Every Chinese character is pronounced as one syllable. A two character word will be two syllables.
Most of the characters in Chinese have just one pronunciation, but there are a few that make life difficult.
In this post, I’m going to cover all the common characters that can be pronounced different ways. You don’t have to learn them by heart, but if you’ve been learning Chinese for a while, you might be able to avoid some of the more subtle mistakes by having a look through.
Most of them have different meanings when they are pronounced in different ways. In some cases, the tone can vary, and in some cases the pronunciation can change completely.
Don’t get put off! This is just to help you master those annoying few characters…
There are a few that I haven’t covered here, but these are the ones you are more likely to see.
How many of them did you know about?
好 hǎo or hào – This is one of the first characters that any beginner in Chinese will learn. Most of the time it is pronounced hǎo and it means good or easy, as in 很好 (very good) or 好人 (a good person). But, in a handful of words and expressions it is pronounced in the fourth tone (hào) and it’s a verb ‘to like’. You’ll see it in 爱好 (hobby), 好奇 (curious) etc.
子 zi or zǐ – I had almost forgotten about the second one until recently. In most words, this character is pronounced zi, in a flat tone (without any emphasis), for example in 筷子 (chopsticks), 桌子 (table), 叉子 (a fork) etc. BUT… when it is in words where it refers to people/forms of address, it has to be pronounced with a stressed 4th tone as zǐ, like in 子女 zǐnǚ (sons and daughters) 王子 wángzǐ (prince) 父子 fùzǐ (father and son). I wish somebody had corrected me on this earlier…
为 wèi or wéi – This character is used most in the words for because 因为 yīnwèi, 为什么 (why) and 为了 (in order to), where it is pronounced in the fourth tone. However 为 can sometimes be pronounced in the second tone, in 成为 (become), 认为 (think that) and 以为 (to think wrongly that..)
看 kàn or kān – This is kàn 99% of the time, except when it means ‘look after’, like in 看孩子 kān háizi (look after the children).
教 jiāo or jiào – Again, I didn’t fix my issues with this character completely until quite recently. jiào is used in 宗教 zōngjiào (religion) and 教育 jiàoyù (education). BUT.. when it is a verb meaning ‘to teach’ then it is jiāo, pronounced in the first tone, for example in 教书 jiāoshū (to teach). It was confusing to me too..
行 xíng or háng – Two pronunciations for this one. xíng on it’s own means ok or ‘to walk’. háng means a row, or a profession, and you’ll see it in 行业 hángyè (profession) and 银行 (bank – silver business)
少 shǎo or shào – I didn’t get this second pronunciation right for years, but it’s not that hard to understand, because they have completely different meanings. shǎo means ‘few/little’ and it’s used in 多少 (how much). shào means ‘young’, and it’s used in 少年 (a young person)
的 de, dí or dì – 90% of the time this is a grammar word and it is pronounced de, but in 的确 díquè (in reality/certainly) it is pronounced dí, and in 目的 mùdì (goal/target) it is pronounced dì. Just learn these and you will pretty much be ok. Also in karaoke, you will hear people say di sometimes, I think in that situation it is more of a stylish thing.
长 cháng or zhǎng – This one is quite easy, because the two pronunciations mean two completely different things. Cháng means long, and zhǎng means increase, grow up or elder. Just be aware of which meaning it is when you are reading and you will be ok.
应 yīng or yìng – In the first tone, this character is part of 应该 yīnggāi, and it means ‘must/should’. In the fourth tone it means ‘respond to’ or ‘deal with’, and is used in words like 反应 fǎnyìng (respond).
得 de, dé, děi – Most of the time this is a grammar word and it’s pronounced de. However it can also be dé in 得到 (get something/obtain something) or děi, a colloquial word that means ‘must/should’.
与 yǔ or yù – Just know that this character is almost always yǔ, except when it means take part in/participate in, like in 参与 (participate) or 与会 (take part in a meeting), when it is pronounced yù.
藏 cáng or zàng – This one is not that easy to get confused, because the meanings are entirely different. Cáng means hide, as in 隐藏 yǐncáng (to hide), whereas zàng normally means Tibet. The full word for Tibet is 西藏 Xīzàng.
空 kōng or kòng – This one is pretty confusing; let me try to explain it. kōng means empty, and in 空间 kōngjiān it also means space. Kòng in the fourth tone means ‘free time’ (as in 有空 yǒukòng to have time) or ‘gap’ (as in 空隙 kòngxì, a gap)
调 diào or tiáo – Diào means ‘to transfer somebody’ or it can mean ‘tone’ (like in music). Tiáo appears in words like 调整 tiáozhěng, and means ‘adjust’.
