This may be a difficult question, because I've heard that pronunciation can vary greatly even within Chinese-speaking countries. I'm also not really aware of when Mandarin or Cantonese would be used; based on some research, it seems that Mandarin is the standard in China.

The average English speaker's background knowledge roughly equates pinyin q with /tʃ/, and x with /ʃ/. Zh is one of the most confusing digraphs, because the same spelling is used in Romanising the /ʒ/ of Cyrillic languages. Nevertheless, since spellings like this commonly crop up even in Western countries, it seems that pinyin is the system usually used to transcribe Chinese names.

So, my question boils down to this: which system is closest to the Chinese pronunciation using easily understood English spelling?

  • 1
    I disagree. For the average English speaker, 'q' is usually pronounced like a 'k'. and 'x' at the beginning of a word is just random: should it be like the Russian 'kh' velar fricative or 'z' like in xylophone or 'ks' like in 'pedestrian xing'? Also, 'should' is not the same as 'most intelligible'.
    – Mitch
    Jun 12, 2017 at 22:22
  • 1
    Probably Wade Giles
    – xuq01
    Jun 12, 2017 at 23:08
  • But people don't pronounce Chinese names using full-blown English conventions. @Mitch Jun 13, 2017 at 9:59
  • Rack off if you think anyone pronounces Qing as “King”... @Mitch Apr 25, 2020 at 9:21

1 Answer 1


Probably Yale. It's rarely seen nowadays. Wikipedia says

The Yale romanization of Mandarin was developed in 1943 by the Yale sinologist George Kennedy to help prepare American soldiers to communicate with their Chinese allies on the battlefield. Rather than try to teach recruits to interpret the standard romanization of the time for Mandarin, the Wade–Giles system, a new system was invented that utilized the decoding skills that recruits would already know from having learned to read English, i.e. it used English spelling conventions to represent Chinese sounds

Actually, it does still have a number of digraphs and trigraphs that are likely to be somewhat unintuitive for an untrained monoglot English speaker:

  • Mandarin [ɕ] is represented by "sy", which is likely to elicit a better approximation from an English speaker than the "x" of Pinyin, but is perhaps not as effective as "sh" or "shy" would be. (Actually, I can't figure out why the version of Yale described by Wikipedia doesn't use "sh" for [ɕ]: as far as I can tell, it would cause no transcriptional ambiguity and it would be more consistent with the Yale romanization of the sibilant affricates.)

  • Like Pinyin, Yale uses a phonemic rather than a phonetic spelling of the vowel in the final "yan", which is actually supposed to be pronounced more-or-less the way an English speaker would say "yen".

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