Comments on Pinyin versus Zhuyin

I had written a little while back about Pinyin and Zhuyin, two different systems for representing the sounds in Chinese–one used and advocated in mainland China, while the other primarily (and only) used in Taiwan. I generally prefer Zhuyin and have been incorporating it more and more into my studies. On that same post, two very insightful comments were made by a reader named Karen. Because I think they offer interesting information as well as opinions related to Traditional versus Simplified Chinese, I wanted to share them here (after the break).

Zhuyin Fuhao is better than Pinyin because of the following reasons:

Zhuyin was specifically designed with Mandarin Chinese sounds as its basis.
Pinyin, on the other hand, takes the Roman alphabet (inherently made for Western languages) and forced it onto the Chinese language.
The result is that, due to the nature of pronunciation of the Western alphabet, there are quite a few cases in Pinyin where the same sound in Chinese must be spelled differently depending on whether the sound occurs at the beginning or the end, or which consonant precedes it. This may not be clear to those who learn only Pinyin, but it is annoyingly clear to those who understand Zhuyin. It just feels like it’s designed for foreigners. Zhuyin, on the other hand, has exactly one character for each sound in Mandarin Chinese, and all words can be spelled by Zhuyin in exactly 3 characters or less, unlike Pinyin with its varying lengths. With Zhuyin, you understand the sounds better in a visual way because of its clarity in specifying the syllables which make up the sound for a word. It’s also easier to see the rhymes in poetry with Zhuyin. Besides, when you want to spell out the pronunciation of a word for someone, you can distinctly pronounce each character of Zhuyin Fuhao. With Pinyin, you actually have to spell it in Roman alphabet instead of saying the sound itself. Zhuyin also has the advantage that it can be written both horizontally or vertically (the traditional Chinese writing direction), and the length is always constant, as mentioned earlier.

It is also true that there needs to be a Romanization system for Chinese (for transliterating names, streets, businesses, etc). While Pinyin can serve that purpose well, I find the prevalence of the initial X very ugly and harsh. Wade-Giles romanization, on the other hand, feels softer, kinder and gentler, if you will. There is actually a system that has never been implemented called Mandarin Phonetic Symbols II (MPS2), which is a romanization system. As somone who is fluent in both English and Chinese, I can tell you that MPS2 is better at approximating Chinese sounds. That is, if you ask an English speaker who knows nothing about Chinese to pronounce words spelled by Pinyin, Wade-Giles, and MPS2, the person will come closest to Chinese sounds when reading MPS2 than with the other systems.

On the topic of Traditional versus Simplified, there is just no comparison. Traditional Chinese has been a beautiful language for thousands of years. Simplified was unnecessarily implemented by the PRC in 1950. You want 5000 years of wisdom and elegance, or roughly 50 years of bastardization? It might be okay if they actually improved the language (very difficult to do), but the reality is that Simplified is so plainly ugly it is painful to see.

And a followup comment:

I have no problem with Simplified as a shorthand for hand-writing of personal notes. This was already done by people even before the systematic implementation of the invented Simplified Chinese. Historically, there has been a form of brush calligraphy called “grass style,” which can be very artistic and beautiful indeed. The key difference is, in the traditional shorthand, people used common sense simplification which are well known and did not systematically force the entire language into its present Simplified form. Even worse, Simplified Chinese did not just simplify but actually merged words, so you end up with “face” and “noodle” being the same word just because they have the same sound. Thus, without the one-to-one correlation, when Simplified documents are converted to Traditional, you can still end up with incorrect words left in Simplified form because the computer cannot tell the context of the word. Even humans do this; I have seen cases where people (who learned Simplified as a first language) think they are already writing in Traditional but still end up using the wrong words, leading to a mixed Traditional/Simplified form, which is wrong regardless of which side you prefer. I see this often on food labels from China meant for consumers abroad. In any case, I simply do not see the value of Simplified in printed form (on paper or electronic media). And simplifying handwriting need not be taught; it is something people will do naturally, depending on your level of comfort with the language (and your penmanship as well as experience in seeing other handwritings). In reality, personal notes can be simplified or not depending on the formality of the note (e.g. a shopping list versus a thank-you or condolence letter), and people really need to know how to write Traditional as a standard. Also, handwriting can be very “cursive” when written quickly while retaining the Traditional form.

Regarding the keyboard comparison, I think it’s more of a software design difference where you must enter the tone of the word. I would think Zhuyin again has the advantage since a maximum of 3 strokes plus a tone will give you the word, where Pinyin would likely require more characters. And the tone would serve to narrow down the list of words to choose from, making it faster and easier. If you are writing a sentence, you should know the tone of the words you are trying to say. Even if you get it wrong initially, it’s very easy to switch to another tone and pick from that list. I would think this is actually better for learning than having all the different tones on one list.

This also brings up the point about what is “best” for a language. When we ask what is “best” for the Chinese language, we should consider what is best for a native speaker, not what is best for an English speaker trying to learn Chinese. After all, people in England and the U.S. don’t waste their time asking how they can change or re-design English or its input system or phonetics so that it will be easier for Chinese to learn English. People in France also don’t spend time trying to make their language easier for the English to learn. Isn’t it true that German/Spanish/English have different keyboard layouts? Therefore, the Chinese should choose what is best for their own language as native speakers, including phonetics and keyboard layouts. When the Chinese want to learn English, they learn the English alphabet and the QWERTY keyboard. In fact, anyone trying to learn a language, any language, should try to learn it the same way as the native speakers do, not hope for some shortcut based on their own language. Some might argue that making Chinese easier for foreigners has advantages in making Chinese more accessible, but I think English has become such a common world language for business and other types of communication that people will need to use English anyways. To the extent that people will find knowing Chinese useful in their particular circumstances, they can learn Chinese as the natives do, just as they would for any other language. Having said this, of course it is fine for computer manufacturers and software developers and language specialists to come up with as many different types of input systems suitable for people with different backgrounds, locations, and preferences. I am only saying that, on the issue of adopting a standard phonetics system for education, China should do so based on the characteristics of the language and actual merits of usage, not on whether it would be more suitable for a foreigner. After all, there are a billion Chinese and only a much smaller number of foreigners trying to learn Chinese (and of those, most will not have to live with Chinese as their primary language day in and day out for the entirety of their lives). China chose Simplified and Pinyin, and I feel Traditional and Zhuyin would have been better.

