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Why I need to write more rhymes in Mandarin

2012 January 13
by susty

I stumbled upon a blog post on Chinese language on the Economist the other day, as it was one of the “most commented” articles. This blogger seems to have struck up quite a pot of controversy by claiming that Western linguists believe Pinyin (the Roman alphabet way of spelling out Chinese sounds) could easily replace the Chinese character system “hanzi” 汉字.

As one commenter aptly puts it: “You have to pack in 40,000 words into 400 possibles sounds. It makes it so that certain sounds have 50 different characters to write them.” And this is why a Pinyin only system would never work. For instance, the sound “ji” in a particular tone could mean any number of things. When reading Chinese, the meaning will be known from the character used. When listening to Chinese, the meaning will be known from the context of the sentence.

A system of only 400 possible sounds is also why rhyming in Chinese is relatively easy. I’m putting the full set of 400 possible sounds below, but first a set of possible rhyming syllables:

a, ba, ca, da, fa, ga, ha, ka, la, ma, na, pa, sa, ta, wa, ya, za

Any of these syllables with a particular tone could have a number of meanings, making rhyming possibilities pretty broad even within a given context/topic (say, hypothetically ahem…a clean energy eco-rap). Some tones (there are four tones) are hard to rhyme because of their very distinct tone. First tone (flat) is generally okay to rhyme with fourth tone (descending), but second tone (ascending) and third tone (dipping) have a pretty distinct sound to them so it’s best to rhyme a second tone syllable with another second tone syllable, which does limit your options to some extent. But, yeah, it’s time to start penning some new Mandarin rhymes. Maybe in honor of my upcoming jian bing cart.

The full list of 400 possible sounds in Chinese (I’d say about 10-15% of these are pretty uncommonly heard):

a, ai, an, ang, ao
ba, bai, ban, bang, bao, bei, ben, beng, bi, bian, biao, bie, bin, bing, bo, bu
ca, cai, can, cang, cao, ce, cei, cen, ceng, cha, chai, chan, chang, chao, che, chen, cheng, chi, chong, chou, chu, chua, chuai, chuan, chuang, chui, chun, chuo, ci, cong, cou, cu, cuan, cui, cun, cuo
da, dai, dan, dang, dao, de, dei, den, deng, di, dian, diao, die, ding, diu, dong, dou, du, duan, dui, dun, duo
e, ê, ei, en, er
fa, fan, fang, fei, fen, feng, fo, fou, fu
ga, gai, gan, gang, gao, ge, gei, gen, geng, gong, gou, gu, gua, guai, guan, guang, gui, gun, guo
ha, hai, han, hang, hao, he, hei, hen, heng, hm, hng, hong, hou, hu, hua, huai, huan, huang, hui, hun, huo
ji, jia, jian, jiang, jiao, jie, jin, jing, jiong, jiu, ju, juan, jue, jun
ka, kai, kan, kang, kao, ke, kei, ken, keng, kong, kou, ku, kua, kuai, kuan, kuang, kui, kun, kuo
la, lai, lan, lang, lao, le, lei, leng, li, lia, lian, liang, liao, lie, lin, ling, liu, long, lou, lu, luo, luan, lun, lü, lüe
m, ma, mai, man, mang, mao, mei, men, meng, mi, mian, miao, mie, min, ming, miu, mo, mou, mu
n, na, nai, nan, nang, nao, ne, nei, nen, neng, ng, ni, nian, niang, niao, nie, nin, ning, niu, nong, nou, nu, nuo, nuan, nü, nüe
o, ou
pa, pai, pan, pang, pao, pei, pen, peng, pi, pian, piao, pie, pin, ping, po, pou, pu
qi, qia, qian, qiang, qiao, qie, qin, qing, qiong, qiu, qu, quan, que, qun
ran, rang, rao, re, ren, reng, ri, rong, rou, ru, rua, ruan, rui, run, ruo
sa, sai, san, sang, sao, se, sei, sen, seng, sha, shai, shan, shang, shao, she, shei, shen, sheng, shi, shou, shu, shua, shuai, shuan, shuang, shui, shun, shuo, si, song, sou, su, suan, sui, sun, suo
ta, tai, tan, tang, tao, te, teng, ti, tian, tiao, tie, ting, tong, tou, tu, tuan, tui, tun, tuo
wa, wai, wan, wang, wei, wen, weng, wo, wu
xi, xia, xian, xiang, xiao, xie, xin, xing, xiong, xiu, xu, xuan, xue, xun
ya, yan, yang, yao, ye, yi, yin, ying, yong, you, yu, yuan, yue, yun
za, zai, zan, zang, zao, ze, zei, zen, zeng, zha, zhai, zhan, zhang, zhao, zhe, zhei, zhen, zheng, zhi, zhong, zhou, zhu, zhua, zhuai, zhuan, zhuang, zhui, zhun, zhuo, zi, zong, zou, zu, zuan, zui, zun, zuo

  • Vance

    Oh man. I geeked out on pinyin combinations in a huge way a couple of years ago. Check out these posts:
    Good stuff Sustainable.


  • Anonymous

    ahhh nice, you totally geeked out on that! i love the ones that are so rarely heard like zuan 钻 or chuai 揣… when i say those out loud, i’m reminded of sitting in a beijing taxi listening to those narrative broadcasts on the radio (forget what the Chinese call this, 相声?) i feel like they really bring out the obscure words on those broadcasts, such jarring but funny sounds!

  • Mike

    way to break it down ‘tone’ster

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