Four tones (Chinese)

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This article is about the four traditional tone classes of Chinese. For the four tones of Modern Standard Chinese (Mandarin), see Standard Chinese phonology.
The four tone classes of Chinese
 ꜂上 shǎng   去꜄ 
 ꜀平  píng  入꜆  ru(p) 
An old illustration of the four tone classes, in their traditional representation on a hand. In modern use, the diacritics all face the character, as in the table above.

The four tones of Chinese poetry and dialectology (simplified Chinese: 四声; traditional Chinese: 四聲; pinyin: sìshēng) are four traditional tone classes[1] of Chinese words. They play an important role in Chinese poetry and in comparative studies of tonal development in the modern varieties of Chinese, both in traditional Chinese and in Western linguistics. They derive from the four phonemic tones of Middle Chinese, and are named even or level (平 píng), rising (上 shǎng), departing (or going; 去 ), and entering or checked (入 ).[2] (The last three are collectively referred to as oblique 仄 (), an important concept in poetic tone patterns.) Due to historic splits and mergers, none of the modern varieties of Chinese have the exact four tones of Middle Chinese, but they are noted in rhyming dictionaries.

According to the usual modern analysis, Early Middle Chinese had three phonemic tones in most syllables, but no tonal distinctions in checked syllables ending in the stop consonants /p/, /t/, /k/. In most circumstances, every syllable had its own tone; hence a multisyllabic word typically had a tone assigned to each syllable. (In modern varieties, the situation is sometimes more complicated. Although each syllable typically still has its own underlying tone in most dialects, some syllables in the speech of some varieties may have their tone modified into other tones or neutralized entirely, by a process known as tone sandhi.)

Traditional Chinese dialectology reckons syllables ending in a stop consonant as possessing a fourth tone, known technically as a checked tone. This tone is known in traditional Chinese linguistics as the entering (入 ) tone, a term commonly used in English as well. The other three tones were termed the level (or even) tone (平 píng), the rising (上 shǎng) tone, and the departing (or going) tone (去 ).[3] The practice of setting up the entering tone as a separate class reflects the fact that the actual pitch contour of checked syllables was quite distinct from the pitch contour of any of the sonorant-final syllables. Indeed, implicit in the organisation of the classical rime tables is a different, but structurally equally valid, phonemic analysis, which takes all four tones as phonemic and demotes the difference between stop finals [p t k] and nasal finals [m n ŋ] to allophonic, with stops occurring in entering syllables and nasals elsewhere.[4]

From the perspective of modern historical linguistics, there is often value in treating the "entering tone" as a tone regardless of its phonemic status, because syllables possessing this "tone" typically develop differently from syllables possessing any of the other three "tones". For clarity, these four "tones" are often referred to as tone classes, with each word belonging to one of the four tone classes. This reflects the fact that the lexical division of words into tone classes is based on tone, but not all tone classes necessarily have a distinct phonemic tone associated with them.

The four Early Middle Chinese (EMC) tones are nearly always presented in the order level (平 píng), rising (上 shǎng), departing (去 ), entering (入 ), and correspondingly numbered 1 2 3 4 in modern discussions. In Late Middle Chinese (LMC), each of the EMC tone classes split in two, depending on the nature of the initial consonant of the syllable in question. Discussions of LMC and the various modern varieties will often number these split tone classes from 1 through 8, keeping the same ordering as before. For example, LMC/modern tone classes 1 and 2 derive from EMC tone class 1; LMC/modern tone classes 3 and 4 derive from EMC tone class 2; etc. The odd-numbered tone classes 1 3 5 7 are termed dark (陰 yīn), whereas the even-numbered tone classes 2 4 6 8 are termed light (陽 yáng). Hence, for example, LMC/modern tone class 5 is known in Chinese as the yīn qù ("dark departing") tone, indicating that it is the yīn variant of the EMC tone (EMC tone 3). In order to clarify the relationship between the EMC and LMC tone classes, some authors notate the LMC tone classes as 1a 1b 2a 2b 3a 3b 4a 4b in place of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, where a and b correspond directly to Chinese yīn and yáng, respectively.


In Middle Chinese, each of the tone names carries the tone it identifies: 平 level ꜁biajŋ, 上 rising ꜃dʑɨaŋ, 去 departing kʰɨə꜄, and 入 entering ȵip꜇.[5] However, in some modern languages this is no longer true. This loss of correspondence is most notable in the case of the entering tone—that is, syllables checked in a stop consonant [p̚], [t̚], or [k̚] in Middle Chinese—which has been lost from most dialects of Mandarin and redistributed among the other tones.

