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The Gwoyeu Romatzyh 國語羅馬字 Transcription System

March 25, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Gwoyeu Romatzyh 國語羅馬字 transcription system, full name (in Hanyu pinyin transcription) Guoyu Luoma zi pinyin fashi 國語羅馬字拼音法式, is a transcription system of the Chinese language based on the Latin alphabet. It was created in the late 1920s and served as a transcription system during the Republican period (1912-1949) and is still in use, at least to a certain extent, in Taiwan. Its most interesting feature is the inclusion of the tone pitches of the syllables into the transcription by altering the transcription, instead of adding a special symbol to the basic transcription.

The system served for two purposes, namely the propagation of a unifed national language (guoyu 國語) and to enhance literacy in China. The idea to the development of a Romanized transcription of Chinese has to be seen in the context of the May Fourth Movement 五四運動, part of whose programme was the call for the use of the vernacular language for writing and an easier access to literature for the masses. Famous writers and scholars advocated a reform of the Chinese characters, like Qian Xuantong 錢玄同 (1887-1939), Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培 (1868-1940), Li Jinxi 黎錦熙 (1890-1978), Zhou Bianming 周辨明 (1891-1984), Xu Xiwu 許錫五, Lin Yutang 林語堂 (1875-1976) or Zhao Yuanren 趙元任 (1892-1982). The latter brought forward principle ideas of a transcription system using the Latin alphabet and drafted a blueprint to such a system.

In 1923, a group of scholar met in the Preparatory Committee for Standardizing the National Language (Guoyu tongyi choubei hui 國語統一籌備會) and stressed the importance of a Romanized alphabet to be issued concurrently with the zhuyin alphabet 注音, which is a kind of alphabet, but with symbols derived from Chinese characters. A special committee was set up for the creation of such an alphabet, consisting of 11 members. After long discussions and due to disadvantageous circumstances a new committee was set up in 1926, and in September 1928 the Kuomintang government issued the Gwoyeu Romatzyh system as the second national standard, besides of the zhuyin system as the first.

Table 1. Alphabet and consonant initials of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh 國語羅馬字 Transcription System
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U (V) W (X) Y Z
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u (v) w (x) y z
Consonant initials
IPA symbol Gwoyeu Romatzyh 國語羅馬字 letter Hanyu pinyin 漢語拼音 counterpart
[b] b b
[pʰ] p p
[m] m m
[f] f f
[d] d d
[tʰ] t t
[n] n n
[l] l l
[g] g g
[kʰ] k k
[h][x] h h
[dʝ] j j
[tɕʰ] ch q
[ɕ] sh x
[dʐ] j zh
[tʂʰ] ch ch
[ʂ] sh sh
[ʐ] r r
[dz] tz z
[tsʰ] ts c
[s] s s
Differences to the Hanyu Pinyin System highlighted in grey

Most initial consonants are identical to that of the modern Hanyu pinyin system. The consonant sounds [dz], [tsʰ] and [s] are rendered as tz, ts and s. The greatest difference is that the symbols j, ch and sh are used for both the sounds [dʝ], [tɕʰ], [ɕ] and [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ]. Because the first three are only followed by the "light" vowel sounds [i] and [y] and the last three only by "dark" vowel sounds like [a], [ə], [(ω)ɔ] and [u], confusion is not possible. The syllables [dʐa], [dʐə], [dʐu] and [dʐωɔ] are written ja, je, ju and juo, the syllables [dʝi], [dʝia], [dʝiɛn] and [dʝiʊŋ] are written ji, jia, jian and jiong (later jiung). The sound [y] is rendered as iu, thus [dʝy], [dʝyɛ], [dʝyɛn] and [dʝyn] are jiu (not for [dʝoʊ̯]!), jiue, jiuan and jiun.

There is an inconsistency to be found with the sound of [ɛ] that is written in two different forms, depending on the closure of the syllable: jie for [dʝiɛ], but jian for [dʝiɛn] or jiuan for [dʝyɛn].
The vowel-less, "hummed" syllables [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ], [ʐ], [dz], [tsʰ] and [s] are written with the letter y as representative of the missing vowel, like jy, chy, shy, ry, tzy, tsy and sy.

The sounds of [ωeɪ̯], [ωən] and [ωəŋ] are always written as uei, uen and ueng, irrespective of their position as initial or final (compare the differences between wei and -ui, wen and –un, and weng and –ong in the Hanyu pinyin system). The sound [ʝʊŋ] is transcribed as iong (later iung).

