Pinyin Chart

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As I’m sure many of you know, the number of syllables in Chinese is limited. It’s not like English where you can just throw together practically any letters you want and make a new word (like “craisins”).

So, that means it’s actually possible to make a chart of all the possible syllables in the Chinese language. There are 409 syllables in the Chinese language (by my count, as you’ll see) excluding the various tones each syllable can have (and they can’t all have all 4 tones).

That means there are essentially 409 “words” that you have to learn to say in Chinese, and then you’re done. You’ve learned all the pronunciation you’ll even need (except for tone stuff of course). That may sound like a lot, but it’s really not. I think more than half are easy for English speakers to say without any coaching at all. And they all follow patterns so, with the exception of a few tricky sounds, most of it is easy to learn.

It wouldn’t be possible to make one of these charts for English because there is no limit to how letters can be combined in English. But on this chart, blank boxes represent sounds that do not exist in Mandarin.

Of course, there are a lot more than 409 hanzi characters in Chinese. But they just start recycling those 409 different syllables. The result is that a whole bunch of Chinese words sound the same. That’s good news for those learning how to speak, but bad news for listening comprehension.

I should say at this point that, while “er” is sometimes it’s own syllable (like the number “two” = “èr” ), there is a hanzi character “er” that is the only character that can be added to another character and not become its own syllable. For example 玩儿 (meaning “fun / play”), two characters, is written in pinyin as the single syllable “wánr” and means is pronounced “wahr.”

What’s the point of this?

Well a few things.

  1. I firmly don’t believe the way for beginners to learn Chinese pronunciation is to go through and memorize the chart. No. That’s way too boring. But, I think by seeing what sounds do not exist (the blank boxes), I think it’s easier to understand the ones that do. I’ll explain more in later posts.
  2. There are some funky spellings for some of the syllables. Some of the syllables have the “ü” umlaut but it’s just written like a regular “u.” And some of the syllables look like they should be pronounced one way, and they’re really pronounced another. (I don’t know how long I was saying “yan” like “yam,” instead of how it should be said: “yen” like the Japanese currency). I’ve color-coded them so that new learners can avoid potential pitfalls.

Since I couldn’t find a good pinyin table or chart that that was easy to download and print, I just made my own based off of one I got from Ian Hudson. Let me know if I left anything off the chart.


  1. You mention that there are 407 “words”, and that not all the tones can be applied to all those words. Any idea how many syllables there are in total if you take tones into account?

  2. I have looked into this a bit using the database available at (Unihan.txt). According to it, there are 1,396 syllables if you take tones into account (including the fifth tone). (There are some typos. The number of unique syllables ignoring tones is 417 — close enough.)

    Some more interesting info:

    Syllables having 1st tone: 349
    2nd tone: 282
    3rd tone: 350
    4th tone: 375
    5th tone: 40

    215 of the syllables (roughly half) cover all four tone levels.

  3. Jens,

    That’s amazing that you could find that info. What do you think the missing 10 syllables are to bring the total to 417?

  4. I think the missing syllables are mainly just typos (for example, yian, yiao, iong).

    Here’re two more that are missing from your chart:

    ‘lo’ = . “Used at the end of a sentence to indicate obviousness.”

    ‘eng’ = . Example: 马鞥 = reins.

  5. Jens,

    I think we’re narrowing it down. I added “lo” and “eng” though that was a hard one to track down. I guess gets the award for rarest character. So my chart now shows 409.

    Strangely, lists 410 syllables but lists 417.

    I don’t know which ones I’m still missing nor why there is no consistency in the scholarship on this. How can everyone have their own count?

  6. Dialects, phonetic sounds (onomatopoeia type things). Who knows who comes up with the official versions of those anyway?

    For example, dia (). One syllable maps to exactly one character (a truly rare case). Some dictionaries have it, some don’t.

    And take zhei (), which also has only one mapping. Some who’ve never been to 北京 deny its existence, standing by ‘zhe’ being the only valid pronunciation for , yet in 北京, ‘zhei’ has gotta be in the top ten most spoken syllables.

  7. I just wanted to say thank you for this chart. As someone who is just starting to learn Mandarin, it is a very useful tool. Now if I can just remember my vocabulary for more than 10 minutes, I should be okay. 🙂

  8. I made my own table, plus I recorded me saying the first tone for each combination.

    I think that each syllable can be seen as a combination of three things; an optional initial sound, a final sound, and a tone to apply. Knowing how to combine them cuts learning down from 1396 discrete syllables to knowing 61 things and how to combine them.

    One thing I’m researching now: Is it possible to synthesise reasonably pleasing combinations by mixing recordings of an initial then a recording of a final in a particular tone? Or does it sound wrong? If it sounds ok, I can cut down on how many recordings are needed to represent every syllable.

  9. I don’t think you’ll get very far with combining separate initials and separate finals. I think it would be difficult and sound weird.

    With the right technology, it is possible to impose the tone, including other speech inflection patterns, on neutrally recorded complete syllables. At least, I think that’s essentally what’s happening here:

    (It still sounds pretty bizarre.)

  10. I don’t mean to beat this to death, but I just found something that’s not in any of these lists so far:

    ‘ng’, where is ńg and is ńg or ňg

    The zhuyin for this sound calls it a “non standard Mandarin” sound, yet it appears in my standard Mandarin dictionary (新华字典), and my wife, who is from 北京, is familiar with it. The zhuyin looks like (wù), but the symbol actually doesn’t appear in any fonts I have. The interesting thing is that ‘ng’ is quite common in Cantonese speech, where even the character is used to represent it. Weird.

  11. Beat away Jens! I think this is fascinating. Since it is considered non-standard, I’m going to leave it off the chart. But I just can’t escape this feeling that there are some other sounds I’m missing…

    That is wild though that “ng” can be considered a syllable and given it’s own tone. Yet, as I try to say it with various tones, I find it works. Wild.

  12. Mitch Davis,

    I think your chart is cool. It would be great if it was a flash thing so that we didn’t have to wait for mp3s to download. I haven’t tried downloading the whole thing to my computer yet.

    Actually, I left it off my post, but I was kind of hoping someone would take my chart (or some chart) and “flashify” it so that the sounds would be available instantaneously with a single click.

    Let us know if you make any updates.

  13. > I think your chart is cool. It would be
    > great if it was a flash thing so that we
    > didn’t have to wait for mp3s to download.
    > I was kind of hoping someone would take my
    > chart (or some chart) and “flashify” it so
    > that the sounds would be available
    > instantaneously with a single click.

    You and me both 🙂

    Sadly, although I program and enjoy messing with chinese characters in computing, I’m not into flash.

  14. Matthais,

    Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to find, but…too bad it ain’t free. The problem is it’s too elaborate. Your €30 goes to all the little pop-up descriptions, games, etc.

  15. Albert,

    It wouldn’t be too hard to take each chart, make text file listings of the syllables, and diff them. But I’m not sure that ends up being very useful or educational. Scanning the lists, I see two that yours doesn’t have: lün and lüan. Now, every chart I’ve ever seen only has nü, lü, nüe, and lüe in that particular ü block. And my Chinese dictionary doesn’t have any entries for lün and lüan. So, is it better to have them on the chart, or not? And the other obscure ones?

    I’m thinking of taking an approach different from trying to have a definitively complete chart. What would be interesting is to make a separate list of the few syllables that make it onto some charts and not others. Point them out as some kind of “fringe” syllables with low-frequency usage (or whatever the case may be).

    I’m thinking of making some more lists; if I do, I’ll let you know. The lists I’m thinking of are: (1) pinyin syllables that have only one valid tone, for each tone level (I have about 3-6 per tone level so far), (2) pinyin syllables that cover all four tones (my count says there are about 215; I’ll experiment with meaningful ways to list them), and (3) pinyin syllables that map uniquely to one character.

    (3) is a rare case, but I’ve been fascinated with what I’ve found so far.

    ri = rì =

    All my findings can probably be contested using bigger dictionaries, but my dictionary says that ‘ri’ is pronounced only with the fourth tone, and there’s only one character the sound can denote. I love this, because is a pretty common character.

    neng = néng =

    This was a surprise. Again, is pretty common, yet I had no idea how special it was!

    gei = gěi =

    Again, surprise! Another common character, with a very special quality.

    I’m up to about twenty of these, but so far these three are the only ones involving common characters.

  16. Jens,

    Why do you bring up lün and lüan? To me, if there ain’t a word that we can find that matches the syllable, then it’s not worth including on the chart because no one will ever say it.

    Regarding “ri,” I found this one in the dictionary.

    I agree that those lists would be useful, especially the list of syllables that only map to one character. If we had that we could make a case for “It doesn’t matter which tone I say “gei” with, because there aren’t any other choices!”

    If you need a place to post those lists once you’ve gotten them put together, let me know. I’d be happy to put them on this site giving full credit to you.

  17. What does “den” mean? I have never seen this pinyin and I can’t find it in Chinese dictionaries online nor does my program for typing have it.