In modern languages, tones that derive from the four Middle Chinese tone classes may be split into two registers, dark (陰 yīn) and light (陽 yáng) depending on the voicing of the onset. When all four tone-classes split, eight tones result: dark level (陰平), light level (陽平), dark rising (陰上), light rising (陽上), dark departing (陰去), light departing (陽去), dark entering (陰入), and light entering (陽入). Sometimes these have been termed upper and lower registers respectively, although this may be a misnomer, as in some dialects the dark registers may have the lower tone, and the light register the higher tone.

Chinese dictionaries mark the tones with diacritical marks at the four corners of a character:[6] ꜀平 level, ꜂上 rising, 去꜄ departing, and 入꜆ entering. When yin and yang tones are distinguished, these are the diacritics for the yin (dark) tones; the yang (light) tones are indicated by underscoring the diacritic: ꜁平 light level, ꜃上 light rising, 去꜅ light departing, 入꜇ light entering. These diacritics are also sometimes used when the phonetic tone is unknown, as in the reconstructions of Middle Chinese at the beginning of this section. However, in this article the circled numbers ①②③④⑤⑥⑦⑧ will be used, as in the table below, with the odd numbers ①③⑤⑦ indicating either 'dark' tones or tones that have not split, and even numbers ②④⑥⑧ indicating 'light' tones. Thus level tones are numbered ①②, the rising tones ③④, the departing tones ⑤⑥, and the entering (checked) tones ⑦⑧.

In Yue (incl. Cantonese) the dark entering tone further splits into high (高陰入) and low (低陰入) registers, depending on the length of the nucleus, for a total of nine tone-classes. Some dialects have a complex tone splittings, where the terms dark and light are insufficient to cover the possibilities.

The number of tone-classes is based on Chinese tradition, and is as much register as it is actual tone. The entering 'tones', for example, are only distinct because they are checked by a final stop consonant, not because they have a tone contour that contrasts with non-entering tones. In dialects such as Shanghainese, tone-classes are numbered even though they are not phonemically distinct.


See also: Tonogenesis

The tonal aspect of Chinese dialects that is so important today is believed by linguists to have been absent from Old Chinese, but rather came about in Early Middle Chinese after the loss of various finals.[7] The four tones of Middle Chinese, 平 píng "level", 上 shǎng "rising", 去 "departing", and 入 "entering", all evolved from different final losses from Old Chinese. The 上, or "rising" tone, arose from the loss of glottal stops at the end of words. Support for this can be seen in Buddhist transcriptions of the Han period, where the "rising" tone was often used to note Sanskrit short vowels. This kind of evolution of the missing glottal stop into a rising tone is similar to what happened in Vietnamese, another tonal language.[8] The 去, or "departing" tone, arose from the loss of [-s] at the end of words. When we look at Chinese loanwords into neighboring East Asian languages, we find support for this theory. For example, in Korean, the word for "comb", pis, is a loan of the Chinese word 篦, which means that when the word "comb" was borrowed into Korean, there was still an [-s] sound at the end of the word that later disappeared from Chinese and gave rise to a departing 去 tone. The 入, or "entering" tone consisted of words ending in voiceless stops, [-p], [-t], and [-k]. Finally, the 平, or "level" tone, arose from the lack of sound at the ends of words, where there was neither [-s], a glottal stop, nor [-p], [-t], or [-k].[7]

Distribution in modern Chinese[edit]

Sample dialects and their realization of tone are given below.

Note: Different authors typically have different opinions as to the shapes of Chinese tones. Tones typically have a slight purely phonetic drop at the end in citation form. It is therefore likely that a tone with a drop of one unit (54, say, or 21) is not distinct from a level tone (a 55 or 22); on the other hand, what one author hears as a significant drop (53 or 31) may be perceived by another as a smaller drop; therefore it is often ambiguous whether a transcription like 54 or 21 is a level or contour tone. Similarly, a slight drop before a rise, such as a 214, may be due to the speaker approaching the target tone, and may therefore also not be distinctive (from 14).[9]