The solitary and final retroflex approximant sound of [ɑɻ] is transcribed as el (later er).
The syllable [ɛ] (like 欸) is written ê.

The syllables [(ʝ)i], [(ω)u] and [(ʝ)y] are written i, u and iu in the first tone pitch. The initial sounds of [(ʝ)i], [(ω)u] and [(ʝ)y] are written i-, u- and iu- for the level tone pitch, and y-, w- and y- for all other tone pitches.

The sound [ɑʊ̯] is transcribed as au, like bau for [bɑʊ̯].

This is how the complexity of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh system begins, namely with the tone pitches (shengdiao 聲調), or the "four tones" (sisheng 四聲)

Syllables in the high level tone (yinpingsheng 陰平聲) are the basic form. Syllables in the light, unstressed tone (qingsheng 輕聲), onomatopoetic and auxiliary words are also transcribed in the basic form. The only exception are the initial consonants m, n, l and r, which are followed by a letter h, if in the level tone, like mha, nhie, lha and rheng for the words 媽, 捏, 拉 and 扔 (, niē, and rēng in the Hanyu pinyin system). The reason for this rule might be that syllables of this group are rarely spoken in the high level tone pitch but mainly belong to the other tones.

Syllables in the raising tone (yangpingsheng 陽平聲) are transcribed in the way that syllables with single vowels [a] and [o]-[ʊ] or diphthongs add a letter r after the vowel, like char, torng, jer and parng for 茶, 同, 哲 and 旁 (chá, tóng, zhé and páng in the Hanyu pinyin system), and baur, peir and tour for 雹, 培 and 頭 (báo, péi and tóu in the Hanyu pinyin system). Syllables including the vowels [i], [u] and [y] transform the letters i and u to y and w, like chyn, hwang and shyun for 琴, 黃 and 詢 (qín, huáng and xún in the Hanyu pinyin system), or yn, wan and yuan for 銀, 丸 and 元 (yín, wáng and yuán in the Hanyu pinyin system; remember: in, uan and iuan for the level tone pitch). If the syllable is open to the end and bears no consonant, the vowel is transformed into -yi, -wu and -yu, like pyi, hwu and shyu for 皮, 胡 and 徐 (, and in the Hanyu pinyin system). Raising-tone syllables beginning with the consonants m, n, l and r are written in what should be the basic form, namely mi, na, lou and ran for 迷, 拿, 樓 and 然 (, , lóu and rán in the Hanyu pinyin system).

Syllables in the falling-raising tone (shangsheng 上聲) are written with a double vowel, like chii, faan, baang and reen for 起, 反, 榜, 忍 (, fǎn, bǎng and rěn in the Hanyu pinyin system). Syllables including the vowels [i], [u] and [y] transform the letters i and u to e and o, like jea, goan, sheu and hae for 假, 管, 許 and 海 (jiǎ, guǎn, and hǎi in the Hanyu pinyin system), if two of these vowels are included, only the first is changed, like neau and goai for 鳥 and 拐 (niǎo and guǎi in the Hanyu pinyin system). Exemptions from this rule are meei, koou, jiee and guoo for 美, 口, 解 and 果 (měi, kǒu, jiě and guǒ in the Hanyu pinyin system), because mee, koo, jee and goo would be ambiguous (the only really existing falling-raising syllable that might lead to confusion is goou 狗). Yet level-tone bau can be transformed to bao 保 (bǎo in the Hanyu pinyin system).

Syllables in the falling tone (qusheng 去聲) add a letter h at the end, if open, like chih, tah and shieh for 器, 榻 and 謝 (, and xiè in the Hanyu pinyin system). Ending –l and –n are doubled, ending –ng is transformed into –nq, like ell, bannshinn and jenq for 二, 半, 信 and 正 (èr, bàn, xìn and zhèng in the Hanyu pinyin system). Ending –i and –u are transformed into –y and –w, like tzay and baw for 在 and 爆 (zài and bào in the Hanyu pinyin system).

The four tones of the syllable [ɑɻ] are expressed as el, erl, eel and ell. As a suffix to syllables, it can be express by an appended –l.

The four tones of the syllable [(ʝ)i] are expressed as i, yi, yii and yih.

The four tones of the syllable [(ω)u] are expressed as u, wu, wuu and wuh.

The four tones of the syllable [(ʝ)y] are expressed as iu, yu, yeu and yuh.

