Gwoyeu Romatzyh

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Gwoyeu Romatzyh
Script type romanization
Time period
  • Republic of China (1912–1949) 1928–1986
  • China 1949–1987
  • United Nations 1945–1971
LanguagesStandard Chinese
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and  , see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.
Gwoyeu Romatzyh
Traditional Chinese國語羅馬字
Simplified Chinese国语罗马字
Literal meaningStandard Chinese romanization

Gwoyeu Romatzyh,[a] abbreviated GR, is a system for writing Standard Chinese in the Latin alphabet. It was conceived by Yuen Ren Chao, who led a group of linguists to develop the system from 1925 to 1926. From 1942 to 2000, a small number of reference works published in Hong Kong and overseas made use of the system, and Chao would use it throughout his later linguistics work, including in his most influential publications. However, Gwoyeu Romatzyh never achieved widespread use among the Chinese public. In places where it had been used, it was eventually replaced—largely by Hanyu Pinyin (or simply 'pinyin'), which became the international standard romanization during the second half of the 20th century. Pinyin itself made use of principles originally introduced by Gwoyeu Romatzyh, whose influence is often reflected in the design of later systems.

GR indicates the four tones of Standard Chinese by varying the spelling of syllables, rather than by using either diacritics as in pinyin, or numerals as in the earlier Wade–Giles system. The distinct spellings for each tone also vary by syllable according to particular rules. Tonal spelling was originally proposed by Lin Yutang, one of the members of the development team. Chao said that this could possibly aid students of Chinese learning to articulate tones.[1] However, later study comparing the tonal accuracy of students reading aloud from either Gwoyeu Romatzyh or pinyin has not substantiated Chao's hypothesis.[2]

In September 1928, the Republic of China adopted Gwoyeu Romatzyh as the national romanization system for Standard Chinese.[3] It began to see use in Chinese dictionaries, with some proponents hoping that it would eventually replace Chinese characters entirely. However, despite support from linguists both in China and overseas, the public largely lacked interest in the system, or even viewed it with hostility due to its complexity.[b] In addition, its widespread adoption was hindered by its narrow calibration to the Beijing dialect during a period when the country lacked a strong centralizing government to impose its use. While tonal spelling also features in romanization schemes used for other Asian languages like Hmong and Zhuang, their rules are considerably simpler than those in Gwoyeu Romatzyh.


Lin Yutang, who first proposed tonal spelling

Following the Xinhai Revolution, the Republic of China replaced the imperial Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Among the Chinese intelligentsia, liberal reformers sought ways to modernize the country's institutions. In 1916, linguist Yuen Ren Chao (1892–1982) was among the first to propose, in an English-language essay co-authored with the poet and essayist Hu Shih (1891–1962), that the Chinese writing system should be replaced with an alphabet phonetically corresponding to a national variety of the Chinese language.[4] Tonal spelling, Gwoyeu Romatzyh's most distinctive feature, was first suggested to Yuen Ren Chao by Lin Yutang (1895–1976);[5] by 1922, Chao had already established the main principles of the system.[6] During 1925 and 1926, its details were developed by a team of five linguists under the auspices of the National Languages Committee.[7]

On 26 September 1928, Gwoyeu Romatzyh was officially adopted by the Republic's nationalist government—led at the time by the Kuomintang (KMT).[3][8] The corresponding entry in Chao's diary, written in GR, reads G.R. yii yu jeou yueh 26 ry gong buh le. Hoo-ray!!! ("G.R. was officially announced on September 26. Hooray!!!")[9] It was intended for use alongside the existing bopomofo system, hence its alternative designation as the "Second Pattern of the National Alphabet".[c] Both systems were used to indicate the revised standard of pronunciation in the new official Vocabulary of National Pronunciation for Everyday Use of 1932.[10] In general, the designers of Gwoyeu Romatzyh were interested in large-scale reform of the Chinese writing system; these potential reforms often involved adopting Gwoyeu Romatzyh as a primary, practical script for the language.[11] During the 1930s, two short-lived attempts were made to teach Gwoyeu Romatzyh to railway workers and peasants in Henan and Shandong.[12] Support for GR was confined to a small number of trained linguists and sinologists, including Qian Xuantong and Luo Changpei in China and Walter Simon in England.[13] During this period, GR faced increasing hostility because of the complexity of its tonal spelling. Conversely, sinologist Bernhard Karlgren criticized GR for its lack of phonetic rigour.[14] Ultimately, like Latinxua Sin Wenz, GR failed to gain widespread support, principally because the "national" language was too narrowly based on the Beijing dialect:[15] "a sufficiently precise and strong language norm had not yet become a reality in China".[3]