I feel that both Simplification and Pinyin were the result of the Chinese feeling inferior to the stronger Western military and industrial strengths in the 20th century, and thus trying turn its back on its own culture and Westernize, when in fact, as we now know, Chinese culture is not the problem, and the language definitely isn’t the problem. Taiwan and overseas Chinese have blossomed magnificently by keeping their traditional language and culture, and China is now realizing this. In fact, Chinese culture and language is the underlying strength from which China is able to rise again from the rubbles of a difficult century. It’s time for China to take pride in its traditional culture (Confucian ethics of morality and greater harmony for mankind and nature) and language (Traditional character and the wealth of wisdom in Classical Chinese writings accumulated over many centuries). I think if Japan had not invaded China, the Communists might not have had a chance to gain power, and China today would already be a unified country using Traditional Chinese, so there would be none of the Taiwan/China and Traditiona/Simplified distinction, and Chinese culture would still be strong in the absence of the destructive Cultural Revolution. This is not to say China would not have had its share of problem and growing pains (getting rid of corruption and democratizing, etc), but it would have been better. The Communists tried to make the country better (and China did need to change and modernize), so I give them credit for trying, but Mao Zedong just made some really bad decisions with regards to language and culture.

Sorry for the diversion into some political history. I know this blog article is only about the phonetics system and learning a language. The language and cultural issues are quite related, so you’ll naturally see this kind of diversion in many discussion of the Chinese language, and blogs can often degenerate into name-calling shouting matches. I appreciate that you are keeping a civil tone in your space here. Thanks for listening.

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8 thoughts on “Comments on Pinyin versus Zhuyin

  1. I completely agree with you on the traditional vs. simplified (something I refer to as CCP Chinese). The excuse that the mainland uses (to reduce illiteracy) doesn’t make any sense if Hong Kong and Taiwan were both able to keep traditional and have a higher literacy rate. It seems that the government simplified to PROMOTE illiteracy. I have mainland friends that can’t read some Chinese poems and books, not because they can’t read the characters, but because they were never taught so many different ways of expressing ideas and thoughts like the Taiwanese who stuck with traditional. They learn 2 or 3 different characters for a similar word. I don’t have that specific example off the top of my head or the number of how many more characters Taiwan learns, but if memory serves it should be around 1500 more by the end of grade school, no?

    • I’ve always wondered, is there much influence of simplified in Hong Kong, or have they mostly retained the traditional? I’ve only been there a few times, and not enough to notice. However, I always felt like the way they transcribe Cantonese, using Chinese characters, always seemed reminiscent of Classical Chinese, using many of the same characters. I can’t say for sure as it was a completely random observation with nothing to back it up on 🙂

      Yes, usually they get to around 1,500 by the end of grade school. I mean, even lower class people (in the sense of those without the ability to pursue further education) seem to do just fine with traditional!

  2. Hi,
    I totally agree with what you said about Zhuyin and pinyin. Starting from pinyin is an easy way for westerners, yes, but, the drawback is that they got hindered by the letter blending procedure when they use their native phonetic knowledge to decode the letters. It lead them to flat tones and heavy accents. I saw some classes learned Mandarin with Zhuyin in the states, and the result of pronunciation and tone pitches were better than most pinyin learners. Sadly, just a few universities are using zhuyin.
    Thank you for the detailed, well written post. Have a great year!

    • Hi Shu, thank you for your comment!

      I’m glad that at least some schools teach zhuyin! Still, I typically type in Pinyin (sadly it really just is quicker than zhuyin), but if I’m reading dictionary entries or through books that put it next to the characters to aid in reading. Both have their merits, but as you said quite perfectly, pronunciation just comes out much better with zhuyin! Hope you have a great new year too!

  3. Hi,
    My professor he used to teach Zhuyin for first year Chinese, but he retired now though. Currently the textbook I used is based on the pinyin, for the school has used that before I came teaching here:(
    I think you might want to take a look at this
    http://eastasiastudent.net/china/zhongwen/gwoyeu-romatzyh/
    Have a good new week:)

    • Oh yeah! I’ve come across that before. I looked into it. It’s really interesting *but*, I’ve since decided not to bother with it. I know people swear by it, but I feel like it may be best to go with one of the rather ‘mainstream’ systems. Lord knows I don’t need to learn ANOTHER. Have you had any experience with it? I’d be interested in knowing your experiences with it.

      Hope you have a good week too!

  4. I don’t agree with you at all. PinYin as commented before is just faster for people from roman language. And a study shows that learning PinYin vs ZhuYin has no determinable effects on pronunciation. What I would be more interested in knowing though is if ZhuYin would improve character recall compared to pinyin, but generally I don’t agree with most of your post.

  5. […] is Karen write a comment (very long comment.) She allow the comments to be re-post somewhere.  I’ll […]

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