The four tones of the syllable [dʐ] are expressed as jy, jyr, jyy and jyh, the other syllables of that group are written accordingly.

The entering tone (rusheng 入聲) in the Mandarin language occurs only in the dialects of the lower Yangtze region. It is marked by an ending –q. Voiced consonants in the dialects of the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, was well as the consonant syllable endings in Cantonese can also be expressed in the Gwoyeu Romatzyh system.

The letters x and v are used as repetition signs.

The strengths of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh system is that the internationally widespread Latin alphabet has been used. There were not other symbols or signs to transcribe the sounds of the language. The Mandarin language as used in the region of Beijing was used as a standard national language. Yet the weakest point of this system is that the inclusion of the tone pitches involved too many complicated rules so that the Gwoyeu Romatzyh system is not easy to learn. There was therefore only a considerably small amount of textbooks produced which used this transcription system.

During the 1960s, a simplification process was applied to the system to make its use easier. The raising tone pitch was henceforth generally indicated by a letter -r attached to the final vowel, the falling-raising tone pitch by a doubling of the final vowel, and the falling tone pitch by a letter -h after the final vowel. This new system is used, for example, in Lin Yutang (1972). Lin Yutang's Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage/林語堂當代漢英詞典. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The Gwoyeu Romatzyh system (after the simplification) was further subject to revision in the 1980s in Taiwan. The most important change was that the tone pitches were indicated by accents, like in the zhuyin system. The missing vowel in the syllables [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ], [ʐ], [dz], [tsʰ] and [s] was to be expressed by the letters r for [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ] and the letter z for [dz], [tsʰ] and [s] (jr, chr, shr, tzz, tdz, sz). El was replaced by er, and –ong and –iong were replaced by –ung and –iung, to conform with the transcription ㄨㄥ of the zhuyin system.

