The Challenges of Romanizing Chinese Language

Recently, I was reading a couple old-school fantasy novels set in the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons and Dragons: Horselords and Dragonwall. These novels, part of the Empires trilogy, revolve around a fantasy re-telling of the Mongol invasion of Song-Dynasty China.

Dragonwall, in particular, centered on the fictional land of Shou Lung, an analog to Imperial China, and introduced a lot of aspects of Chinese culture, such as Chinese military weapons and armor. The challenge was that these were not always explained and so, I found myself wondering what this sword was, or that piece of armor.

For example, a type of Chinese sword called a chien was frequently mentioned but I had trouble visualizing what it was, so I tried to use Wikipedia. There, the sword is listed as jian, not chien.

Which spelling is correct? In a way, both. In a way, neither.

Welcome to the challenges of expressing Chinese language using the Roman alphabet!

In native Chinese, the jian/chien is written as 劍 or 剑 in Simplified Chinese. . A native speaker probably can read this and know exactly what it means, how it is pronounced, etc. If you are a native English speaker, though, and don’t know Chinese, how do you write 劍/剑 in a way that other native English speakers can understand?

This is a surprisingly tricky issue, and not just limited to Chinese-English. Transliterating words in one language to another is always tricky.

Anyhow, there have been a few attempts to solve this issue of transliterating Chinese to English over the years, and Wikipedia has a very extensive article on the subject, but today we’ll focus on the two most common: Wade-Giles and Pinyin.

Wade-Giles Romanization

Wade-Giles is the older of the two systems, and was the most popular system until the late 20th century, and as a system it is vaguely based on the system used for writing Ancient Greek using the Latin alphabet. Since Ancient Greek had the notion of “rough breathing” as opposed to “smooth breathing” (there was no distinct letter “H” in Greek), apostrophes were used to help distinguish them.

In the same way, letters in Chinese such as “ch” and “j” were distinguished using an apostrophe. Thus “ch’ien” and “chien” would be different. The first uses the English “ch” sound (as in “chop”), while the second uses a “j” sound (as in “jot”). Another example is “t’” versus “t”, as in t’ong versus tong. The first is a hard “t” sound, the second is more like “d”.

If this seems confusing, believe me, it is. Another confusion happens with vowels. The letter “u” is pronounced more like “oh”, whereas “ü” is more like “oo”. Thus, using an example from Wikipedia, the word “k’ung” is pronounced as “kohng”, and “yü” as “yoo”.

Wade-Giles had been the de-facto system for so long, that a lot of English literature that uses Chinese names and words (including my D&D novels above) continues to use it even though it’s frankly pretty antiquated. Wade-Giles is easier to learn upfront because it looks more like natural English, but it uses a confusing system to represent Chinese sounds, and therefore it’s easier misread. Just remember sounds with apostrophes versus sounds without is confusing enough.

Hanyu Pinyin

The other system that’s increasingly in use, and frankly better in my opinion, is the Hanyu Pinyin (or “pinyin”) system. This system requires more work upfront, but provides a more consistent experience because what you see is what you get.

For example, each consonant sound is expressed only one, distinct way. In the “ch’” versus “ch”, pinyin expresses these as “ch” and “j” which is definitely more intuitive. Similarly, “t” versus “d” is pretty straightforward.

Vowels are where pinyin becomes tricky because Latin has only 5 letters to express vowel sounds, and Chinese (just like English) has a lot more than 5 vowel sounds. Unlike ancient Latin which differentiated “I” (as in “fish”) versus “Ī” (as in “ring”), English lost the diacritics and so the sounds just double-up on the same letters.

To work around this, Pinyin uses consonant-vowel combinations to make this work. “Chi” expresses the sound “chih” which rhymes with “fish”. By contrast, “Qi” expresses the sound “chee” as in “cheese”. In the same way “zhi” sounds like “jury” without the y, and “ji” sounds like “jee” as in “jeans”.

The vowel “e” is tricky too since it sounds like “uh” as in “done”. So the surname Cheng does not rhyme with “send”, it rhymes with “sung”.

So, whereas Wade-Giles relies on consonants and apostrophes to express sounds, Pinyin relies on consonant-vowel combinations.


Both systems, like every other attempt at romanization, are imperfect efforts. This is not a fault of the creators of these systems though: transliterating languages is always tricky.

However, of the two systems, I find Pinyin more intuitive overall once you get past the initial hurdles. You don’t have to worry about apostrophes, and most consonants are just more intuitive to read.

Unfortunately, due to cultural inertia, you’ll still find Chinese words expressed through the Wade-Giles system in all sorts of unexpected places.

P.S. if you think Chinese romanization is confusing, wait until you see Korean romanization.

P.P.S. If you’re wondering how good the books are, that’s a subject for an upcoming post. 😏

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: