Why Is It So Easy to Rhyme in Mandarin?

Chinese words are made up of so few possible syllables that it’s almost hard NOT to rhyme. For example, Wang Lihong has a song called “Can you feel my world” that has the following rhyme scheme:


Just to clarify, that means that every single line in the whole song rhymes (except for his two token English lines).

What is it about Chinese that makes that possible? The magic number = 24.

According to the pinyin chart, not every combination of letters in the pinyin alphabet is allowed. In fact, there are a whole lot of combination that are possible to produce, but simply don’t exist in Mandarin for some reason (like “ki” and “fin,” not to mention all the syllables we could create if we were allowed to put all those initial consonants in final position). This means that, even though there are technically 38 different endings on the chart, there are really only 24 sounds (according to my count) that can be at the end of a syllable. There may be more depending on “R-ified” endings, but we’ll get to that.

If Dr. Seuss had been Chinese, he wouldn’t have impressed anyone.

Different finals in Mandarin (for rhyming):

[update: I’m adding songs that I find that have these endings as the exclusive rhyme scheme (or at least dominant one). Anyone is welcome to contribute.]
  1. a, ia, ua妹妹 by 江美琪, 中意他 by 梁詠琪 (Gigi)
  2. ai, uai不愿说再见 by 王力宏, 第一个清晨 by 王力宏, 珊瑚海 by 周杰伦, 期待你的爱 by 林俊杰
  3. an (ban), uan
  4. an (yan), ian, üan – 浮城 by 陳奕迅 (Eason Chan),
  5. ang, iang, uang倔强 by 五月天
  6. ao, iao – Can You Feel My World by 王力宏, 小酒窝 by 林俊杰, 口香糖 by 梁詠琪 (Gigi), 咕嘰咕嘰 by 孫燕姿 (Stefanie)
  7. e (le) – 你不是真正的快乐 by 五月天
  8. e (ye), ie, üe
  9. ei, ui颓废 by 弦子, 一个人睡 by 莫文蔚 (Karen Mok)
  10. en
  11. eng
  12. er
  13. i (yi / ji) – 关於 by 孙燕姿 (Stefanie), 愛情黑盒子 by 梁詠琪 (Gigi)
  14. i (zhi)
  15. i (zi)
  16. in
  17. ing – 得不到的爱情 by 姚莉
  18. ong, iong
  19. ou, iu
  20. uo, o – 漩渦 by 孫燕姿 (Stefanie)
  21. u (bu)凹凸 by 梁咏琪, 休止符 by 孙燕姿 (Stefanie), 腹语术 by 莫文蔚 (Karen Mok)
  22. un (chun)
  23. ü (yu)
  24. ün (yun)

(Did I miss any? Let me know if I miscounted somewhere.)

Who cares? Well, it’s not always clear from the pinyin that certain words don’t rhyme with each other. For example, “yan” and “ban” aren’t even close to rhyming. Also the two syllables in “yìsi” 意思 do not rhyme with each other, but look like they should.

So really, who cares?

1. People who are just starting to learn pinyin. Don’t get tricked by the writing system. ChinesePod‘s pinyin chart (huge, but good) is downloadable here. (I’d still like to have a totally online clickable one with absolutely every syllable on it.)

2. People who want to write songs or rhyming kids books in a foreign language but haven’t decided which language to use. The choice is simple: Mandarin Chinese. Isn’t that right, Chris?

3. People who are interested in “érhuà” 儿化 (*eh HEM* Beijing Sounds, *cough) and want to know what those syllables sound like when “R-ified.”

Enough with the innuendos, here’s what I want: recordings of those first 24 syllables “R-ified.” It doesn’t have to be BJS that does it, but I also want to know if there are any differences between the ends of, for example, “xiar” and “shuar.” If not, then we may assume that there are only 23 different kinds of “R” endings (at most) that one needs to learn.

If you don’t know what this “R-ification” is all about, you might look at this.

At some point, someone needs to produce a bank of sound files with erhua syllables with different tones. I think it’s amazing that doesn’t already exist. Maybe it does and I just don’t know about it. If so, please let me know so I can recomend MDBG use it to provide pronunciation samples for entries such as “wánr” 玩儿, which currently has no link to a sound file.

