Introduction of Chinese Vowels

Today, we are going to enter the first instructive session of Chinese pronunciation. Therefore, we are going to start with the beginning of worldly sound—the vowel, which gives us the most vivid access to the art of sound.

Let me first introduce one of the most influential articles I have ever read on how to appreciate and understand the beauty of sound. Unfortunately, we could not trace the original author of the article, called Record of Music, but we could find it collected by a famous Ritualist in the Book of Rites [1] whose name was Shèng Dài. Dai was from the Dynasty of Xihan, Emperor of Hanxuan (BC 91–BC 48). The original version was written in the classical style of Chinese writing, “文言文, wén yán wén,” which means that it was written in ancient Chinese grammar. My translation might not be perfect, but I will try my best to make it as faithful and expressive as I can.

“Every sound is made meaningful because of the touch of the heart, while the touch of the heart is made possible because of its surroundings. When our heart is touched by our surroundings, then it forms voice; when one voice echoes with another voice, it forms changes; when changes are patterned together, it becomes sound. If we can appreciate the sound of patterned changes along with some instruments, and we sing them aloud and dance them out, the sound becomes music.”

The Record of Music was written at least 48 years before Jesus was born, and it posits that it is for the heart that music and sound were created. I could not agree more—even before I knew the name of Jesus, I always believed that sound should not be created just for human pleasure, but for a greater mission. I believed it was for “righting the heart and nourishing the soul” that sound was created. After I became a Christian, I was very excited to find confirmation in the Holy Bible: “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” [2] Therefore, sound was really created to worship the Creator! Through Him we gain peace, joy, and love for our soul and heart.

I said earlier that the vowel gives us vivid access to the art of sound. Let me expand on that statement with more comprehensive content in terms of Chinese pronunciation. It is the consonant that begins the mission of sound (pīnyīn), but it is the vowel that brings color to the journey of this mission, and it is the tone that brings this good mission to a good completion. Let’s imagine that point A (consonant) departs, passes through point B (vowel), and arrives at point C (tone). This book places vowels first because: 1.) It connects consonants with tone. When you can totally master the “path” (vowel), you will have no problem tackling the “origin” (consonant) and the “destination” (tone). 2.) Vowels are to sound what a verb is to a sentence. A sound cannot exist without a vowel, but it can exist without a consonant. It is amazing to see how this law works both in English and Chinese!

I spent this time offering different examples so that you do not feel intimidated at the beginning of this strange journey. Both English and Chinese begin by making a sound, and vowels are “a speech sound produced by comparatively open configuration of the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction.” [3] Let’s memorize the following theorems in these charts and practice.


[1] Chinese Ritualism is closely connected with Confucianism, but they are not exactly the same ideology.

[2] Ephesians 5:19. ESV

[3] The source found through Google Dictionary

Note: The above post is extracted from Shuang's book Self-study Chinese. Please do not use this post for commercial purposes. You are welcome to use it for academic and personal purposes. Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures is taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV). Copyright ©2008 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.