便 biàn or pián – This is one that a lot of beginners come across. It is pián in 便宜 piányi (cheap) and biàn in 方便 fāngbiàn (convenient).
假 jià or jiǎ – Jià in the fourth tone means ‘holiday’, as in 放假 fàngjià (to have time off, be on a holiday). Jiǎ in the third tone means ‘fake’ as in 假装 jiǎzhuāng (pretend) or it can mean ‘if’ in the word 假如 jiǎrú.
会 huì or kuài – Again, completely different meanings. Most of the time, this character is huì and it means ‘gather together’, ‘can’ or something is going to happen in the future. Huì in the fourth tone also means ‘a short space of time’ as in 等会儿 děnghuìr (wait a minute). Kuài means accounts. Usually you’ll only see it in the word 会计 kuàijì (accounting), but this word is common enough to make it worth learning on its own.
难 nán or nàn – 99% of the time this is nán and it means ‘hard/difficult’, but it you’ll also see it pronounced in the fourth tone in 灾难 zāinàn (disaster). A small thing, but worth knowing.
相 xiāng or xiàng – Two completely different meanings. xiāng in the first tone means ‘each other’, as in 互相 hùxiāng ‘each other’, and xiàng pronounced in the fourth tone means appearance or image, as in 照相 zhàoxiàng, ‘to take a photograph.’
发 fā or fà – This is fā in the first tone almost all the time, except in 头发 tóufa (hair) where it is unstressed or pronounced in the fourth tone. In traditional Chinese this character is actually two different characters 發 (send out) and 髮 (hair), so the issue doesn’t come up.
都 dōu or dū – 99% of the time this is dōu and it means all, but it is dū in 首都 shǒudū (capital of a country) and 都市 dūshì (metropolis). Know these two words and you’re covered.
降 jiàng or xiáng – This one is pretty much always jiàng, which means ‘drop’ or ‘fall’, except in 投降 tóuxiáng, where it is pronounced xiáng and means ‘surrender’.
处 chù or chǔ – Again, two different meanings. chù means ‘a place/office’ and chǔ means ‘to deal with’ and appears in words like 处理 chǔlǐ (to handle, deal with).
血 xuè or xiě – This is a weird one. It only ever means ‘blood’, but there are two pronunciations that are widely used. In general xuè is more literary and xiě is more colloquial, but you will hear both and people will understand both.
朝 cháo or zhāo – Cháo is more common, and you’ll see it in some place names as well. It means ‘facing/towards’ or ‘dynasty’, for example in 唐朝 ‘The Tang dynasty. Zhāo means ‘morning’ and you’ll see it from time to time.
薄 bó, báo or bò – The first two pronunciations mean the same thing: ‘thin’, but bó sounds more formal, and báo is used a lot in colloquial speech. The third pronunciation is used in 薄荷 bòhe (peppermint). There must be some historical reason why these two meanings have combined in one character, but I’m not certain of the story.
传 chuán or zhuàn – Most of the time this is chuán and it means ‘pass on’ or ‘hand down’. It appears for example in 传统 chuántǒng (tradition). Zhuàn means ‘a classic book’ or ‘biography’. You’ll see it sometimes in the names of books.
散 sàn or sǎn – This one is difficult. In the fourth tone it means ‘break up’ and in the third tone it means ‘come loose’ or ‘scatter’. The meanings are a bit similar to it’s best to just be aware that it can be either of the two, and remember it in the content of specific words, like 散步 sànbù (take a walk -disperse steps ) and 散文 sǎnwén (prose – scattered writings).
着 zhe, zháo, zhuó or zhāo – Ok, don’t panic! I’ve left this beast of a character until last, because it is pretty confusing. It is easily the most annoying character in Mandarin in terms of pronunciation. It’s a good thing most Chinese characters don’t have 4 pronunciations! Most of time that you will see this character, it is pronounced zhe in a flat tone, and it’s something like putting -ing on the end of a word in English, like 躺着 (lying down).
BUT… it does have a couple of other usages. It’s best to just know how it is pronounced in different words. Pronounced zháo it can mean ‘to touch/ come into contact with, like in 着凉 zháoliáng ‘catch a cold’ and it can also be a grammar word.
Pronounced zhuó it can mean ‘to wear clothes’, as in 穿着 chuānzhuó ‘way of dressing’, and 着陆 zhuólù means ‘to land’ when you’re talking about a plane. It can also be pronounced zhāo and mean ‘a move in martial arts’ or ‘a chess move. If this doesn’t make sense now, it probably will later on. You can come back to this one!
Some of these difference are quite subtle and can be a bit confusing. A few of them took me a long time to get right. With time, if you can get used to these little points in the language, you will be able to say that you have truly mastered Mandarin Chinese!