17 Replies to “Why Is It So Easy to Rhyme in Mandarin?”

  1. I just had been to BeiJing. Truly Beijing rénr like érhuà.
    One day, I asked a volunteer,“请问去西花市怎么走?”–“Please tell me how to get to Xī Huā Shì (a street name)?”
    She smiled then asked,“请问你是去西花儿市呢还是西华寺?”–“Do you want to go Xī Huār Shì or XīHuá Sìname of a temple)?”
    I’m sure I pronounced exactly.And especially Shì ,as the normal situation.
    But she asked. So I repeated,I want to go Xī Huār Shì ,not XīHuá Sì.Pay my attention on huar.
    Finally got the answer.
    By the way,thanks she didn’t tell me yòng tuǐ zǒu用腿走(walk by your legs).
    Actually, Xī Huār Shì is more smoothly than Xī Huā Shì.
    Besides,it seems that formal term should not érhuà儿化.
    In addition, Beijing locals speak rén人,sounds like yínr more than rénr.
    And in the bus,you could hardly hear clearly what the conductor saying, at least me.
    some of them speak very fast and thick.
    Is there anything wrong with my ears?
    Ok, I’ve gotten carried away. Only my personal experiences.

  2. Sorry this is late in coming, but I ran across your article, and I’ve been discovering a lot of Chinese music recently, so:

    a, ia, ua: 中意他 zhòngyì tā by 梁詠琪 Gigi
    an (yan), ian, üan: 浮城 fú chéng by 陳奕迅 Eason Chan (this much -ian in one song really threw me for a loop the first time heard it)
    ao, iao: 口香糖 kŏuxiāngtáng by 梁詠琪 Gigi (during the verse); 咕嘰咕嘰 gūjīgūjī by 孫燕姿 Stefanie
    ei, ui: 一個人睡 yīgèrén shuì by 莫文蔚 Karen Mok

    i (yi / ji):
    夢遊 mèngyóu by 孫燕姿 Stefanie (most of the first half)
    關於 guānyú by 孫燕姿 Stefanie
    愛情黑盒子 àiqíng hēi hézi by 梁詠琪 Gigi

    ing: 得不到的爱情 débùdào di àiqíng by 姚莉 Yao Lee (old timey lounge song)
    uo, o: 漩渦 xuán wō by 孫燕姿 Stefanie
    u: 腹語術 fùyŭshù by 莫文蔚 Karen Mok

  3. Oh wow, that’s amazing. The instrumentation (accordion and all), the vocal melody, even which words in the lyrics get repeated, it’s all practically identical. Now the little “Wanna be be be your love!” at the end makes a lot more sense. I think song genealogy fascinates me just as much as etymology 🙂

  4. “And in the bus,you could hardly hear clearly what the conductor saying, at least me”

    hellen,i think the chinese guy who go to beijing for the first time,still can’t hear what the conductor said.at least me.

  5. One reason why a bank of erhua syllables is hard to come by: only a minority of Chinese people can speak them, and those that can are more likely to be shy about recording!

    I helped to record syllables for Gradint in 2008. It has the basic 412 syllables recorded from context (not from isolation), in each of 4 tones + neutral tone, all broken into separate files and GPL’d (and it took us a long time to do it!) I wanted to do the erhua syllables as well, but the Mandarin speaker couldn’t say them because she wasn’t from Beijing. When I asked others, I found quite a few people who could do erhua but they’d say things like “you don’t want my voice because I failed my CCTV interview” – it seems they’re more likely to be perfectionist and therefore less likely to give it a go!

    (It doesn’t help that this project records whole syllables, therefore having erhua would almost double the already-large amount of work. You could try recording initials and finals separately but I expect it would compromise the quality of the resulting syllables.)

  6. @Joanna Chow,

    Wow! Thanks for all those songs. I listened to 月弯弯 and really liked it but it’s not exactly all “-uan” all the time. It switches to “-ai” and “-ang” in the middle.

    外婆的澎湖湾 is closer, but still TECHNICALLY is “-uan” and “-uang”. Which is interesting. Maybe those are considered rhymes in Chinese?

    -你不是真正的快乐 is a great example of “-e” (after the little intro part). Thanks!

    单车恋人 is a really cute little song, but he’s using an ABBABB rhyme scheme for the the chorus “wo, -e, -e, po, -e, -e” and the verse also uses more than one type of rhyme.

    Thanks for sharing these songs!

  7. Pingback: Chinese translators: don’t use rhyme in English! - Webwight

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