An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Zhuyin Alphabet 注音字母 Transcription System (Bo-po-mo-fo)

March 23, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Zhuyin zimu 注音字母 (sound-notating alphabet), better known as "Bo-po-mo-fo alphabet" (like "ABC"), is the one of the oldest phonetic alphabets for standard Chinese created by Chinese. It was developed by the Conference for the Unification of Pronunciation (duyin tongyi hui 讀音統一會) from 1913 on and was promulgated as the national standard in 1918. It was in use until 1958 when it was replaced by the Hanyu pinyin system in the People's Republic. The zhuyin alphabet is still in use in Taiwan. The original name was Guoyin zimu 國音字母 "national sound alphabet" and only received the actual name in 1930.

The origin of the zhuyin system goes back to the qieyin systems 切音 (phonetic alphabets, literally "cut-out sounds") of the late Qing period 清 (1644-1911). Twenty-seven alphabets have been developed in order to enhance the degree of literacy. The most important of these systems was the guanhua hesheng jianzi 官話合聲簡字 "simple signs for a unified pronunciation of the Mandarin language", an alphabet developed by Wang Zhao 王照 (1859-1933) and Lao Naixuan 勞乃宣 (1843-1921). In 1910 it was suggested that this system might be adopted as the national standard and to be propagated in schools (xuetang 學堂). All textbooks were to include the alphabet as a pronuncation note written to the side of Chinese characters (yinbiao wenzi 音標文字). This would not only make the learning of Chinese characters easier for the whole population and the Non-Chinese peoples living within Chinese borders, but would also contribute to a standardized pronunciation of Chinese, so that a national standard language (guoyu 國語) would come into being.

The Ministry of Education (xuebu 學部) thereupon convoked a Central Education Conference (zhongyang jiaozu huiyi 中央教育會議) on which it was decided that a thorough investigation of words and phrases, of grammar and of the phonetic system of a national standard language had to be made. The sounds of Mandarin language spoken by the state officials in Beijing were to be adopted as the standard, as well as the language of Beijing, with its grammar, words and phrases. The standard tone pitch (shengdiao 聲調) was a system including the obsolete entering tone (rusheng 入聲). A kind of easy-to-learn alphabet had to be developed to be propagated by a special department of the Ministry, the Teaching and Learning Department (chuanxisuo 傳習所). The work of the Conference was only shortly interrupted during the Revolution of 1911.

Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培 (1868-1940), Minister of Education at that time, pushed forward the work of the development group. The alphabet to be created was already called zhuyin at that time. The first task would be to standardize the pronuncation of characters, not only for the national language, but also for the dialects and topolects of the provinces. After this standardization had taken place, an alphabet was to be developed by which each sound was represented by one symbol. The symbols to be used were to be as simple as possible. When this was done, a standard dictionary was to be developed to be used nationwide.

The Conference for the Unification of Pronunciation was opened on the 15th of February, 1913. It was headed by Wu Jingheng 吳敬恆 (1865-1953) and consisted of 80 members, 10 of which were dispatched by the Ministry of Eductation, and 40 of which were representatives of provincial language committees. The Conference members determined the national standard pronuncation of 6,500 characters. The development of a standard alphabet was not an easy task. Some representatives suggested using a fixed set of characters to indicate the pronuncation, others advocated signs, and a third group preferred the use of the Roman alphabet. The system that was finally selected as the standard had been brought forward by a group of scholars from the province of Zhejiang, namely Ma Yuzao 馬裕藻 (1878—1945), Zhu Xizu 朱希祖 (1879-1944), Xu Shoushang 許壽裳 (1883-1948), Qian Daosun 錢稻孫 (1887-1966), as well as a representative of the Ministry, the famous writer Zhou Shuren 周樹仁 (better known as Lu Xun 魯迅; 1881-1936). Primary schools had to add the new subject of National Language. All textbooks had to be furnished with the new national alphabet, and teachers were ordered to use the national standard language in school. The system was to be introduced on 25th of November, 1918.

Figure 1. Text with collateral zhuyin symbols
Source: (Zhuyin xiangjie) Gujin wenxuan (注音詳解)古今文選 (Taibei: Guoyu Ribao She, 1951), Vol. 1, 4.

