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Pinyin vs Wade-Giles, or China vs Taiwan

In the past I have been asked why in some of my posts I write Guomindang while in others I write Kuomintang. Both have the same meaning and pronunciation, but the different spelling is indeed confusing. The same thing can be said for other names, such as Kaohsiung vs Gaoxiong, or Taichung vs Taizhong. I must admit that I have been quite inconsistent. So far I haven't made a clear choice between the Taiwanese and the Chinese way to write these names.

But why are there different ways to write Chinese characters using Latin letters? And which one is better?

Map of Taiwan. The names are written with the Wade-Giles system

Wade-Giles, Pinyin, and the Chinese Civil War

When contacts between China and the West intensified in the 19th century, Europeans were confronted with a big issue: how to transliterate Chinese names? For instance, if a Westerner wanted to write a book about China for a Western audience, he had to mention Chinese persons and places. But how could one use the Latin alphabet to render all these exotic names?

For a while, Europeans did it intuitively, but that created a lot of confusion since everyone could write Chinese names as they pleased. The need for a coherent system was therefore felt among scholars and politicians. 

In the second half of the 19th century, Thomas Francis Wade, a scholar and British ambassador in China, created a transliteration system which in 1912 was improved by Herbert Allen Giles, a China expert and a diplomat. It became known as the Wade-Giles system, and it was the prevalent system used in China until the 1950s, and in the West until the 1980s (Gao 2009, p. 376). Most of us who attended school in the 1990s can still remember our textbooks using the Wade-Giles spelling, like in the name Mao Tse-tung. And we all know the word Kung Fu. These are all examples of Wade-Giles spelling. 
This system is in itself coherent and it works perfectly if you know it well. Originally, however, it was created for sinologists, and this results in a lot of complex and sometimes not very intuitive rules. For instance, one feature of the Wade-Giles system is “the representation of the unaspirated-aspirated stop consonant pairs using apostrophes: p, p', t, t', k, k', ch, ch'. The use of apostrophes preserves b, d, g, and j for the romanization of Chinese languages containing voiced consonants, such as Shanghainese (which has a full set of voiced consonants) and Min Nan”.

This means that, for example, the word 中國 (China) is written Chung-kuo, and the word 重慶 is written Ch'ung-ch'ing. It must be noted that Wade-Giles was created in order to render the sounds of all Chinese dialects and not just those of Mandarin Chinese, hence the complexity of this system.

When the Guomindang government (in this post I've chosen this spelling) retreated to Taiwan in 1949, the Wade-Giles system continued to be used on the island, and indeed it is still used there. But in mainland China, the Communist government created a new system: pinyin. It was introduced in the late 1950s and it is now used as the international standard. According to pinyin, 中國 is written Zhongguo, while 重慶 is written Chongqing. 

The Wade-Giles vs pinyin issue is not just a matter of linguistics. It has both political and practical implications. 

Recently, The Economist has published an article that highlights the sensitivity of language issues in cross-straits relations. In 2009, the Guomindang administration led by Ma Yingjiu decided to introduce the pinyin system to Taiwan, in order to 'integrate' Taiwan with the rest of the world. But, according to the magazine, many Taiwanese do not like pinyin because it was developed in Communist China. Moreover, they fear that this is just another strategy used by Ma Yingjiu in order to bring Taiwan and China closer.

This diatribe proves that in Taiwan it is very hard to talk about simple things such as a romanisation system when China is involved. In fact, pinyin has become a political issue. Many Taiwanese will indeed say they don't like pinyin just because they don't like mainland China, though probably they have never studied this system. On the other hand, some people in China are suspicious of Wade-Giles, because they identify it with 'imperialism'.

Is Pinyin Better than Wade-Giles?

Let me make this clear. Both systems work, therefore neither of them is 'better'. Some people claim that pinyin is 'inconsistent', arguing that foreigners in China cannot read pinyin names like Dongzhimen (东直门 / 東直門) or Gongyixiqiao (公益西桥站 / 公益西橋).

But the same thing is true for Wade-Giles. For generations, Westerners have mispronounced Chinese names such as Mao Tse-tung or Kuang-tung because of Wide-Giles. And because of it we keep on mispronouncing Taipei and Taitung. By the way, the Wade-Giles spelling of the previous examples would be Tung-chih-men and Kung-yi-hsi-ch'iao.

