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Chóngniǔ (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; literally: "repeated button") or rime doublets are certain pairs of Middle Chinese syllables that are consistently distinguished in rime dictionaries and rime tables, but without a clear indication of the phonological basis of the distinction.


Rime dictionaries such as the Qieyun and Guangyun divided words by tone and then into rhyme groups. Each rhyme group was subdivided into homophone groups preceded by a small circle called a niǔ ("button").[1][2] The pronunciation of each homophone group was indicated by a fǎnqiè formula, a pair of characters having respectively the same initial and final sound as the word being described.[3][4] By systematically analysing the fanqie, it is possible to identify equivalent initial and final spellers, and thus enumerate the initials and finals, but not their phonetic values.[5] Rime tables such as the Yunjing further analysed the syllables distinguished by the rime dictionaries into initial consonant, "open" (kāi ) or "closed" ( ), divisions (I–IV), broad rhyme class and tone. The closed distinction is generally considered to represent lip rounding, but the interpretation of the divisions is more controversial.[6][7]

In most cases the different homophone groups within a Qieyun rhyme group are clearly distinguished by having a different initial or through the open/closed distinction in the rime tables. Pairs of syllables that are not so distinguished are known as chongniu, and occur only with certain palatalized finals and with labial, velar or laryngeal initials. The distinction is reflected in the rime tables, where these pairs are divided between divisions III and IV.[8] The pairs are usually distinguished in fanqie spellings:

  • The finals of division-III chongniu words are usually rendered with other division-III chongniu words, but sometimes with words with retroflex initials.
  • The finals of division-III chongniu words are rendered with other division-IV chongniu words or with words with acute initials.[9]

Some Chinese authors refer to division-III and division-IV chongniu finals as types B and A respectively.[10] The Middle Chinese notations of Li Fang-Kuei and William Baxter distinguish the division IV parts using spellings containing both "j" and "i", without any commitment to pronunciation:[8]

Chongniu finals
Rhyme group Li's notation Baxter's notation
Division III Division IV Division III Division IV
zhī -jĕ -jiĕ -je -jie
-jwĕ -jwiĕ -jwe -jwie
zhī -i -ji -ij -jij
-wi -jwi -wij -jwij
-jäi -jiäi -jej -jiej
-jwäi -jwiäi -jwej -jwiej
xiāo -jäu -jiäu -jew -jiew
yán -jäm -jiäm -jem -jiem
qīn -jəm -jiəm -im -jim
xiān -jän -jiän -jen -jien
-jwän -jwiän -jwen -jwien
zhēn -jĕn -jiĕn -in -jin
zhūn -juĕn -juiĕn -win -jwin

This distinction is generally not reflected in modern varieties of Chinese but is maintained in some Sino-Vietnamese and Sino-Korean loans.[11] For example, each of the following pairs is separated only in one of the Sinoxenic readings, in which the division IV element of the pair is distinguished by palatalization:

Reflexes of chongniu pairs
Division Character Beijing Guangzhou Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Korean
III mín man4 mân min
IV mín man4 dân min
III yān jim1 yểm eom
IV yān jim1 yểm yeom

In the first pair, it is assumed that Vietnamese labials became dentals in a palatal environment.[12]


The nature of the distinction within Middle Chinese is disputed, with some scholars ascribing it to a medial and others to the main vowel.[13]

According to the now prominent theory of Sergei Yakhontov, the chongniu division-III syllables (together with all syllables in division II) had a medial *-r- in Old Chinese. William Baxter, following earlier ideas of Edwin Pulleyblank, suggested that division-III chongniu syllables had medials *-rj- in Old Chinese, while their counterparts in division IV had a medial *-j- before a front vowel.[14] The later revision by Baxter and Laurent Sagart elides the *-j- medial, treating such "Type B" syllables as unmarked, in contrast to "Type A" syllables, which they reconstructed with pharyngealized initials. In this system, chongniu syllables were Type B syllables distinguished by the presence or absence of a medial *-r- in Old Chinese.[15]


  1. ^ Baxter (1992), pp. 33–35, 822.
  2. ^ Norman (1988), p. 27.
  3. ^ Baxter (1992), p. 33.
  4. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 27–28.
  5. ^ Pulleyblank (1984), pp. 142–143.
  6. ^ Norman (1988), p. 32.
  7. ^ Branner (2006), pp. 15, 32–34.
  8. ^ a b Baxter (1992), p. 75.
  9. ^ Baxter (1977), pp. 60–61.
  10. ^ Branner (2006), p. 25.
  11. ^ Baxter (1992), pp. 75–79.
  12. ^ Baxter (1992), pp. 282–283.
  13. ^ Baxter (1992), pp. 282–286.
  14. ^ Baxter (1992), pp. 280–281.
  15. ^ Baxter & Sagart (2014), pp. 215–217.

Works cited

  • Baxter, William H. (1977), Old Chinese Origins of the Middle Chinese Chóngniǔ Doublets: A Study Using Multiple Character Readings (Ph.D. thesis), Cornell University.
  • ——— (1992), A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, ISBN 978-3-11-012324-1.
  • Baxter, William H.; Sagart, Laurent (2014), Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-994537-5.
  • Branner, David Prager (2006), "What are rime tables and what do they mean?", in Branner, David Prager, 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, pp. 1–34, ISBN 978-90-272-4785-8.
  • Norman, Jerry (1988), Chinese, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-29653-3.
  • Pulleyblank, Edwin G. (1984), Middle Chinese: a study in historical phonology, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, ISBN 978-0-7748-0192-8.