Distribution of the four tone classes in modern Chinese
Each tone class is numbered to , depending on its reflex of Late Middle Chinese, followed by its actual pronunciation, using a tone letter to illustrate its contour and then a numerical equivalent.
language dialect speech Early Middle Chinese tone class number of
tone classes
(number of
phonemic tones)
꜀平 Level ①② ꜂上 Rising ③④ 去꜄ Departing ⑤⑥ 入꜆ Entering ⑦⑧
Syllable onset
voiceless voiced voiceless voiced voiceless voiced voiceless voiced
son obs son obs tenuis asp son obs (short) (long) son obs
Mandarin Beijing ˥ 55 ②ʰ ˧˥ 35 ˨˩˦ 214 [10]˥˩ 51 (any)§ 4
Ji–Lu Jinan ˨˩˧ 213 ②ʰ ˦˨ 42 ˥ 55 ˨˩ 21 4
Jiao–Liao Dalian ②ʰ 4
(Central Plain)
Xi'an ˧˩ 31 ②ʰ ˨˦ 24 ˦˨ 42 ˥ 55 4
Dungan ˨˦ 24[citation needed] ˥˩ 51 ˦ 44 3
Lanzhou ˧˩ 31 ②ʰ ˥˧ 53 ˦˦˨ 442 ˩˧ 13 4
Yinchuan 3
Southwestern Chengdu ˥ 5 ②ʰ ˨˩ 21 ˦˨ 42 ˨˩˧ 213 4
Luzhou ˥ 5 ②ʰ ˨˩ 21 ˦˨ 42 ˩˧ 13 ⑦̚ ˧ 3 5
Jiang–Huai Nanjing ˧˩ 31 ②ʰ ˩˧ 13 ˨˩˨ 212 ˦ 44 ⑦̚ ˥ 5 5 (4)
Jin Taiyuan ˩ 11 ˥˧ 53 ˦˥ 45 ⑦̚ ˨ 2 ⑧̚ ˥˦ 54 5 (3)
Wu Taihu Shanghainese ˥˨ 52 ⑥° ⑥° ˧˧˦ 334 ⑥° ˩˩˧ 113 ⑦̚ ˥ 5 ⑧̚° ˨˧ 23 5 (2)°
Suzhou ˦ 44 ②° ˨˦ 24 ˥˨ 52 ⑥° ˦˩˨ 412 ⑥° ˧˩ 31 ⑦̚ ˦ 4 ⑧̚° ˨˧ 23 7 (3)°
Nantong ②° ⑥° ⑥° ⑦̚ ⑧̚° 7 (3)°
Oujiang Wenzhounese ②° ③ʔ/④ʔ° ⑥° ⑦/⑧° 8 (3–6)°
Xiang New Changsha ˧ 33 ˩˧ 13 ˦˩ 41 ˥ 55 ˨˩ 21 ⑦̚ ˨˦ 24 6 (5)
Gan Nanchang ˦˨ 42 ˨˦ 24 ˨˩˧ 213 ˥ 55 ˨˩ 21 ⑦̚ ˥ 5 ⑧̚ ˨˩ 21 7 (5)
Hakka Meizhou Meixian ˦ 44 ˩ 11 ˧˩ 31 ˥˨ 52 ⑦̚ ˨˩ 21 ⑧̚ ˦ 4 6 (4)
Yue Yuehai Cantonese ①a ˥ 55 ~ ①b ˥˧ 53 ②ʰ ˨˩ 21~11 ˧˥ 35 ④ʰ* ˩˧ 13 ˧ 33 ˨ 22 ⑦a̚ ˥ 5 ⑦b̚ ˧ 3 ⑧̚ ˨ 2 9~10 (6~7)
Siyi Taishanese ˧ 33 ②ʰ? ˩ 11 ˥ 55 ④ʰ? ˨˩ 21 ˧˨ 32 ⑦a̚ ˥ 5 ⑦b̚ ˧ 3 ⑧̚ ˨˩ 21 8 (5)
Gou-Lou Bobai ˦ 44 ②ʰ? ˨˧ 23 ˧ 33 ④ʰ? ˦˥ 45 ˧˨ 32 ˨˩ 21 ⑦a̚ ˥˦ 54 ⑦b̚ ˩ 1 ⑧a̚ ˦ 4
⑧b̚ ˧˨ 32
10 (6)
Pinghua Nanning ˥˨ 52 ②ʰ? ˨˩ 21 ˦ 44 ④ʰ? ˨˦ 24 ˥ 55 ˨ 22 ⑦̚ ˦ 4 ⑧a̚ ˨˦ 24 ⑧b̚ ˨ 2 9 (6)
Min Min Bei Jian'ou ˥˦ 54 ˨˩ 21 ˨ 22 ˦ 44 ⑦̚ ˨˦ 24 ⑧̚ ˦˨ 42 6 (4)
Min Dong Fuzhou ˥ 55 ˥˧ 53 ˧ 33 ˨˩˧ 213 ˨˦˨ 242 ⑦̚ ˨˦ 24 ⑧̚ ˥ 5 7 (5)
Min Nan Amoy ˥ 55 ˧˥ 35 ˥˧ 53 ③/⑥ ˨˩ 21 ˧ 33 ⑦̚ ˩ 1 ⑧̚ ˥ 5 7 (5)
Quanzhou ˧ 33 ˨˦ 24 ˥ 55 / ˨ 22 ˦˩ 41 ˦˩ 41 ⑦̚ ˥ 5 ⑧̚ ˨˦ 24 8 (6)
Teochew ˧ 33 ˥ 55 ˥˨ 52 ˧˥ 35 ˨˩˧ 213 ˩ 11 ⑦̚ ˨ 2 ⑧̚ ˦ 4 8 (6)
language dialect speech Early Middle Chinese tone class number of
tone classes
(number of
phonemic tones)
꜀平 Even ①② ꜂上 Rising ③④ 去꜄ Departing ⑤⑥ 入꜆ Checked ⑦⑧
Syllable onset
voiceless voiced voiceless voiced voiceless voiced voiceless voiced
son obs son obs tenuis asp son obs (short) (long) son obs
§ Irregular development, due to dialect mixing in the capital. However, colloquial readings tend to display tones and , whereas literary readings tend to display and . The preservation of the literary readings is chiefly due to 協韻 xiéyùn, artificial preservation of rhyming pronunciations for words that rhyme in classical poetry.[11]
ʰ A muddy consonant becomes aspirated here rather than tenuis. (Note a historical entering tone will not be aspirated.)
ʰ* A muddy consonant becomes aspirated here in colloquial speech, but in reading pronunciations it is tenuis and the syllable becomes tone .
̚ The entering tone(s) are distinct because they are checked by a final stop. (Wenzhounese is an exception: Entering tone is distinct without a final stop.)
° In Wu and Old Xiang, the 'light' tones are always dependent on voiced initials, and so are not phonemically distinct. In Wenzhounese, rising tone is likewise marked with a final glottal stop.
† In Zhangzhou and Amoy Hokkien variants of Min Nan, the traditional rising tone with former voiced obstruent onset has become tone in literary reading pronunciations but tone in colloquial pronunciations.[12] In the Quanzhou variant of Min Nan, it is the sonorants that were voiced and in the rising tone in Middle Chinese that have split. In literary pronunciations they have merged into tone , but they have become tone in colloquial pronunciations.[12]
‡ In the Quanzhou Hokkien variety of Min Nan, the traditional 'light' and 'dark' departing tone categories are only differentiated by their behavior under tone sandhi; they are pronounced the same in isolation.[12]


