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An unorthodox course in spoken Chinese: Bending the rules in order to make it easier to study Pinyin 
Introduction | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6 | Section 7 | Section 8  

 Learn Chinese pinyin -  Section 7: Pronounce z, zh, j as ch (non-aspirated)

Example 1: zai4 jian4   (Goodbye)
Example 2: zhe4 ge     (this one)
Example 3: ji2 dian3  (what time)
Memory aid: As you have seen earlier, the word for China in pinyin is zhong1 guo2    and is pronounced AS IF it is spelt chong1 kuo2 to someone who is reading it the English way. If it will help you to remember, the word "China" also starts with the ch sound. Believe it or not, this one single ch sound is equivalent to the following six sounds in pinyin (we are trying to simplify things remember, not to make things more difficult or confusing, whatever the purists might say): z, zh, j, c, ch, q. But note that the first 3 sounds are non-aspirated while the last 3 sounds are aspirated (and will be treated at length in Section 8).

WARNING: This is quite a difficult lesson. Your full attention is needed! In fact, of all the sounds in the pinyin spelling of Chinese, these six sounds seem to be the most difficult as, apart from ch, the other five don't seem to correspond to anything at all in English. Yet once you persevere to the end with much patience and effort, you will find them so very simple indeed. (I don't usually make promises but I can promise you this one!)
The non-aspirated sound of ch is not new to you. What is new, though is that it is not represented by ch but in any of three forms - by j when it is followed by i or u (in which case these vowels can ONLY have the ee or ü sound) and by z or zh with the other vowel sounds. In other words whether it's ji, ju, za, zhe, zu, zhi or zi pronounce them AS IF they all start with the English ch sound. Please note that the last two syllables (zhi and zi) are not to be pronounced as chee as this sound is spelt ji in pinyin. It will be a great help if you will just remember how the word for "oneself" (zi4 ji3) is spelt and pronounced in Chinese.
   zi4 ji3
To sum up, when you see words like ji, ju, za, zhe, zu, zhi and zi, just purse your lips and start pronouncing all of them AS IF they all start with ch!

SOUND OF VOWEL U IN CHINESE: This is a good time to remind you that the vowel u can have two sounds in Chinese - the oo sound with most consonants (eg. bu, chu, du, fu, gu, hu, ku, lu, mu, nu, pu, ru, shu, su, tu, wu, zhu and zu) and the ü sound (which is quite close to ee) with these 4 not-too-often-used consonants: j, q, x and y (as in ju, qu, xu, yu). To make things easier, I would just tell myself that the Chinese vowel u has got the oo sound except in four special cases (ju, qu, xu, yu) when it has got the ee sound. Elementary, my dear Watson? You bet!
This brings us to the main topic of this section and the next. In these two sections we will be touching on six letters in pinyin (j, z, zh, q, c, ch) that are basically (repeat, basically) just one single sound - represented by the ch sound in English (as in chair). To be more precise though, those 6 sounds (which many students find confusing if not insurmountable) can be put into two groups (if you are prepared to go along with me in my simplistic approach to Chinese), namely, the non-aspirated ch sound on the one hand (j, z, zh) and the aspirated ch sound on the other (q, c, ch). These two groups are further divided into words that have the ee or ü sound and words that do not have the ee or ü sound. Only j and q can be followed by the ee or ü sound - the other four (z, zh, c, ch) cannot. There will be audio files to help you see how simple things can be if you are not after perfection. So I repeat, BASICALLY these three letters z, zh, j all have the same sound (despite the hours and hours students spend in language laboratories trying to differentiate between them). Your Chinese teacher will certainly not agree with this, but unless you yourself intend to become a Chinese language teacher, you can take it from me that you will be none the worse off for not being able to differentiate between the three sounds in each of the two groups.
Remember that in this course we are not going to waste time splitting hairs like linguists do, so if you are trying to look for the differences between j, z, zh in my audio files you will not find any. They will all sound alike i.e. they have the same non-aspirated ch sound. What a relief to know that, isn't it (even if it is not completely true)? But then, in the final analysis, the important thing to consider is that the differences between them are so negligible and insignificant even to the Chinese listener that it is just not worth the bother to differentiate between them. In this section we are going to look at j, z and zh, all of which can be pronounced as the non-aspirated ch sound.

