represented by "ch-," "sh-," and "zh-" in pinyin are all very similar sounds in Chinese. They're meant to be grouped together, and they should be learned together. The good news is that these sounds are not too different from the English "ch", "sh", and "j" sounds (note that "zh-" sounds like the English "j" sound; the pinyin "j-" sound is totally different beast, to be introduced later).

Pinyin's "ch", "sh", and "zh" Sounds

These are the famous "retroflex" sounds of Mandarin Chinese. You may have heard that to make these sounds, you have to "curl your tongue back into your mouth." You may have visions of the tip of your tongue pointing way into the back of your throat, your tongue horribly contorted. It's really not all that crazy. You just need to pull your tongue a bit further into the back of your mouth to pronounce these sounds properly, but you won't need to do any insane contortions.

ch-

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Ch-Diagram
  • ch- is very similar to the English "ch" sound, except that in Mandarin Chinese the tongue position is a bit further back.
  • chi is not pronounced like "chee", this is an alternate -i sound pretty similar to the zi, ci, si vowel sounds you learned before. To make the chi sound, try to pronounce the English word "chirp", but STOP right as you get to the "r" sound. The chi sound has also been described as sounding like "chrrrrr" (which ryhmes with "brrrrr", the sound you make when you're cold).

sh-

Sh-Diagram
  • sh- is very similar to the English "sh" sound, except that in Mandarin Chinese the tongue position is a bit further back.
  • shi is not pronounced like "shee", this is an alternate -i sound pretty similar to the zi, ci, si vowel sounds you learned before. To make the shi sound, try to pronounce the English word "shirt", but STOP right as you get to the "r" sound. The shi sound has also been described as sounding like "shrrrrr" (which ryhmes with "brrrrr", the sound you make when you're cold).

zh-

Zh-Diagram
  • zh- is very similar to the English "j" sound, except that in Mandarin Chinese the tongue position is a bit further back.
  • zhi is not pronounced like "gee", this is an alternate -i sound pretty similar to the zi, ci, si vowel sounds you learned before. To make the zhi sound, try to pronounce the English word "jerk", but STOP right as you get to the "r" sound. The zhi sound has also been described as sounding like "zhrrrrr" (which ryhmes with "brrrrr", the sound you make when you're cold).

Pinyin Chart Fragment

This is just a part of the full pinyin chart, limited to the sounds we've covered so far.