Historical use of Gwoyeu Romatzyh is reflected in the official spelling of the name for the province of Shaanxi, which distinguishes it from that of neighbouring Shanxi; these names differ only by tone, and their systematic pinyin romanizations would be identical without the use of diacritics.[16] The Warring States period state of Wey is often spelled as such to distinguish it from the more prominent state of Wei, whose names are homophonous in Mandarin, but were likely distinct in Old Chinese. Several prominent Chinese people have used GR to transliterate their names, such as the mathematician Shiing-Shen Chern; however, neither Chao nor Lin did. In 1958, the Chinese government officially replaced Gwoyeu Romatzyh with Hanyu Pinyin, which had been developed by a team led by Zhou Youguang over the previous two years. Pinyin is now the predominant system and an international standard used by the United Nations, the Library of Congress, and the International Organization for Standardization, as well as by most students learning Standard Chinese. Its use as a pronunciation aid survived in Taiwan until the 1970s, as in the monolingual Guoyu Cidian [zh] dictionary. It was officially replaced in 1986 by the modified Mandarin Phonetic Symbols II system.[17]


Gwoyeu Romatzyh in use on a park sign in Taipei – Taytzyy (太子; Tàizǐ)

Basic first tone forms[edit]

An important feature of Gwoyeu Romatzyh, inspired by its precursors and later adopted by pinyin, is the use of consonant pairs with a voicing distinction from Latin to instead represent the aspiration distinction present in Chinese.[18] For example, ⟨b⟩ and ⟨p⟩ represent /p/ and /pʰ/, compared to ⟨p⟩ and ⟨p'⟩ in Wade–Giles. Another distinctive feature is Gwoyeu Romatzyh's use of ⟨j⟩, ⟨ch⟩, and ⟨sh⟩ to represent two different phonetic series. When followed by ⟨i⟩, these letters correspond to the alveolo-palatal series written in pinyin as ⟨j⟩, ⟨q⟩, and ⟨x⟩; otherwise, they correspond to the retroflex series written in pinyin as ⟨zh⟩, ⟨ch⟩, and ⟨sh⟩.

Other notable features of Gwoyeu Romatzyh orthography include:

  • ⟨iu⟩ represents the close front rounded vowel /y/, spelled contextually as ⟨ü⟩ or ⟨u⟩ in pinyin.
  • Final ⟨-y⟩ represents the [ɨ] allophone of i: GR ⟨shy⟩ and ⟨sy⟩ correspond to pinyin ⟨shi⟩ and ⟨si⟩ respectively.
  • ⟨el⟩ corresponds to pinyin ⟨er⟩, with ⟨-r⟩ being reserved to indicate the second tone. The most important use of -(e)l is as a rhotacization suffix, as in ideal = i dean + -(e)l ('a little'; yìdiǎnr).
  • A number of frequently occurring morphemes have abbreviated spellings in GR. The most of these are: -g (-ge), -j (-zhe), -m (-me), sh (shi) and -tz (-zi).[19]

Tonal spelling[edit]

By default, the basic Gwoyeu Romatzyh spelling described above is used for syllables with the first tone. The basic form is then modified to indicate tones 2, 3 and 4.[20] This is accomplished in one of three ways:

  • either a letter is changed to another letter resembling it in sound (i to y, for example, or u to w)
  • or a letter is doubled
  • or a silent letter (r or h) is added after the vowel.

Wherever possible, the concise first method is used.