j can only be followed by i or u

Look at the following examples:
ji3 ge4 ren2?    (How many people?)
ji2 dian3?    or ji2 dian3 zhong1?    (What time?)
jing1 li3    (manager)
jiu4 de    (old, used)
jiu4 ming4!    (Help!)
At the risk of facing your wrath for repeating what I have said many times already, you will find below four very common uses of the word jie according to which of the four tones it is used (in their order):
jie1    (street)
jie2 hun1    (to marry)
jie3 jie    (elder sister)
jie4 shao4    (to introduce).
When you are going to introduce someone to your friend you start by saying lai2, wo3 gei2 ni3 jie4 shao4    (Come, let me introduce you to...)
wang4 ji4    (to forget)
tiao2 jian4    (a condition - for something)
There are not many common words spelt ju but as j can also be followed by u, here are a few examples for illustration:
ju3 xing2    (to hold - a meeting or a ceremony)
jue2 de2    (to think, to feel) eg. ni3 jue2 de2 zen3 me yang4?   (What do you think of it?)
The u that comes after j is always pronounced like the French u (or the ü umlaut) which is quite close to the ee sound but made with pursed lips. It has not got the oo sound found in many other Chinese words with the u vowel (such as bu4, the word for "No", which is pronounced "poo").

If ji is pronounced as chee (like "cheetah") it follows
that zi and zhi cannot be pronounced as chee!

If you are finding this lesson a bit difficult, how about taking a little break now to listen to a popular Chinese song by Teresa Teng? It's called tian mi mi (Sweet honey honey). Actually it originated from an Indonesian folk song called "Dayung Sampan". You can find the pinyin and the lyrics in Chinese characters here.
There is a recent version of the song in Malay sung by Noraniza Idris, the queen of pop music in Malaysia here.
Although my lesson heading says that j, z, zh in pinyin can be considered as the equivalent of the ch sound in English (repeat equivalent, meaning approximative) yet if you remember that ONLY j can have the ee or ü sound after it and cannot take any other vowel sounds while z and zh cannot have the ee sound even if they are followed by i then the whole thing becomes even simpler. Yes, j can only be followed by the ee sound represented by either i or u (the u here has not got the oo sound as in most other cases) as you can see in all the words that start with j above. It cannot be followed by the other vowels such as a, e, o. On the other hand z and zh cannot be followed by the ee or ü sound. If they should have the letter i after them they have some other vowel sound, not the ee sound.
A good example of this can be seen from the Chinese word for "oneself", namely, zi4 ji3. Here's how it's pronounced:    zi4 ji3.
Listen to how these syllables are pronounced and you will see what I mean by the above:
ji1, ju1  (The u vowel that comes after j has the ü sound that is quite close to the ee sound)
zhi1, zi1  (You will hear only one sound here as I am treating the z and the zh sounds alike, remember?)
zhu1, zu1  (The u vowel here has the oo sound)
I know a number of people will not agree with my attempts at simplifying the above sounds with their English equivalents. But pray tell me, what is the use of being able to roll and twist your tongues so as to form the above sounds as they should be theoretically if you cannot carry out a simple conversation in Chinese? Often we miss out the essentials by concentrating too much on the details (yes, what is meant by not seeing the wood for the trees).
Here are a number of words in pinyin that baffle many a student with their spellings since they start with either z or zh that are not anywhere near the English sound of z. Yet they can be very simple indeed if you just remember the above rule i.e. you can treat j, z, zh as if they are like the ch sound in English. More examples of common Chinese words beginning with z or zh follow:
zun1 jing4    (respect)
zou3    (to walk)
zhan4    (to stand)
zhi1 dao4    (to know) eg. wo3 zhi1 dao4 le    (I know about it already.)
ni3 zhi1 dao4 ma?    (Do you know about it?)
zhong4 yao4    (important) eg. hen3 zhong4 yao4    (very important)
zhong4 yao4 bu4 zhong4 yao4    (Is it important or not?)
za2 zhi4    (a magazine)
hu4 zhao4    (passport)
zhi1 piao4    (a cheque)
di4 zhi3    (address)
Time to revise the four tones. Can you give the four tones for the word zuo? Check here: zuo1, zuo2, zuo3, zuo4  .
It is one of those words where you cannot be understood if you don't get the tone right as the meaning will depend on what tone you pronounce it with.
In its second tone it means "yesterday" (zuo2 tian1 ).
In its third tone it means "left" (zuo3 bian1 ). This means "left side" as contrasted with you4 bian1    meaning "right (hand) side".
In its fourth tone zuo4    it means "to sit" as well as "to make" depending on the context. This is where a knowledge of Chinese characters can come in very handy as the Chinese character for "sit" is and for "make" is . As a matter of fact if you want to use "dream" as a verb in Chinese you will have to say "make dream" (zuo4 meng4 )! And if you have been to China you might have heard qing3 zuo4    which simply means "Please take a seat".
You have learnt earlier that if you want to ask when a meeting or a concert is going to start the word for "start" is kai1 shi3. But if you also want to know when it is going to end the word is jie2 shu4  . The question to ask is: shen2 me shi2 hou4 jie2 shu4 ne?   (At what time does it end?)