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-a- -a -ai -ao -an -ang -e- -e -ei -en -eng -er -o- -o -ou -ong -i- -i -i* -ia -iao -ie -iou -ian -iang -in -ing -iong -u- -u -ua -uai -uei -uo -uan -uang -uen -ueng -ü-
zh-
zha
[tʂɑ]
ㄓㄚ
cha
zhai
[tʂaɪ̯]
ㄓㄞ
chai
zhao
[tʂɑʊ̯]
ㄓㄠ
chao
zhan
[tʂan]
ㄓㄢ
chan
zhang
[tʂɑŋ]
ㄓㄤ
chang
zhe
[tʂɯ̯ʌ]
ㄓㄜ
che
zhei
[tʂeɪ̯]
ㄓㄟ
chei
zhen
[tʂən]
ㄓㄣ
chen
zheng
[tʂəŋ]
ㄓㄥ
cheng
zhou
[tʂɤʊ̯]
ㄓㄡ
chou
zhong
[tʂʊŋ]
ㄓㄨㄥ
chung
zhi
[tʂʅ]
chih
zhu
[tʂu]
ㄓㄨ
chu
zhua
[tʂu̯ɑ]
ㄓㄨㄚ
chua
zhuai
[tʂu̯aɪ̯]
ㄓㄨㄞ
chuai
zhui
[tʂu̯eɪ̯]
ㄓㄨㄟ
chui
zhuo
[tʂu̯ɔ]
ㄓㄨㄛ
cho
zhuan
[tʂu̯an]
ㄓㄨㄢ
chuan
zhuang
[tʂ̯u̯ɑŋ]
ㄓㄨㄤ
chuang
zhun
[tʂu̯ən]
ㄓㄨㄣ
chun
zh-
ch-
cha
[tʂʰɑ]
ㄔㄚ
ch'a
chai
[tʂʰaɪ̯]
ㄔㄞ
ch'ai
chao
[tʂʰɑʊ̯]
ㄔㄠ
ch'ao
chan
[tʂʰan]
ㄔㄢ
ch'an
chang
[tʂʰɑŋ]
ㄔㄤ
ch'ang
che
[tʂʰɯ̯ʌ]
ㄔㄜ
ch'e
chen
[tʂʰən]
ㄔㄣ
ch'en
cheng
[tʂʰəŋ]
ㄔㄥ
ch'eng
chou
[tʂʰɤʊ̯]
ㄔㄡ
ch'ou
chong
[tʂʰʊŋ]
ㄔㄨㄥ
ch'ung
chi
[tʂʰʅ]
ch'ih
chu
[tʂʰu]
ㄔㄨ
ch'u
chua
[tʂʰu̯ɑ]
ㄔㄨㄚ
ch'ua
chuai
[tʂʰu̯aɪ̯]
ㄔㄨㄞ
ch'uai
chui
[tʂʰu̯eɪ̯]
ㄔㄨㄟ
ch'ui
chuo
[tʂʰu̯ɔ]
ㄔㄨㄛ
ch'o
chuan
[tʂʰu̯an]
ㄔㄨㄢ
ch'uan
chuang
[tʂʰu̯ɑŋ]
ㄔㄨㄤ
ch'uang
chun
[tʂʰu̯ən]
ㄔㄨㄣ
ch'un
ch-
sh-
sha
[ʂɑ]
ㄕㄚ
sha
shai
[ʂaɪ̯]
ㄕㄞ
shai
shao
[ʂɑʊ̯]
ㄕㄠ
shao
shan
[ʂan]
ㄕㄢ
shan
shang
[ʂɑŋ]
ㄕㄤ
shang
she
[ʂɯ̯ʌ]
ㄕㄜ
she
shei
[ʂeɪ̯]
ㄕㄟ
shei
shen
[ʂən]
ㄕㄣ
shen
sheng
[ʂəŋ]
ㄕㄥ
sheng
shou
[ʂɤʊ̯]
ㄕㄡ
shou
shi
[ʂʅ]
shih
shu
[ʂu]
ㄕㄨ
shu
shua
[ʂu̯ɑ]
ㄕㄨㄚ
shua
shuai
[ʂu̯aɪ̯]
ㄕㄨㄞ
shuai
shui
[ʂu̯eɪ̯]
ㄕㄨㄟ
shui
shuo
[ʂu̯ɔ]
ㄕㄨㄛ
sho
shuan
[ʂu̯an]
ㄕㄨㄢ
shuan
shuang
[ʂu̯ɑŋ]
ㄕㄨㄤ
shuang
shun
[ʂu̯ən]
ㄕㄨㄣ
shun
sh-
r-
rao
[ʐɑʊ̯]
ㄖㄠ
jao
ran
[ʐan]
ㄖㄢ
jan
rang
[ʐɑŋ]
ㄖㄤ
jang
re
[ʐɯ̯ʌ]
ㄖㄜ
je
ren
[ʐən]
ㄖㄣ
jen
reng
[ʐəŋ]
ㄖㄥ
jeng
rou
[ʐɤʊ̯]
ㄖㄡ
jou
rong
[ʐʊŋ]
ㄖㄨㄥ
jung
ri
[ʐʅ]
jih
ru
[ʐu]
ㄖㄨ
ju
rua
[ʐu̯ɑ]
ㄖㄨㄚ
jua
rui
[ʐu̯eɪ̯]
ㄖㄨㄟ
jui
ruo
[ʐu̯ɔ]
ㄖㄨㄛ
jo
ruan
[ʐu̯an]
ㄖㄨㄢ
juan
run
[ʐu̯ən]
ㄖㄨㄣ
jun
r-
-a- -a -ai -ao -an -ang -e- -e -ei -en -eng -er -o- -o -ou -ong -i- -i -i* -ia -iao -ie -iou -ian -iang -in -ing -iong -u- -u -ua -uai -uei -uo -uan -uang -uen -ueng -ü-

Keep going! The exciting "r" sound is next.

Sources and further reading