The alphabet issued as the standard national sound alphabet consists of 39 symbols or letters that are so simple that they can easily be learned. A large part of them are characters of very ancient origin. The method to use ancient basic characters as sound symbols had already been brought forward by Zhang Binglin 章炳麟 (1868-1936) in 1908. The zhuyin alphabet has 24 consonants (shengmu 聲母) that are exclusively initials of syllables, 3 interstitial vowels (jiemu 介母), 11 vowels (yunmu 韻母), and 3 so-called initial embellishing sounds (runyin 閏音) of which 2 were later dropped. Voiced sounds were also marked by the symbol ‘ in the upper right corner of the initial consonant. The four tone pitches (sisheng 四聲) were marked by dots at the corner of the initial sound: A dot in the the lower left corner the rising tone (yangpingsheng 陽平聲), a dot in the upper left corner the falling-rising tone (shangping 上聲), a dot in the upper right corner the falling tone (qusheng 去聲), and a dot in the lower right corner the entering tone (rusheng 入聲). The level tone (yinpingsheng 陰平聲) was not indicated by a dot.

Table 1. The Zhuyin fuhao 注音符號 symbols of the Zhuyin zimu 注音字母 system (Bo-po-mo-fo)
IPA symbol zhuyin 注音 symbol name Hanyu pinyin 漢語拼音 counterpart derived from
Consonant initials
[b] ㄅㄛ [bɔ] b 勹(包)
[pʰ] ㄆㄛ [pʰɔ] p 攵(攴)
[m] ㄇㄛ [mɔ] m
[f] ㄈㄛ [fɔ] f 匚(方)
[v] (obsolete) 万ㄨ [vu] v 万(萬)
[d] ㄉㄜ [də] d
[tʰ] ㄊㄜ [tʰə] t (突)
[n] ㄋㄜ [nə] n
[l] ㄌㄜ [lə] l
[g] ㄍㄜ [gə] g 巜(澮)
[kʰ] ㄎㄜ [kʰə] k 丂(考)
[ŋ] (obsolete) 兀ㄜ [ŋə] --
[h][x] ㄏㄜ [xə] h
[dʝ] ㄐㄧ [dʝi] j
[tɕʰ] ㄑㄧ [tɕʰi] q ㄑ(畎)
[ɲ] 广 (obsolete) 广ㄧ [ɲi] -- 广
[ɕ] ㄒㄧ [ɕi] x
[dʐ] ㄓ [dʐ] zh (之)
[tʂʰ] ㄔ [tʂʰ] ch
[ʂ] ㄕ [ʂ] sh
[ʐ] ㄖ [ʐ] r
[dz] ㄗ [dz] z 卩 (節)
[tsʰ] ㄘ [tsʰ] c
[s] ㄙ [s] s 厶 (私)
Monophthong vowels (solitary and final position)
[a] a, -a
[ɔ] o, -[u]o (呵)
[ə] e, -e (阿)
[ɛ] ê, -[i]e
Diphthong vowels (solitary and final position)
[aɪ̯] ai, -ai
[eɪ̯] ei, -ei
[ɑo]-[ɑʊ̯] ao, -ao
[oʊ̯] ou, -ou
Consonant-bearing finals (also solitary)
[an] an, -an (函)
[ən] * en, -en (-[i]n, -[u]n) (隱)
[ɑŋ] ang, -ang
[əŋ] * eng, -eng (-[i]ng, -[o]ng)
* ㄣ also serves to write the endings [-in] (ㄧㄣ) and [-ʊn] (ㄨㄣ),
ㄥ serves to write the endings [-iŋ] (ㄧㄥ) and [-ʊŋ] (ㄨㄥ)
The retroflex approximant (solitary and as suffix in dialects)
[ɑɻ] er, -r
Monophthong vowels (solitary, initial, interstitial and final position)
[i] yi, y-, -i-, -i
[u] wu, w-, -u-, -u
[y] yu, yu-, -u-, -ü-, -u, -ü
Vowel combinations (jiehe yunmu 結合韻母)
[ʝi] yi, -i
[ʝia] ㄧㄚ ya, -ia
[ʝiɔ] ㄧㄛ yo (rare)
[ʝiɛ] ㄧㄝ ye, -ie
[ʝiai] ㄧㄞ yai, -iai (obsolete)
[ʝiɑʊ̯] ㄧㄠ yao, -iao
[ʝioʊ̯] ㄧㄡ you, -iu
[ʝiɛn] ㄧㄢ yan, -ian
[ʝin] ㄧㄣ yin, -in
[ʝiaŋ] ㄧㄤ yang, -iang
[ʝiŋ] ㄧㄥ ying, -ing
[ωu] wu, -u
[ωa] ㄨㄚ wa, -ua
[ωɔ] ㄨㄛ wo, -uo
[ωai] ㄨㄞ wai, -uai
[ωeɪ̯] ㄨㄟ wei, -ui
[ωan] ㄨㄢ wan, -uan
[ωən][-un] ㄨㄣ * wen, -un
[ωaŋ] ㄨㄤ wang, -uang
[ωəŋ][-ʊŋ] ㄨㄥ * weng, -ong
[ʝy] yu, -u, -ü
[ʝyɛ] ㄩㄝ yue, -ue
[ʝyɛn] ㄩㄢ yuan, -uan
[ʝyn] ㄩㄣ yun, -un
[ʝiʊŋ] ㄩㄥ yong, -iong
* ㄨㄣ stands for [ωən] (like 文) and [-un] (like 論),
ㄨㄥ stands for [ωəŋ] (like 翁) and for [-ʊŋ] (like 龍)

After 1918 the zhuyin system underwent some revisions. The sequence of the sound symbols (or "letters") was only fixed in 1919.

