Department of History
History of China 中國歷 史  (HIST 122/123-01)
Chinese Language Guide for New Students
updated: 05 Sep 05

This Guide provides some technical orientation on using the Chinese language for all students in the course, particularly those with no prior background in Chinese studies.  Treat this Guide as a reference work for help in dealing with Chinese names and dates and general problems of transliteration.  Since the course is intended as a basic introduction to Chinese history, no previous knowledge about China is expected or presumed.



In using the generic term "Chinese," we are referring to the language common to the northern part of the country and which has been adopted as a national standard by the government[s] of China (even though Cantonese, Fukienese, etc., have equal claim to be called "Chinese").  This language is often called in the West "Mandarin Chinese" (i.e., the language of the bureaucracy), a reasonable translation for the imperial-period term guanhua 官話.  Today it is known as the "national language" (kuo-yü 國語 ) on Taiwan and "common speech" (putonghua 普通話 ) on the Mainland.

In dealing with Chinese, you will have to face two areas of difficulty:

Transliteration systems

At present, there are two major (and several minor) systems used in the English-speaking world for transliterating Chinese into our Latin alphabet.(1)

Also, there are two other systems with which you may come in contact:

In addition:

What are you to make of all this complexity?  For this course, I ask merely that you:

  1. be aware that all these different systems exist, but forget about all of them except for both Wade-Giles and Pinyin;
  3. bear in mind that these systems are merely different conventions for representing the same thing; e.g., that the 20th-century author 魯迅 Lu Hsün [WG] is really the same person as Lu Xun [PY];
  5. choose either of these systems for your own writing and be consistent in using it; and
  7. be sensitive to the fact that in China there is a political dimension even to language.  Since the Pinyin system is the creation of the People's Republic, it is not generally used (but is now at least acceptable) on Taiwan, where the governing authorities prefer to keep the more "traditional" Wade-Giles system.
For all the materials distributed in this class (term sheets, exams, etc.), the convention will be to give all names in Pinyin transliteration.

For a more detailed treatment of the Pinyin system, click over to Mark Swofford's detailed website,
, which includes a chart comparing the Pinyin and Wade-Giles systems. 
For another comparison of different transliteration systems, see Anderson, Olov Bertil. A Concordance to Five Systems of Transcription for Standard Chinese. (Lund, Sweden: Studentlitteratur, 1970) [PL 1185 .A48] 


Names of places:

All of the transliteration problems mentioned above apply in the naming of places, with the additional factor that in the 19th century the Imperial Maritime Customs, which also handled postal functions, published a Gazetteer which "standardized" the spelling of place-names, usually according to local pronunciations.  Thus, the standard spelling of city-names like Kowloon [ / Jiulong / Chiu-lung / 九龍 ], Canton [Guangzhou / Kuang-chou / 廣州 ], Kiukiang [Jiujiang / Chiu-chiang / 九江], and Wusih [Wuxi / Wu-hsi / 無錫 ] reflects the pronunciation a regional dialect ("topolect") rather than a uniform transliteration system.

There are also cases where the Chinese name of a city itself represents an attempt to transcribe a name from one of the "minority" languages (e.g., " Wulumuqi / Wu-lu-mu-ch'i / 烏魯木齊" for Urumchi).

Names of persons:

Reflecting the traditional importance of the family unit over its individual members, one's family name is always written first in China, followed by one's personal name.(3) Usually, family names, or 姓 xing have only one character, while personal names, or 名字mingzi have two.

Of course, there are exceptions.  Some family names are written with two-character compounds.  In such cases, the individual usually has a single character for a personal name, so as not to depart from the standard three-character total.  Examples would be the renowned historians司馬遷 Sima Qian and 歐陽修 Ouyang Xiu.  However, even without a compound family name, some individuals have only single-character personal names, such as the 20th-century scholar 胡适 Hu Shih.

Persons not belonging to the Han ethnic majority (e.g., Mongols, Manchus, etc.) are generally referred to only by a polysyllabic personal name.  Here, you have the option of transliterating either the original pronunciation or the Chinese transcription of it.

Certain conventions have been adopted regarding the punctuation of names. In Wade-Giles, components of compounds are separated by a hyphen and only the first word is capitalized, while in Pinyin, components are joined together.  Compare the versions of four names in the following table:

Characters Wade-Giles Pinyin
Teng Hsiao-p'ing Deng Xiaoping
Ssu-ma Kuang Sima Guang
Chu Te Zhu De
僧 格林沁
Seng-ko-lin-ch'in Senggelinqin


Names of emperors (as opposed to mere "persons"...)

To illustrate the principles involved here, let us take up the case of the man who founded the Ming dynasty in 1368:

  1. As an individual, he was a man of the Zhu family named Yuanzhang, so according to the usual manner he would be called 朱元璋 Zhu Yuanzhang.
  3. However, once he ascended the throne, his personal name became taboo; thenceforth, he would be referred to by his dynastic or "temple" name, or 廟號 miao hao: Great Ancestor of the Ming, or 明太祖 Ming Taizu.  According to the conventions of English usage, we would refer to him as "Emperor Taizu."
  5. In addition, his reign-period was given a felicitous appellation or "year name," or 年號 nian hao.  In this case, to celebrate the victory over the Mongols, his reign was known as the period of "overwhelming military prowess," or Hongwu.  Again according to the conventions of English usage, we refer to the individual who ruled during this period as "The Hongwu Emperor."(4)

Getting a clear understanding of dates in Chinese history can be particularly tricky for two reasons:


The Chinese did not date years from any single starting point;(5) instead, the convention was to give the number since the start of the current year-name, or nian hao.  For example, Qianlong 41/5/19 would indicate the 19th day of the 5th lunar month of the 41st year of the Qianlong Emperor's reign  in the middle of the Qing dynasty (corresponding to 4 July 1776).

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368/1644/1911), each emperor kept the same nian hao throughout his entire reign, for which later historians are deeply grateful.  However, in earlier dynasties, nian hao were frequently changed during a single emperor's reign.

The traditional system is still reflected on Taiwan, where each year is known officially as the nth year of the Republic (counting from the 1911 revolution), so add [19]11 to 民國 Min-kuo dates to get the Western equivalent. Months and days, however, follow the Western solar format.

Since its founding in 1949, the People's Republic has used the Western method of counting years, overlooking the system's Western and Christian origins in favor of its international applicability.  However, the PRC's use of  公元 gongyuan ("common era") and 公元前 gongyuanqian ("before the common era") corresponds to the "CE" and "BCE" which are coming to replace "AD" and "BC" in the West.

1. Compare the following examples for transliterating the sentence: "Do you plan to live in Shanghai? 你想住 在上海嗎" 

W-G: Ni3 hsiang3 chu4 tsai4 Shang4 Hai3 ma
PY: Nǐ xiǎng zhù zài Shànghǎi ma
Yale: Nǐ syǎng jù dzài Shànghǎi ma
GR: Nii sheang juh tzay Shanqhae .ma
2. The fact that the Library of Congress did not launch its Pinyin Conversion Project until 1 October 2000 was not due to any willful deviation from this standard, but merely reflects the astronomical cost of altering all its catalogues.

3. Under these circumstances, it only generates more confusion to use the English terms of "last" and "first" names.

4. If we were to use this system in the United, the parallel usages would be: "President Franklin Roosevelt," but "The 'New Deal' President;" or "President Lyndon Johnson," but "The 'Great Society' President."

5. Unlike the Christian system of dating years from the birth of Christ, or the Moslem system of counting from the Hegira.