The point is: no alphabet can be read without studying it. The first thing an English speaker does when he learns another Western language, such as French or Spanish, is to learn how to pronounce it. In the West we all use the same letters, invented by the Romans thousands of years ago, but we don't read them in the same way. That's because an alphabet is just a system of signs used to write sounds. But because languages have different sounds, these letters are used differently in various languages. Let's take for instance the letters 'ch'. The combination of these two letters is used in many European languages:

English: chance, French: chocolat, German: Buch, Italian: chiamare

If you can speak these four languages, you will know that 'ch' is pronounced in four completely different ways in each of them. When pinyin critics argue that English-speaking tourists can't read pinyin signs in China, they are forgetting that the same would be true if they went to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France or Poland. They won't be able to read these languages if they don't learn them in advance. Just think of all tourists struggling to read German names like 'Schwartzkopffstraße', 'Zoologischer Garten', or 'Friedrichstadtpalast'. 

Both pinyin and Wade-Giles are entirely consistent, as both of them can represent all the sounds of the Chinese language using letters or combinations of letters. From this point of view, languages like English are way more inconsistent. Just compare the words 'enough', 'though', and 'thorough', where the pairs 'ou' and 'gh' are read in three different ways!

A school slogan in mainland China, written with simplified characters and pinyin

Is Wade-Giles Good for Taiwan?

Some people argue Wade-Giles is part of the history of Taiwan, and it is a system that works. The first point is true, but that doesn't mean much, history changes and there have been many reforms of the writing system in different countries, like Germany, Korea, or Turkey; therefore, tradition alone is not a reasonable argument for or against pinyin. The second point is true in theory but not so true in practice. Wade-Giles is indeed as good a system as pinyin, but its practical usage in Taiwan is very problematic.

First of all, as far as I know Wade-Giles is not taught in schools in Taiwan. Therefore, Taiwanese themselves don't know how to use it. This creates a lot of confusion because people tend to spell names intuitively. Moreover, one issue that has always plagued Wade-Giles is that people either don't know how to use the apostrophes, or they are simply too lazy to write them. However, the apostrophes are extremely important in this system. 

If you ask some educated Taiwanese to 'romanise' Chinese words using Wade-Giles, chances are at least some of them won't be able to do it. Let's take for example four words: 汽車, 清代, 民進黨, 途中. How to write them using Wade-Giles? But if you ask educated Chinese to write these words in pinyin, they will be able to do it, since they've learnt this system in school. 

Moreover, although in Taiwan Wade-Giles is the prevalent system, it is not the only one. It coexists with a number of other more or less official spelling systems, such as Tongyong pinyin. As a consequence, Taiwanese names are often spelt in a variety of ways that are confusing, since there is hardly a standardised system one can refer to. For example, 中和 is often spelled jhongho, chungho, and jhonghe. The actual Wade-Giles transliteration is Chung-ho. 新店 is often spelt Sin-tien or Hsin-tien; but 行天 temple is spelt Hsing-tien. Since people don't use the apostrophe the difference between the t of Hsin-tien and the t' of Hsing-ti'en is entirely lost. 

Although both pinyin and Wade-Giles can't be read without learning them first, in my opinion pinyin has an advantage in that it does not require an apostrophe to differentiate between hard and soft consonants (or, technically speaking, between aspirated and unaspirated consonants). This makes it a little bit easier for speakers of English and some other European languages to at least guess the pronunciation of most consonants. There are also consonants that can't be guessed, like q, zh, x, but in this respect Wade-Giles is not much better. Here are a few examples:

Wade-Giles -- Pinyin

Pei-t'ou -- Beitou

Pei-ching -- Beijing

Kuang-tung -- Guangdong

Kung-kuan -- Gongguan

Hsin-tien -- Xindian

Kung-fu -- Gongfu

T'ai-tung -- Taidong

Ching-mei -- Jingmei

Should Taiwan Switch to Pinyin?

Although the Ma Yingjiu government has adopted pinyin and it has been extensively used in Taipei and other areas, it is up to local authorities to decide whether they should switch to pinyin or maintain the previous spelling. In Taipei itself, one finds contradicting signs, like Sintien, Hsintien, Xindian etc. The Guomindang has so far not dared impose a unified pinyin system on the entire island, especially in strongholds of Taiwanese nationalism like Tainan. 

