CULTURAL BUTONG #3: Chinese People Don’t Do Pinyin (No Alphabet)!


When I introduce Chinese or Taiwanese dramas, I use pinyin (romanicized) because I want to make the content avaliable to readers who cannot read Chinese characters. I’m talking about Chinese movie/television titles and actor’s names, but this applies to Chinese sayings and slang. “Translating” these characters into pinyin format makes them lose a part of their original meaning, no matter how well you can translate them. Here’s why pinyin is not what most Chinese people prefer to use.

To learn how to read and write Chinese, most non-Chinese find reading Chinese characters intimidating to look at. It’s more comfortable to dip your toes into icy waters to test it out before diving headfirst to swim, right? Therefore, when you are first learning the language, you will probably use pinyin, which is simply a romanicized form of Chinese characters. Pinyin is a pronounciation guide for the actual Chinese characters, which may look at first like random drawings to the untrained eye. But don’t depend on it and don’t treat pinyin like an alphabet 🙂

Examples of pinyin: Ni ren shi wo ma. In English, this means ‘Do you know me’.


For reals? I can’t use pinyin for everything…?

The reason you should not depend on pinyin is because Chinese people do not recognize that. If you try to express yourself or explain something in writing to a Chinese person, they might not know what you are talking about. Additionally, keep in mind that different Chinese characters may share the same romanization, hence using pinyin will be problematic. Here’s where ‘tonal changes’ in speech come into play. There are four principal tone marks used for each pinyin:

But even if you try to write words in pinyin with tonal marks, there are yet still, Chinese characters that share the same pinyin. To be honest, whoever wants to truly learn Chinese, you must switch to Chinese characters as soon as you begin to learn them. See the pinyin as a beginner’s tool, don’t use it too much. The best way to learn how to read and write in characters, is to memorize a couple every week. Use them everyday in your writings. In no time at all, you’ll be writing and comprehending Chinese like a pro.

Interesting Fact: Japanese and Korean people used to write in the Chinese writing system! Japanese have adapted some Chinese characters to what is now called “kanji”. Koreans used the writing system until the 1440s when they developed a phonetic system which is now commonly used.

There is a myth you ought to know… A lot of people think that you have to learn all 80,000 Chinese characters to actually be able to read and write in Chinese. Not true… that would make 99.99% of Chinese people illiterate, which is obviously not the case. Most people use only about 1,000 characters, and really, you can express yourself knowing a few hundred. Plus, get excited being able to write in beautiful Chinese characters. I personally love writing in Chinese because it is a very meaningful language which allows for so much proverbs and artistic expression.

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About Bumbleberri

Founder and editor of Asian Entertainment Blog, UnderratedGems. What I do in my free time: trying to get more sleep and satisfying my TV addiction.

3 responses to “CULTURAL BUTONG #3: Chinese People Don’t Do Pinyin (No Alphabet)!”

  1. heisui says :

    When I was a kid, my parents sent me to a weekly Cantonese school. I didn’t like it because I hated writing in Chinese O___O”” Now……….I know how to write my Chinese name. And a few other basic words. >.<

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