An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Wade-Giles Transcription System

March 25, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Wade-Giles transcription system is a system for the transcription of Chinese by the Latin alphabet. It was developed by Thomas F. Wade (Chinese name Wei Tuoma 威妥瑪, his surname also written 韋; 1818-1895) and revised by Herbert A. Giles (Chinese name Zhai Lisi 翟理斯; 1845-1935).

Thomas F. Wade was a member of several British embassies to the Chinese court. In 1871 he became the British ambassador to China. After his return to Great Britain in 1883 he was a professor at Cambridge University where he taught Chinese. During his time in China he developed a transcription system for the Chinese language for the British public. His system, in Chinese called Weituomashi pinyin 威妥瑪式拼音, Wei Tuoma pinyin 威妥瑪拼音 or Weishi pinyin 韋氏拼音, is explained in his textbooks The Peking Syllabary; being a collection of the characters representing the dialect of Peking; arranged after a new orthography in syllabic classes, according to the four tones.

Designed to accompany the Hsin Ching Lu [尋津錄, should be Hsün-chin-lu in the standardized Wade-Giles systen, and Xunjinlu in the modern Hanyu pinyin system], or Book of Experiments, (Hong Kong), 1859, and Yü-yen tzu-erh chi 語言自邇集 [Hanyu pinyin: Yuyan zi'er ji]: a progressive course designed to assist the student of colloquial Chinese, London, 1867. The Wade transcription is based on the language of Beijing. It has made some progress compared with earlier transcriptions for British readers and learners, like the system of R. Morrison (Chinese name Ma Lisun 馬禮孫, 1782-1834) that is to be found in his dictionary, the oldest Chinese-English dictionary ever, the Dictionary of the Chinese language. Macao: East India Company. 1815-1823.

Herbert A. Giles, also in the service of the British embassy to China, has refined the system of Thomas F. Wade. He published several textbooks, and the Chinese-English Dictionary/Han-Ying zidian 華英字典, Shanghai 1892, rev. ed. London 1912. This large dictionary was for a long time a standard tool for learning Chinese.

The Wade-Giles system contains some peculiarities of English, like the missing distinction between the sounds [dʝ] and [dʐ], as well as [tɕʰ] and [tʂʰ], both groups transcribed as ch and ch'. There is therefore an accumulation of entries under the letter c which makes out a fourth of a dictionary using the Wade-Giles system.

Very inconvenient indeed is the rendering of the aspirates with an apostrophe ', instead of using a different letter. The sounds [b] and [pʰ] are expressed by p and p', [d] and [tʰ] by t and t', and [g] and [kʰ] by k and k'. In writing or looking-up in a dictionary, the apostrophes can easily be overlooked or forgotten. Similarly fatal is the use of the letter ü for the sound of [y]. The dots are often forgotten or omitted, especially by speakers of languages that do not use the letter ü (that is, except Germans, Hungarians and Turkish, virtually everyone) which leads to an utter confucion of words and characters.

The sounds [dz] and [tsʰ] are expressed by different letters, either if followed by a full vowel, of if used in a vowel-less, "hummed" syllable, thus the syllables [dz] and [tsʰ] are written tzŭ and tz'ŭ, but the syllables [dzan] and [tsʰan] are written tsan and ts'an. The symbol ŭ (vowel-less [u]) is in practice mostly written without the diacritical breve ˘, as the Wade-Giles standard demands. The same is true for the mark ˆ above the letter ê that represents the sound of [ə].

The tone pitches (shengdiao 聲調) are expressed with numbers added as superscript, and the syllables of words are separated with a dash (for example, 3-yen2 tzŭ4-êrh3 chi2). Some later authors have replaced the superscript method by accents, like in the Hanyu pinyin system. Harold Shadick's (1968) First Course in Literary Chinese, Ithaca/London: Cornell, for example, writes Wén-yén wén jù-mén 文言文入門.