Table 2. Sequence of sound groups in the Bo-po-mo-fo alphabet
labial consonants (chun yin 唇音) [bɔ][pʰɔ][mɔ][fɔ] ㄅㄆㄇㄈ
blade-alveolar sounds (shejian zhong yin 舌尖中音) [də][tʰə][nə][lə] ㄉㄊㄋㄌ
velars (shegen yin 舌根音 or shemian hou yin 舌面後音) [gə][kʰə][xə] ㄍㄎㄏ
dorsals (shemian qian yin 舌面前音) [dʝi][tɕʰi][ɕi] ㄐㄑㄒ
blade-palatals (shejian hou yin 舌尖後音) [dʐ][tʂʰ][ʂ][ʐ] ㄓㄔㄕㄖ
dentals (shejian qian yin 舌尖前音) [dz][tsʰ][s] ㄗㄘㄙ
interstitial vowels (later put at the end of the alphabet) [i][u][y] ㄧㄨㄩ
monophthong vowels (dan yunmu 單韻母) [a][ɔ][ɛ] ㄚㄛㄝ
diphthong vowels (fu yunmu 復韻母) [aɪ̯][eɪ̯][ɑʊ̯][oʊ̯] ㄞㄟㄠㄡ
consonant-bearing finals (daisheng yunmu 帶聲韻母) [an][ən][ɑŋ][əŋ] ㄢㄣㄤㄥ
solitary retroflex approximant sound (juansheyin 捲舌音) [ɑɻ] ㄦ

In 1920 the symbol ㄜ was added for the sound of [ə]. The number of symbols was now 40. The symbol ㄦ for [ɑɻ] was at the same time extended from a symbol for a solitary and suffix sound to that expressing the different initial [r] sounds in foreign words.

In 1922 the system to indicate the tone pitch by a dot was given up and replaced by signs, ㄧ indicating the level tone (normally not written), ˊ the rising tone, ˇ the falling-rising tone, ˋ the falling tone, and ˙ the entering tone (soon declared obsolete).

In 1923 a deep-going revision was undertaken that changed the zhuyin system to the modern form: The symbols [vu] 万, [ŋə] 兀 and [ɲi] 广 were declared as obsolete because these initial do not occur in the language of Beijing. The vowels [i] ㄧ and [y] ㄩ were not longer allowed to be used after the initials [dz] ㄗ, [tsʰ] ㄘ and [s] ㄙ, the latter had to be replaced by the sounds for the Beijing standard pronunciation, [dʝi] ㄐ, [tɕʰi] ㄑ and [ɕi] ㄒ (sounds like [dzi] or [dzy] are unknown in Beijing and only used in southern China).

A difference was made between the sounds [ɔ] ㄛ and [ωɔ] ㄨㄛ. ㄛ was no longer to be used for a final sound (only for the solitary interjection sound [ɔ], like the word 哦), except the syllables [bɔ] ㄅㄨㄛ, [pʰɔ] ㄆㄨㄛ, [mɔ] ㄇㄨㄛ and [fɔ] ㄈㄨㄛ that were abbreviated to ㄅㄛ, ㄆㄛ, ㄇㄛ and ㄈㄛ. The final sound [ʝiɔ] ㄧㄛ was changed to [ʝyɔ] ㄩㄛ, except for the interjection sound [ʝyɔ], like in 喔 or 唷. The symbol [ɛ] ㄝ was only to be used after the interstitials, [ʝiɛ] ㄧㄝ and [ʝyɛ] ㄩㄝ, and not longer separately, except for the interjection sound [ɛ], like 欸.

Finally, the entering tone was given up because it does not occur any longer in the language of Beijing. The same was valid for the symbols 万, 兀 and 广 that from 1930 on should only be used to represent sounds of the topolects of the province of Jiangsu (so-called Suyin 蘇音).

In the same year, the designation zhuyin zimu "sound notating alphabet" was changed to zhuyin fuhao 注音符號 "sound notating symbols". These symbols were to be written to the right side of the the characters in text books, which means that each column of the main text was accompanied by small symbols to the right indicating the pronuncation of the characters.