Syllables beginning with a sonorant are an exception: the basic form is then used for tone 2, and tone 1 is indicated by adding an h after the initial letter.

Word segmentation[edit]

An important principle of Gwoyeu Romatzyh is that text should use spaces as dividers between words. While this has been common practice in European languages since; but in Chinese the concept of "word" is not easy to pin down. The basic unit of speech is popularly thought to be the monosyllable represented by a character, which in most cases represents a meaningful syllable or morpheme, a smaller unit than the "linguistic word".[21] Characters are written and printed with no spaces between words; yet in practice most Chinese words consist of two-syllable compounds, and it was Chao's bold innovation in 1922 to reflect this in GR orthography by grouping the appropriate syllables together into words.[22] This represented a radical departure from hyphenation used in Wade–Giles forms, e.g. Kuo2-yü3 Lo2-ma3-tzu4.

Publication history[edit]

Yuen Ren Chao as a young man (c. 1916)

Chao used Gwoyeu Romatzyh in four influential works:

In 1942, Walter Simon introduced Gwoyeu Romatzyh to English-speaking sinologists in a pamphlet entitled The New Official Chinese Latin Script. Over the remainder of the 1940s he published a series of textbooks and readers, as well as a Chinese-English dictionary using GR. His son Harry Simon later went on to use GR in papers he published on Chinese linguistics.[32]

In 1960, Y. C. Liu, who was a colleague of Walter Simon at SOAS, published Fifty Chinese Stories, comprising selections from the Chinese classics. It was a parallel text featuring the original Literary Chinese as well as vernacular translation,[33] in addition to GR and romanized Japanese transliterations prepared by Simon.

Lin Yutang's Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage (1972) incorporated a number of novelties, which included a simplified romanization scheme derived from GR,[34][35] though Lin eliminated most of the spelling rules.

The first 3 issues of Shin Tarng magazine (1982–1989; Xīntáng) also used a simplified version of Gwoyeu Romatzyh. The fourth issue, now rendered as Xin Talng, used a system that adapted pinyin to use tonal spelling akin to GR.[36]


Chao believed that the benefit of tonal spelling was to make the use of tones in Chinese more salient to learners:

[GR] makes the spelling more complicated, but gives an individuality to the physiognomy of words, with which it is possible to associate meaning ... [A]s an instrument of teaching, tonal spelling has proved in practice to be a most powerful aid in enabling the student to grasp the material with precision and clearness.[37]

For example, it may be easier to memorize the difference between GR Beeijing 'Beijing' and beyjiing 'background' than the pinyin Běijīng and bèijǐng. One study conducted at the University of Oregon from 1991 to 1993 compared the results of teaching elementary level Chinese using either pinyin or GR to two matched groups of students; the study ultimately concluded that "GR did not lead to significantly greater accuracy in tonal production".[38]


  1. ^ Traditional Chinese: 國語羅馬字; simplified Chinese: 国语罗马字; pinyin: Guóyǔ Luómǎzì; lit. 'Standard Chinese romanization'
  2. ^ For a detailed account of the historical background, see DeFrancis, John. "One State, One People, One Language". Nationalism and Language Reform in China. Princeton University Press. Retrieved 2024-03-04 – via
  3. ^ 国音字母第二式; Gwoin tzyhmuu dihell shyh; Guóyīn zìmǔ dì'èr shì; see Simon 1947, p. lxxi, Table X