The vowel endings are even more problematic than the consonants and not easy to handle.

The ending of [ʊŋ] is written –ung.

An inconsistency is to be found with the sound of [ɛ] that is written in two different forms, depending on the closure of the syllable: chieh for [dʝiɛ], chien for [dʝiɛn], chüeh for [dʝyɛ], but chüan for [dʝyɛn]. The ending [ʝiɛ] is always written –ieh, [ʝyɛ] always -üeh.

Syllables beginning with the semi-vowels [(ʝ)i],[ω] and [ʝy] are written y-, w- and yü-, except for the syllable [(ʝ)i], which is simply written i.

The vowel-less, "hummed" syllables are written in two different ways: The syllables [dz], [tsʰ] and [s] are written tzŭ, tz'ŭ and szŭ (ssŭ is also used), but the syllables [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ] and [ʐ] are written chih, ch'ih, shih and jih.

The vowel [ə] is sometimes transcribed with the letter ê, sometimes with o. The letter o furthermore also represents the sound of [ωɔ]. The syllables [ə], [mə], [nə], [gə], [kʰə] and [hə] are written o, mo, no, ko, k'o and ho (compare: Huang Ho for modern Huanghe, the Yellow River). Yet the syllables [də], [tʰə], [lə], [dʐə], [tʂʰə], [ʂə] and [ʐə] are written , t'ê, , chê, ch'ê, shê and . The syllables [bɔ], [pʰɔ], [mɔ], [fɔ], [dωɔ], [tʰωɔ], [nωo], [lωo], [dʐωo], [tʂʰωo], [ʐωo], [dzωo], [tsʰωo] and [sωo] are written po, p'o, mo, fo, to, t'o, no, lo, cho, ch'o, jo, tso, ts'o and so, yet [gωo], [kʰωo], [hωo] and [ʂωo] are written kuo, k'uo, huo and shuo.

The sound [ωeɪ̯] is mostly transcribed as –ui (for the syllables [dωeɪ̯], [tʰωeɪ̯], [hωeɪ̯], [dʐωeɪ̯], [tʂʰωeɪ̯], [ʂωeɪ̯], [ʐωeɪ̯], [dzωeɪ̯], [tsʰeɪ̯] and [sωeɪ̯]: tui, t'ui, hui, chui, ch'ui, shui, jui, tsui, ts'ui and sui), yet sometimes as –uei (for the syllables [gωeɪ̯] and [kʰωeɪ̯]: kuei, k'uei). The syllable [ωeɪ̯] is written wei.

The sound [ʝoʊ̯] is written -iu, yet the syllable [ʝoʊ̯] is written yu, which can arouse confusion for those proficient in the modern Hanyu pinyin system, where yu is used for the syllable [ʝy].
The retroflex approximant [ɑɻ] is written êrh.