  18. Markus,

    Thanks, it’s fixed and I added a little more color after noticing yesterday that “jiu” really should be written “jiou”

  19. I’ve removed “kei” since I couldn’t find any character that corresponds to it (thanks Jens) and added “nun.”

    The three other syllables that Jens has informed me exist in some dictionaries are “m,” “ng,” and “hng.” Since this chart is aimed at teaching the sound system of Chinese, those three don’t fit really well.

    I guess now we know, a fully comprehensive list would contain 412 syllables. All the syllables are accounted for in the Pinyin Dictionary for MS Word even if they aren’t on this chart.

  20. As there is a tone sandhi in Chinese, there is also a difference between the written and the actually pronounced (multi syllable) word.

    Books & thesises have been written about that, which supports points 1(beginners) and 2(wan/wahr etc.) above.

    It also makes the Microsoft project mentioned by Jens ( ) more complicated.

    Personally I have problems pronouncing the word 满意 mǎn yì to be satisfied correctly OR my Chinese contacts pronounce it differently.

    These phenomens exist in other languages too, but mother tongue speakers CANNOT notice it.

  21. I don’t know if you guys are still talking about this, but have you ever heard of They have a free downloadable flash pinyin chart of exactly the kind you are discussing. It plays all of the tones automatically.

  22. The Chinesepod Pinyin Chart uses Flash and you don’t have to sign in to get it. It’s very good.
    Just download it on to your desktop.

  23. Here’s a new question: should “den” be on the list (as it is now)? I can’t find any characters for “den” anywhere (and it’s not in the Microsoft IME).

    I don’t think I’ll add “kei” back on because it’s not in the Microsoft IME and no one ever says that anymore. I think it’s an archaic pronunciation.

  24. I’m not pushing for anything here, but “den” is in the Microsoft IME I’m using. Also, it’s in my 新华字典, which is where I got the definition I gave above:

    dèn = = to pull with force

  25. NJ Star Chinese Word-processor produces no characters for KEI nor for DEN . I haven’t come across either as forms of Pinyin, and recall that Chapter 7 of ‘Taiwan Today’, which talks about the pressure Taiwanese students are under, has the vocabulary item ‘K’ (MENG KEI); were there a character with the Pinyin pronunciation KEI you’d have thought the publisher would have used it rather than ‘K’, wouldn’t you?

  26. I have a question on the Microsoft Chines IME.

    What is the key to type for the “u” in this sound,

    I cannot find any information on this. And if I type “lu” in the IME, I get the normal “u” sound, not the “ü” sound.

    Thank you.

  27. Never mind. I actually just found it.

    You would use “v” instead of “u” in this situation.

  28. I’ve been doing research on Romanization systems an the main argument against some old systems is that they failed because they used an apostrophe to differentiate sounds like P’ei as Bei or K’o as Geo this is not a realistic characterization of the failures of the systems.

    How can a people which uses 40.000 of the most intricate characters in the entire World of which several are Stone age cave paintings in use for as long as time goes back have difficulty using an apostrophe or the most simple diacritical marks. Chinese script uses rules so difficult that western scholars can’t even imagine the most basic forms or our languages, yet the argument against both Wade-Giles (which I admit was the worst Romanization of its time) and McCune-Reischauer is that the apostrophe and the accent-circumflex (ê) creates a Romanization that stresses its users on an ‘’impossible set of characters’’ just because English speaking people never use diacritical marks like é è ĕ ế, doesn’t mean that other people can’t use them, if the apostrophe is the worst character on earth, why do so many people use it in words like ‘’can’t, won’t and doesn’t’’.

    The next time a scholar (whose native language is probably English or Korean) says
    that any Romanization system that uses an apostrophe is an inevitable failed system is an inevitable failed scholar!

    The real reason why Wade-Giles failed was because its makes suffered from Dyscravia (using deliberate incorrect spelling for any sound), Peiking and KwangTung do not sound like BeiJing and GuangDong, Chungking or Nanjing do not sound like ChongQing or Nanking.

    Korean on the other hand has a less accurate Romanization in the South.
    This Romanization is known as Revised-Romanization, it existence is based solely on the fact that South-Korean people are somehow just to lazy to use apostrophes or the accent-circumflex when writing their language in Latin. For example Kim Jong-Il is now spelled Gim Jeong-Il and P’yongYang is now spelled PyeongYang. This Romanization is solely based on the English language not only making Korean a more difficult language for native English speakers who barely understand their own rules both also makes it harder for other Europeans who want to learn the language.

  29. I have a list in Excel, that somebody generated to stop the Word spelling checker from giving those funny red lines under your text, when writing Pinyin. It came with a macro that acted as a spelling checker. I am not sure how to get this to y’all. Anyway, it adds up to 1748 or 414 different syllables (with or without tones, respectively). If you want it, let me know.

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