In 1932, a further symbol was introduced, namely 帀, which represents the missing vowel (xumu 虛母) of the "hummed" syllables [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ], [ʐ], [dz], [tsʰ] and [s], which were accordingly written ㄓ帀, ㄔ帀, ㄕ帀, ㄖ帀, ㄗ帀, ㄘ帀 and ㄙ帀. This symbol was later again discarded and is no longer used today. The respective syllables are since written without a vowel symbol, as ㄓ, ㄔ, ㄕ, ㄖ, ㄗ, ㄘ and ㄙ.

The use of the consonant initials is very simple, yet in the field of the vowels there are some peculiarities:
[bɔ], [pʰɔ], [mɔ], [fɔ] are written ㄅㄛ, ㄆㄛ, ㄇㄛ and ㄈㄛ, but all other combinations with ㄨㄛ (like [dωɔ] ㄉㄨㄛ, [gωɔ] ㄍㄨㄛ, [dʐωɔ] ㄓㄨㄛ and [dzωɔ] ㄗㄨㄛ). The syllable [ωɔ] is written ㄨㄛ.

[ban] and [bən] are written ㄅㄢ and ㄅㄣ, [bin] is written ㄅㄧㄣ (b+i+ən), [baŋ] and [bəŋ] are written ㄅㄤ and ㄅㄥ, [biŋ] is written ㄅㄧㄥ (b+i+əŋ). [lan] and [laŋ] are written ㄌㄢ and ㄌㄤ, [lin] and [liŋ] are written ㄌㄧㄣ and ㄌㄧㄥ, [lun] and [lʊŋ] are written ㄌㄨㄣ (l+u+ən), and ㄌㄨㄥ (l+u+əŋ). [dʝin] is written ㄐㄧㄣ, [dʝyn] is written ㄐㄩㄣ (dʝ+y+ən).

The combination ㄩㄥ is used to express the sound of [ʝiʊŋ], like ㄐㄩㄥ (dʝ+y+əŋ) for [dʝʊŋ]. The syllable [ʝʊŋ] is written ㄩㄥ, not ㄧㄨㄥ!

In solitary position, ㄨㄣ and ㄨㄥ express the sounds [ωən] and [ωəŋ], in final position the sounds [-un] and [-ʊŋ].

The initial sounds of [ω] and [ʝ] are written as ㄨ and ㄧ, like in [ωaŋ] ㄨㄢ, [ωei] ㄨㄟ, [ωən] ㄨㄣ, [(ω)u] ㄨ, [ʝoʊ̯] ㄧㄡ, [(ʝ)iŋ] ㄧㄥ, [(ʝ)i] ㄧ and [ʝao] ㄧㄠ. The initial sound [(ʝ)y] is accordingly written ㄩ [(ʝ)y], [yn] ㄩㄣ and [(ʝ)yɛ] ㄩㄝ.

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: ㄐㄧㄝ (dʝ+i+ɛ) for [dʝiɛ], but ㄐㄧㄢ (dʝ+i+an) for [dʝiɛn] or ㄐㄩㄢ (dʝ+y+an) for [dʝyɛn].

The symbol 一 is written horizontally if the text is written in columns, and vertically ㄧ if the text is written in rows.

The use of the Bo-po-mo-fo alphabet lies in first place in the standardization of the pronunciation. It thus contributed to the creation of a unified national language. The second, but equally important function lies in the help the alphabet provides for pupils in school learning Chinese characters, but also for adults with a less excellent education, and also for academicians dealing with less usual characters. The prompt indication of the pronunciation makes it much easier to look up in a dictionary than by using, for example, the radical system or the traditional phonetic rhyme system.

In some rare cases, especially in elementary schools, the zhuyin fuhao system can also serve to replace characters. Texts entirely written in a kind of phonetic system makes it much easier for pupils to express themselves in written form without having to rely on complicated Chinese characters. One of the largest newspapers in Taiwan, the Guoyu ribao 國語日報, today still adds the Bo-po-mo-fo symbols to indicate the pronuncation of each character, at least in the printed version.

Figure 1. Example of the Zhuyin alphabet from the dictionary Guoyu cidian 國語辭典
An example of the use of the Zhuyin alphabet (red boxes) 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 Roman letters in the blue boxes are the transcriptions in the Gwoyeu Romatzyh 國語羅馬字 alphabet. The character in the green box is a homophone according to the zhiyin system 直音.
Ni Haishu 倪海曙 (1988). "Zhuyin zimu 注音字母", 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), 539-542.