  1. ^ A "tone class" is a lexical division of words based on tone. It may not have a direct correspondence with phonemic tone. The three tones of open syllables in Middle Chinese contrast with undifferentiated tone in checked syllables, and words are classified according to these four possibilities.
  2. ^ Baxter, William H. (1992). A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 33. ISBN 3-11-012324-X. 
  3. ^ Baxter, William H. (1992). A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 33. ISBN 3-11-012324-X. 
  4. ^ Chao, Yuen-Ren (1934). "The non-uniqueness of phonemic solutions of phonetic systems". Bulletin of the Institute for History and Philology (Academia Sinica) 4: 363–397. 
  5. ^ Pulleyblank's reconstructions
  6. ^ Karlgren, Bernhard (1974) [1923], "Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese", yes (1st ed.) (New York: Dover Publications, Inc): 7/8, ISBN 0-486-21887-2, The p'ing (even), ṣang (rising) and k'ü (falling) inflexions are marked by hooks in the usual Chinese style. The ẓu ṣəng is characterized by the abrupt cutting off of the voice and recognized by final -p, -t or -k; there is no need of adding a hook (tat,).  |chapter= ignored (help)
  7. ^ a b Sagart, Laurent. "The origin of Chinese tones". Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Retrieved 1 December 2014. 
  8. ^ Mei, Tsu-Lin (1970). "Tones and Prosody in Middle Chinese and The Origin of The Rising Tone" 30. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. pp. 86–110. JSTOR 2718766. 
  9. ^ Matthew Chen, 2000. Tone Sandhi: Patterns across Chinese Dialects. CUP.
  10. ^ Mandarin 4th tone
  11. ^ David Branner, A Neutral Transcription System for Teaching Medieval Chinese, T ̔ang Studies 17 (1999), pp. 36, 45.
  12. ^ a b c 闽南语的声调系统, The Tonal System of Min Nan; accessed 24 January 2012.
Further reading
  • Branner, David Prager (ed.) (2006). The Chinese Rime Tables: Linguistic Philosophy and Historical-Comparative Phonology. Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science, Series IV: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory; 271. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. ISBN 90-272-4785-4.