As I said, I don't think it's wise to constantly mix political issues about China-Taiwan relations with topics that have little to do with politics. Whether Taiwan adopts pinyin or not, the PRC's missiles won't disappear, nor will the anti-secession law cease to exist. The real question is: what would be most practical? Both systems have good and bad sides. Pinyin has the advantage of being used by more than a billion Mandarin-speakers in China and of being the standard used everywhere except for Taiwan. It is also slightly more intuitive for some foreign speakers. Wade-Giles, on the other hand, is a system Taiwanese have already been familiar with for a long time, and switching to another one will not bring any specific benefit to them.

However, maintaining the current chaos doesn't seem to me very helpful. Taiwan could very well go back to a full implementation of the Wade-Giles system and reject pinyin. But in this case, the Wade-Giles system should be taught properly so that Taiwanese can use it, and it should be applied coherently so as to avoid confusion. Moreover, it should be taken into consideration that most Chinese-speaking foreigners who arrive in Taiwan are familiar with pinyin, and those who can't speak Chinese at least deserve a uniform, clear spelling system. Obviously, this does not concern long-time expats or people like me, who use pinyin but also have at least a basic knowledge of Wade-Giles.


  1. It's been my experience too that Taiwanese don't know how to translate into either pinyin or Wade-Giles too, they just guess as the British did the in 19th century!

    What about Bopomofo though? Surely the reason that Taiwanese learn neither in school is that they don't need it as they have a much more accurate phonetic system that ties into the written system too. I imagine this too ties into the political history - the PRC wished to reform the language both in terms of the characters and the transliteration and did not with to use Bopomofo because it was developed by the ROC. This is a shame for me as in principle Bopomofo seems a more accurate representation of sounds than you get with pinyin/W-G and is an aid to learning characters too. I think this would be a much more important issue in Taiwan if it weren't for the fact that only 'foreigners' use either system in Taiwan, there's no great constituency on either side.

    (My wife does a little Chinese language teaching now and has to use Bopomofo as the school uses Taiwanese text books)

    Very interesting points anyway, I particularly liked your section on whether pinyin was better than Wade-Giles, I'd never thought of the analogy with learning the alphabet of other European languages. Given that pinyin is more intuitive I prefer it too, but perhaps that's only because it's the first thing I learnt in my first Chinese class :-)

    1. Hi David,

      as far as the Bopomofo system is concerned I agree with you. In fact, I decided not to talk about it in the article because I think it's a good system for Chinese native speakers. I concentrated only on the tricky Romanisation issue.

      On the other hand, I also have to say that the use of pinyin in mainland China has made it at least a little bit easier to internationalise Mandarin. Basically, Bopomofo and pinyin are both accurate phonetic systems. If there was no pinyin, however, foreigners would have to learn Bopomofo first and then start to learn the Chinese characters. This would slow down the learning process and possibly demotivate some people, as if beginners of Chinese were not already confronted with a huge amount of work to do. Maybe a sinologist could learn Bopomofo, the characters and the tone, but somebody who wants to learn Chinese for business or as a hobby would probably like to see some short-term results in actually being able to speak and read something.

      Moreover, a Romanisation system is needed anyway in order to render Chinese names into foreign languages. So, I have nothing against the use of Bopomofo in Taiwan, but for practical reasons I endorse the decision of the PRC to fully switch to pinyin. Yet I am also in favour of these two systems competing with each other on the international level and see which one has more demand. For example, if your wife's school has chosen Bopomofo, I think it's good as long as students are happy with it. I am open to everything as long as it works in practice. But I am totally against mixing politics with these issues and rejecting pinyin only because it was created in the PRC.

      Have a nice Sunday : )

    2. I totally agree with this. I haven't even learnt Bopomofo because it takes some effort. For foreigners who are not learning Chinese, romanisation in some form is a totally necessity otherwise basic communication really suffers. Deciding on one system is the important thing, either are doable but it should be done uniformly or not at all.

      But I must say that using pinyin for learning the pronunciation of Chinese in a school setting is a little odd to me - like a Chinese person learning English pronunciation through similar characters! In fact I really don't feel that was a neutral decision by the PRC, romanisation in Asia was a hugely political movement tied up in ideas of which writing systems are 'civilised' and which are not (for example the romanisation of the Vietnamese language by the French).

      Hope your family are well and that you have a good evening too!

  2. Bopomofo sounds more cute (and I like the 'mofo' bit at the end very much :-P ).


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