Table 2. Sound combinations and tone pitches of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh 國語羅馬字 Transcription System
Interjections and syllables bearing the entering tone (-q): m mr mm -, -m, daq, nh, nn, gaam, ng, hng, gm, -chiq, sh, aq, yiq
Obsolete syllables in grey (Guoyu cidian 1937 in comparison to Dangdai Han-Ying cidian 1972)
vowel no initial consonant b-p-m-f d-t-n-l g-k-h j-ch-sh j-ch-sh-r tz-ts-s
[--] jy jyr jyy jyh tzy - tzyy tzyh
chy chyr chyy chyh tsy tsyr tsyy tsyh
shy shyr shyy shyh sy - syy syh
- - - ryh
[a] a ar aa ah ba bar baa bah da dar daa dah ga gar gaa gah ja jar jaa jah tza tzar - -
pa par - pah ta - taa tah ka - kaa kah cha char chaa chah tsa - tsaa -
mha ma maa mah nha na naa nah ha har haa - sha shar shaa shah sa - saa sah
fa far faa fah lha la laa lah
[aɪ̯] ai air ae ay bai bair bae bay dai - dae day gai - gae gay jai jair jae jay tzai - tzae tzay
pai - pae pay tai tair - tay kai - kae kay chai chair chae chay tsai tsair tsae tsay
- mai mae may - - nae nay hai hair hae hay shai - shae shay sai - - say
- lai - lay
[an] an arn aan ann ban - baan bann dan - daan dann gan - gaan gann jan - jaan jann tzan tzarn tzaan tzann
pan parn - pann tan tarn taan tann kan - kaan kann chan charn chaan chann tsan tsarn tsaan tsann
mhan man maan mann nhan nan naan - nann han harn haan hann shan - shaan shann san - saan sann
fan farn faan fann - lan laan lann - ran raan -
[aŋ] ang arng - anq bang - baang banq dang - daang danq gang - gaang ganq jang - jaang janq tzang - tzaang tzanq
pang parng paang panq tang tarng taang tanq kang karng kaang kanq chang charng chaang chanq tsang tsarng tsaang -
- mang maang - - nang naang nanq hang harng - hanq shang - shaang shanq sang - saang sanq
fang farng faang fanq lhang lang laang lanq rhang rang raang ranq
[ɑʊ̯] au aur ao aw bau baur bao baw dau daur dao daw gau - gao gaw jau jaur jao jaw tzau tzaur tzao tzaw
pau paur pao paw tau taur tao taw kau - kao kaw chau chaur chao chaw tsau tsaur tsao tsaw
mhau mau mao maw nhau nau nao naw hau haur hao haw shau shaur shao shaw sau - sao saw
lhau lau lao law - rau rao raw
[ə] e er ee eh de der - - ge ger gee geh je jer jee jeh - tzer tzee tzeh
te - - teh ke ker kee keh che - chee cheh - - - tseh
me (unstressed) - ne - neh he her - heh she sher shee sheh - - - seh
lhe - - leh - - ree reh
[ən] en - - enn ben - been benn - - - denn gen gern geen genn jen - jeen jenn tzen - tzeen tzenn
pen pern - penn
- - keen kenn chen chern cheen chenn tsen tsern - -
mhen men - menn - - - nenn hen hern heen henn shen shern sheen shenn sen - - -
fen fern feen fenn - ren reen renn
[əŋ] eng - - - beng berng beeng benq deng - deeng denq geng - geeng genq jeng - jeeng jenq tzeng - - tzenq
peng perng peeng penq teng terng - - keng - keeng - cheng cherng cheeng chenq tseng tserng tseeng tsenq
mheng meng meeng menq - neng - nenq heng herng - henq sheng sherng sheeng shenq seng - - -
feng ferng feeng fenq lheng leng leeng lenq rheng reng reeng renq
[eɪ̯] ei - eei ey bei - beei bey - - deei - - - geei - - - - jey - tzeir - -
pei peir - pey
- mei meei mey - - neei ney hei - heei - - sheir - - sei - - -
fei feir feei fey lhei lei leei ley
[ɛ] è er - èh
[ɑɻ] el erl eel ell
[ʝi] i yi yii yih bi byi bii bih di dyi dii dih ji jyi jii jih
pi pyi pii pih ti tyi tii tih chi chyi chii chih
mhi mi mii mih - ni nii nih shi shyi shii shih
lhi li lii lih
[ʝia] ia ya yea yah jia jya jea jiah
chia chya chea chiah
- nia - - shia shya - shiah
- - lea -
[ʝiai] - yai - -
[ʝiɑʊ̯] iau yau yeau yaw biau beau biau biaw diau - diau diaw jiau jyau jeau jiaw
piau pyau peau piaw tiau tyau teau tiaw chiau chyau cheau chiaw
mhiau miau meau miaw - - neau niaw shiau shyau sheau shiaw
- - - fiaw lhiau liau leau liaw
[ʝiɛ] ie ye yee yeh bie bye biee bieh die dye - - jie jye jiee jieh
pie - piee pieh tie - tiee tieh chie chye chiee chieh
mhie - - mieh nhie nie - nieh shie shye shiee shieh
lhie lie liee lieh
[ʝiɛn] ian yan yean yann bian - bean biann dian - dean diann jian - jean jiann
pian pyan pean piann tian tyan tean tiann chian chyan chean chiann
- mian mean miann nhian nian nean niann shian shyan shean shiann
lhian lian lean liann
[ʝiaŋ] iang yang yeang yanq diang - - - jiang - jeang jianq
chiang chyang cheang chianq
- niang - nianq shiang shyang sheang shianq
- liang leang lianq
[ʝin] in yn yiin yinn bin - biin binn jin - jiin jinn
