A Guide to Zhuyin (Bopomofo, BPFM): the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet

By Charles Wetzel

Zhuyin Being Used to Input "Hao3" on a Taiwanese Cell Phone

A Zhuyin Keypad on a Taiwanese Cell Phone

Part 1: Yes, Chinese Has an Alphabet

Some people claim Chinese has no alphabet. To support their claims, they will point to a newspaper article written using a system of thousands of hanzi, or Chinese characters. They will point to street signs written in the same characters. Although it is true that the vast majority of Chinese is written in hanzi (around 2,500 are are needed to be fully literate), the statement "Chinese has no alphabet" is false.

Chinese has two alphabets, in common use, in fact (pinyin and zhuyin, used to teach Chinese characters to children in Mainland China and Taiwan, respectively). The total number of alphabets beyond those two all depends on how one counts various other alphabets in addition to pinyin and zhuyin. Technically Korean hangeul, Japanese hiragana/katakana, and even Arabic letters have been used at some time or another to represent Chinese characters in various Sino-influenced languages like Korean, Japanese, and Uyghur.

The most prominent alphabet of Chinese is pinyin, which is Latin-based, with which any student of Chinese should be familiar. Pinyin is an alphabet based around the letters of the Latin alphabet. It uses 25 of the 26 letters to transcribe Chinese sounds (for bonus points, which letter is not in pinyin?). Pinyin is used on MAINLAND CHINA.

Then there is zhuyin (which many Taiwanese people know as "bopomofo"). And that is what this "photo essay" is about — zhuyin is the Chinese alphabet used in Taiwan. Please keep in mind, it is used to write MANDARIN (do not confuse it with Taiwanese, a separate language). Zhuyin is composed of 37 symbols and was created about 100 years ago on mainland China. Ironically, mainland China, despite its anti-imperialist leanings, uses the Latin-based pinyin. It is Taiwan that uses zhuyin.

An Educational Fan with Zhuyin Symbols for Sale at a 7-Eleven

A Princessy Book with Some Bopomofo/Zhuyin Next to the Chinese Characters

Part 2: If Chinese characters are used for most things, what is the point of zhuyin?

Zhuyin is used by young children to learn Chinese characters, and occasionally used to transcribe sounds that cannot be represented by characters (for example, I once saw a TV show in which they used zhuyin to transcribe "boing boing"). Zhuyin is generally not used much after childhood once the hanzi are learned, and some adults may even forget their zhuyin!

However, I believe it is a good idea for foreigners in Taiwan (including English teachers) to spend a weekend learning zhuyin, for several reasons:

  1. Most Taiwanese cannot write pinyin. Therefore, if one wants to learn a word from a Taiwanese person properly, one has to ask that person to write it in zhuyin.
  2. An English teacher's young students (usually elementary school) may write certain things in zhuyin because they do not know enough characters to write everything in pinyin just yet.
  3. One can show off his/her Chinese writing skills to one's western friends, who will probably not even realize when that person forgets a character and write it in zhuyin. If a person wrote it in pinyin, they would notice.
  4. It looks sexy and a layman might even mistake it for Japanese katakana or hiragana, which could come in handy if a person needs to feign a knowledge of written Japanese somewhere down the road (okay, digging for reasons here). :-)
  5. If the People's Republic of China invades, one can pass secret notes to one's friends and the People's Liberation Army soldiers will not be able to read them!
  6. It makes it much easier to enter text on Taiwanese cell phones and computers, since most have zhuyin installed.

Part 3: A Zhuyin/Pinyin Chart with Mnemonics

I will admit, many of these mnemonics will be useless to the reader. However, the chart of pinyin to zhuyin should be useful. I made them for myself, but later decided to make a photo essay, so here they are:

The first 13 zhuyin (all initial consonants):

The second 13 zhuyin (here we start with the consonants, but get into the vowels):

The last 11 zhuyin (we start with vowels and get into consonant finals like en and eng, of which Mandarin has dangerously few):

Part 4: Okay, I memorized the whole zhuyin chart. Now how do I put these together?

Well, it should be pretty straight-forward, but keep the following in mind:
  • Note that zhuyin has no 'w' or 'y' sound. What to do with words like wo and yi? The simple answer is this: use 'u' instead of 'w' and use 'i' instead of 'y.' For example:
    - The word "wo" (I, me) becomes uo in zhuyin.
    - The word "yi" (one) becomes i in zhuyin.
    - The word "wei" (hello on the telephone) becomes uei in zhuyin.
  • Zhuyin can be written horizontally (usually on computers) or vertically (usually in books or in writing). If written vertically, a vertical line is sometimes used for the 'i' sound in place of a horizontal line, but this is not always the case. If written horizontally, a horizontal line is used for the 'i' sound. If written horizontally, the tone should be on the right-most side. If written vertically, the tone mark should be on the right side.
  • The lazy i sound from pinyin for example, "shi," "zhi," etc. is not written at all in zhuyin! Just write the consonant followed by a tone.
  • "Eng" and "en" can become simply "ng" and "n" if preceded by a vowel.

    Just remember those rules, and be fine most of the time. If the reader needs clarification on a specific word, I recommend that he/she download the free trial Chinese word processor (specifically targeted at Chinese learners) called NJStar. It is not bloatware, and one can highlight any Chinese character and it will tell the user both the pinyin and the zhuyin if the user selects the "Tools" -> "Hanzi Information ..." option. NJStar is a great program.

    Part 5: Conclusion

    In conclusion, zhuyin is a very useful alphabet to know for an English teacher or other individual living in Taiwan, and it is used to transcribe Mandarin. It can be learned in a weekend, especially if the person uses mnemonics (mine or otherwise) and flash cards.

    Word Count: 1,076 words