More vocabulary - words starting with j, z, zh

ji1    (chicken)
jian4    (to meet)
jian4 kang1    (healthy)
jian3 dan1    (easy)
jiang3    (to speak) eg. wo3 hui4 jiang3 han4 yu3    (I can speak Mandarin)
jiao1    (to teach)
jiao3    (the foot)
jiao4    (to call out)
hen3 ji2    (to be in a hurry)
hen3 jin4    (very near)
jin1 tian1    (today)
jiu3    can mean "wine" (alcoholic drink), "nine" or even "for a long time" according to the context. Of course if you can read the Chinese character then you don't need the context as each word with its specific meaning is written differently from the others though they have the same pronunciation. Thus hao2 jiu3    means "a long time" as in the popular expression hao2 jiu3 bu2 jian4   (Long time no see!). The hao3 here is used in the sense of "very". Another example is ta1 de er2 zi hao3 shuai4   (His son is very handsome.) Similarly hao3 duo1 means "very many" (a lot) and hao3 da4 means "very big".

zai4 zhe4 li3    (It's here.)
The word zui4 is used for the superlative, as in zui4 zhong4    (the heaviest), or zui4 zhong4 yao4 de    (the most important)
Then there is the word zhao3    which means to search for somebody or something.
Thus "Who are you looking for?" is ni2 zhao3 shei2?   while "What are you looking for?" is ni2 zhao3 shen2 me dong1 xi?  
A different word but for our purpose having the same pronunciation (though the pinyin is zao3 instead of zhao3) is zao3 shang4 meaning "morning" as contrasted with "night" (ye4 wan3).

zhao4 xiang4    (photo)
zhen1 de    (really, true indeed)
zhong4    (heavy)
zhi3    (paper)
zhu4    (to reside, stay) eg. ni3 zhu4 zai4 na2 li3?    (Where do you live?)
But zhu4 (same pronunciation though different character) can also mean "to wish" (someone success, good luck, happiness, etc.)
Thus zhu4 ni3 shen1 ti3 jian4 kang1   (literally wish-you-body-healthy) means "I wish you good health" (the "I", although not mentioned, is understood).
(shen1 ti3  means "body" while jian4 kang1  means "healthy").
It so happens that I am writing this on January 2, 2010 so I am wishing all of you a Happy New Year in Chinese: zhu4 ni3 xin1 nian2 kuai4 le4.   (xin1 means "new" and nian2 means "year").
Similarly, when you wish someone "Happy birthday!" you say zhu4 ni3 sheng1 ri4 kuai4 le4.  
(The two words sheng1 ri4   is the Chinese translation for "birthday".)
But as it is most unlikely that it is your birthday today I will end this section by saying zhu4 ni3 cheng2 gong1    (I wish you success).
(The two words cheng2 gong1   means "success", as you might have guessed.)

Summary of Section 7 (with Chinese characters)

Back to Section 6On to Section 8