pin pyn piin pinn chin chyn chiin chinn
- min miin - - nin - - shin shyn shiin shinn
- lin liin linn
[ʝiŋ] ing yng yiing yinq bing - biing binq ding - diing dinq jing - jiing jinq
ping pyng - pinq ting tyng tiing tinq ching chyng chiing chinq
- ming miing minq - ning niing ninq shing shyng shiing shinq
lhing ling liing linq
[ʝiɔ] io - - -
[ʝioʊ̯] iou you yeou yow diou - - - jiou - jeou jiow
chiou chyou cheou -
- - - miow nhiou niou neou niow shiou - sheou shiow
lhiou liou leou liow
[o] o or oo - lo (unstressed)
[oʊ̯] ou our oou ow dou - doou dow gou - goou gow jou jour joou jow tzou - tzoou tzow
pou pour poou - tou tour toou tow kou - koou kow chou chour choou chow - - - tsow
- mou moou mow - nou - now hou hour hoou how shou shour shoou show sou - soou sow
fou four foou fow lhou lou loou low - rou roou row
[ωu] u wu wuu wuh bu bwu buu buh du dwu duu duh gu - gwu guh ju jwu juu juh tzu tzwu tzuu tzuh
pu pwu puu puh tu twu tuu tuh ku - kuu kuh chu chwu chuu chuh tsu tswu - tsuh
- mu muu muh - nu nuu nuh hu hwu huu huh shu shwushuu shuh su swu - suh
fu fwu fuu fuh lhu lu luu luh - ru ruu ruh
[ωa] ua wa woa wah gua - goa guah jua - joa -
kua - koa kuah chua - choa chuah
hua hwa - huah shua - shoa shuah
[ωai] uai - woai way guai - goai guay juai - joai juay
kuai - koai kuay chuai chwai choai chuay
- hwai - huay shuai - shoai shuay
[ωan] uan wan woan wann duan - doan duann guan - goan guann juan - joan juann tzuan - tzoan tzuann
tuan twan toan tuann kuan - koan - chuan chwan choan chuann tsuan tswan - tsuann
- - noan - huan hwan hoan huann shuan - - shuann suan - soan suann
- luan loan luann - ruan roan -
[ωaŋ] uang wang woang wanq guang - goang guanq juang - joang juanq
kuang kwang - kuanq chuang chwang choang chuanq
huang hwang hoang huanq shuang - shoang shuanq
[ωeɪ̯] uei wei woei wey duei - doei duey guei - goei guey juei - - juey tzuei - tzoei tzuey
tuei twei toei tuey kuei kwei koei kuey chuei chwei - chuey tsuei - tsoei tsuey
huei hwei hoei huey - shwei shoei shuey suei swei soei suey
- ruei roei ruey
[ωən][-un] uen wen woen wenn duen - doen duenn - - goen guenn juen - joen juenn tzuen - tzoen tzuenn
tuen twen toen tuenn kuen - koen kuenn chuen chwen choen - tsuen tswen tsoen tsuenn
- nuen - nuenn huen hwen - huenn - - shoen shuenn suen - soen suenn
lhuen luen - luenn - ruen - ruenn
[ωəŋ][-ʊŋ] ueng - woeng wenq dong - doong donq gong - goong gonq jong - joong jonq tzong - tzoong tzonq
tong torng toong tonq kong - koong konq chong chorng choong chonq tsong tsorng - -
- nong - nonq hong horng hoong honq shong - - - song sorng soong sonq
- - - fonq - long loong lonq - rong roong -
[ωɔ] uo - woo woh bo bor boo boh duo dwo duoo duoh guo gwo guoo guoh juo jwo - - tzuo tzwo tzuoo tzuoh
po por poo poh tuo two tuoo tuoh - - - kuoh chuo - - chuoh tsuo tswo tsuoo tsuoh
mho mo moo moh - nuo nuoo nuoh huo hwo huoo huoh shuo - - shuoh suo swo suoo suoh
- for - foh lhuo luo luoo luoh - ruo - ruoh
[ʝy] iu yu yeu yuh jiu jyu jeu jiuh
chiu chyu cheu chiuh
- - neu niuh shiu shyu sheu shiuh
- liu leu liuh
[ʝyɛ] iue - - yueh jiue jyue jeue jiueh
chiue chyue - chiueh
- - - niueh shiue shyue sheue shiueh
- - - liueh
[ʝyɛn] iuan yuan yeuan yuann jiuan - jeuan jiuann
chiuan chyuan cheuan chiuann
shiuan shyuan sheuan shiuann
- liuan leuan liun
[ʝyn] iun yun yeun yunn jiun - jeun jiunn
chiun chyun - -
shiun shyun - shiunn
[ʝiʊŋ] iong yong yeong yonq jiong - jeong -
chiong chyong cheong -
shiong shyong - shionq
Figure 1. Use of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh alphabet in the dictionary Guoyu cidian 國語辭典
Examples (blue) of the use of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh alphabet in the dictionary Guoyu cidian 國語辭典 from 1937-1945(1), 1947(2, 4 vols.), ed. by Wang Yi 汪怡/Jiaoyubu guoyu tuixing weiyuanhui Zhongguo da cidian bianzuanchu 敎育部國語推行委員會中國大辭典編纂處. Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan. Later editions have been published by the Taiwan Shangwu yinshuguan. The "strange" characters in the red boxes are the transcription in the Zhuyin alphabet 注音 (Bo-po-mo-fo), and the character in the green box an indication of pronuncation by a homophone (see zhiyin system 直音).
Yin Binyong 尹斌庸 (1988). "Guoyu Luomazi 國語羅馬字", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言•文字 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 120-122.