  1. ^ Chao & Yang 1947, p. xv, "The common [foreign] attitude of treating the tone as an epiphenomenon on top of the solid sounds—consonants and vowels—is to the Chinese mind quite unintelligible...".
  2. ^ McGinnis 1997, "The results clearly indicated that GR did not lead to significantly greater accuracy in tonal production. Indeed, the use of GR reflected slightly lower rates of tonal production accuracy for native speakers of both American English and Japanese.".
  3. ^ a b c Kratochvíl 1968, p. 169.
  4. ^ Zhong 2019, pp. 27–28; DeFrancis 1950a.
  5. ^ Chao 1948, p. 11, "Without disclaiming responsibility, as a very active member of the Committee on Unification, for the merits and defects of the system, I must give credit to my colleague Lin Yutang for the idea of varying the spelling to indicate difference in tone.".
  6. ^ DeFrancis 1950a, footnotes 43 and 46.
  7. ^ DeFrancis 1950, p. 74.
  8. ^ Xing, Huang; Feng, Xu (2016). "The Romanization of Chinese Language". Review of Asian and Pacific Studies. 41: 99–111. doi:10.15018/00001134. ISSN 0913-8439.
  9. ^ Zhong 2019, p. 41.
  10. ^ 国音常用字汇; Gwoin charngyonq tzyhhuey; Guóyīn chángyòng zìhuì: see Chao 1948, p. 11
  11. ^ Chao 1968c, "While the official position was that it was to be used whenever Chinese was to be spelled in Latin letters, such as in dealing with foreigners, those who devised the system, of whom I was one, had in our minds the design of a practical system of writing.".
  12. ^ DeFrancis 1950, pp. 77–78.
  13. ^ DeFrancis 1950, p. 75.
  14. ^ Karlgren 1928, p. 20, "[GR] is based on a series of very fatal phonetic lies, and for this reason it will be very difficult to learn, and consequently impractical.".
  15. ^ DeFrancis 1950, p. 76.
  16. ^ "陕西为什么拼作Shaanxi,而不是Shanxi". The Paper (in Chinese). Retrieved 2017-12-19.
  17. ^ Chiung 2001.
  18. ^ Chao 1948, pp. 19–24; Chao 1968a, pp. 20–25.
  19. ^ Chao 1968a, p. xxx.
  20. ^ Chao 1948, pp. 28–30, 336; Chao 1968a, pp. 29–30, 847; Simon 1947, p. lviii, Table IX.
  21. ^ Chao 1968a, pp. 138–143; Kratochvíl 1968, pp. 89–99.
  22. ^ DeFrancis 1950a, note 46.
  23. ^ Chao, Yuen Ren. Mandarin Primer. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Archived from the original on 27 October 2005. Retrieved 2007-02-27.
  24. ^ Chao 1948, p. v.
  25. ^ Chao 1968b, pp. i, iv.
  26. ^ Yuen Ren Chao. "Readings in Sayable Chinese: table of contents". Retrieved 2007-03-02.
  27. ^ 走到鏡子裡跟阿麗思看見裡頭有些什麼; Tzoou daw Jinqtz lii gen Alihsy Kannjiann Liitou Yeou Shie Sherme; Zǒu dào jìngzili gēn Ālìsī kànjian lǐtou yǒu xiē shénme.
  28. ^ Carroll, Lewis. "Yuen Ren Chao in Wonderland". Translated by Chao, Yuen Ren. Richard Warmington. Retrieved 2007-03-12.
    Carroll, Lewis (1969). "Humpty Dumpty in Mandarin Chinese". Translated by Chao, Yuen Ren. Asian Language Publications. Retrieved 2007-03-15 – via
  29. ^ Kratochvíl 1968, p. 187.
  30. ^ Cassette recordings of this text are available from various online sources.
  31. ^ Chao 1968b, pp. i, vi.
  32. ^ Simon 1958.
  33. ^ Liu 1960, p. xii, "[The book's] primary aim is to introduce students to the Classical style through the medium of the modern spoken language.".
  34. ^ Lin, Yutang. Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage (Online ed.). Chinese University of Hong Kong. "In the original edition, 'Guoryuu Romatzyh' (國語羅馬字) was used as the scheme for romanization." Another feature was an "Instant Index System": "an invention by Lin Yutang with the intention of providing a simple and unambiguous rule to call up any given Chinese character ... [T]his index system has not been widely used since its inception.". Retrieved 2007-03-27.
  35. ^ Ching, Yutang & Li 1975.
  36. ^ "Xin Tang: a journal of romanized Mandarin". Retrieved 2022-11-19.
  37. ^ Chao 1948, p. 11.
  38. ^ McGinnis 1997.


External links[edit]

Preceded by
Official romanization of the People's Republic of China
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Official romanization of the Republic of China
Succeeded by