Table 1. The Wade-Giles Transcription System
A E F H I J K K' L M N O P P' R S T T' U W Y Z
a e f h i j k k' l m n o p p' r s t t' u w y z
Consonant initials
IPA symbol Wade-Giles letter Hanyu pinyin 漢語拼音 counterpart
[p]=[b] p b
[pʰ] p' p
[m] m m
[f] f f
[t]=[d] t d
[tʰ] t' t
[n] n n
[l] l l
[k]=[g] k g
[kʰ] k' k
[h][x] h h
[tɕ]=[dʝ] ch j
[tɕʰ] ch' ch
[ɕ] hs x
[tʂ]=[dʐ] ch zh
[tʂʰ] ch' ch
[ʂ] sh sh
[ʐ] j r
[ts]=[dz] ts, tz * z
[tsʰ] ts', tz' * c
[s] s, ss, sz * s
* ts-, ts'- and s- are used before vowel,
tz-, tz'- and sz- (or ss-) are used in vowel-less syllables (tzŭ, tz'ŭ, szŭ)
vowel combinations (jiehe yunmu 結合韻母)
[ʝi] i, -i yi, -i
[ʝia] ya, -ia ya, -ia
[ʝiɔ] yo yo (rare)
[ʝiɛ] yeh, -ieh ye, -ie
[ʝiai] yai, -iai yai, -iai (obsolete)
[ʝiɑʊ̯] yao, -iao yao, -iao
[ʝioʊ̯] yu, -iu you, -iu
[ʝiɛn] yen, -ien yan, -ian
[ʝin] yin-, in yin, -in
[ʝiaŋ] yang, -iang yang, -iang
[ʝiŋ] ying, -ing ying, -ing
[wu] wu, -u wu, -u
[wa] wa, -ua wa, -ua
[wɔ] wo, -uo, -o wo, -uo
[wai] wai, -uai wai, -uai
[weɪ̯] wei-, -ui, -uei wei, -ui
[wan] wan, -uan wan, -uan
[wən][-un] wên, -un wen, -un
[waŋ] wang, -uang wang, -uang
[wəŋ][-ʊŋ] wêng, -ung weng, -ong
[ʝy] yü, -ü yu, -u, -ü
[ʝyɛ] yüeh, -üeh yue, -ue
[ʝyɛn] yüan, -üan yuan, -uan
[ʝyn] yün, -ün yun, -un
[ʝiʊŋ] yung, -iung yong, -iong
Grey ares indicate differences to the Hanyu Pinyin transcription.

In some dictionaries, obsolete transcriptions are to be found. This is particularly true for R[obert] H. Mathews (1931), Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, Shanghai: Shanghai Inland Mission and Presbyterian Mission Press. Even the revised edition from 1944 includes syllables as nga, ngai, yiai, tsi, tsiao, tsin, tsing, nui, lui, mung, fung, lüan, tsü and even ch'üoh. These syllables do not correspond to the Wade-Giles standard and reflect sounds not to be found in the region of Beijing.

The Wade-Giles transcription system has served as a model for the Chinese postal map romanization (Youzhengshi pinyin 郵政式拼音) that is used to write names of persons, places and streets with Latin letters instead of using Chinese characters. This system leaves out all diacritic symbols. Contrary to the Wade-Giles system, it is not based on the language of Beijing (Postal standard: Peking) as a standard but makes use of the local pronunciation, like Tientsin 天津 (instead of T'ien-chin), Tsinan 濟南 (instead of Chi-nan), Ankwo 安國 (instead of An-kuo), Chungking 重慶 (instead of Ch'ung-ch'ing), Chinchow 錦州 (instead of Chin-chou), Foochow 福州 (instead of Fu-chou), Tsingtao 青島 (instead of Ch'ing-tao), Amoy 廈門 (instead of Hsia-men), Swatow 汕頭 (instead of Shan-t'ou), Quemoy 金門 (instead of Chin-men), Canton 廣州 (instead of Kuang-chou), or Si-ngan 西安 (instead of Hsi-an).

The Wade-Giles system of transcription has for a long time been in use in Western countries, especially the English-speaking world. Even today, books are published using the Wade-Giles system, for example, the forthcoming volumes of the Cambridge History of China (yet this procedure is more due to consistency with the older volumes than with the support for the complicated Wade-Giles system). The adoption of the Hanyu pinyin transcription system by the UNO in 1977, together with the much more easy handling of this modern system compared with the Wade-Giles transcription, has contributed to the gradual disappearance of the latter. This is mostly due to the inconvenience caused by the apostrophe symbol.

Yin Binyong 尹斌庸 (1988). "Weituomashi pinyin 威妥瑪式拼音", 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), 397-398.
Yin Binyong 尹斌庸 (1988). "Youzhengshi pinyin 郵政式拼音", 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), 464-465.
Teng, Ju-yen (2000). "In Need of a Total Plan: From Wade-Giles to Pinyin", Journal of East Asian Libraries, 121: 17-22.