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Chinese transcription systems

Pinyin is the most widely used system for mainland China (People’s Republic of China), but some materials use, or quote from, older materials that use other transcription systems. The most commonly used alternative transcription system is Wade-Giles. These are some resources to help you convert between these two.

There are a couple of clues to look out for that can tell you which system an author/translator uses. Pinyin uses x, q and z, knits syllables together as one word (Zhongguo, lishi). It occasionally uses a ‘ to prevent confusion between two different ways to separate syllables, for instance Chang’an versus chan’gan. Wade-Giles uses ‘ to indicate an aspirated consonant, and uses – to separate syllables (Chung-kuo, li-shih). The letters x and q are not used (and z only in tzu/tz’u). That said, there are some syllables that look the same in transcription but are pronounced differently, for instance juchichuan. Check for other transcribed words in the same text, they will offer more clues.

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