I'm wondering how many Chinese characters have more than one pronunciation in Mandarin. I understand this could be a difference in tone, initial, final, or some combination of these.

Has anyone come across a list of these (or at least a list of the ones that are among the most common 2,000-3,000 characters)?


There are official lists for this. See the following pages in the Chinese Wikipedia:
普通话异读词审音表 for mainland China
國語一字多音審訂表 for the ROC (Taiwan)
Neither of the lists is complete; they are basically there to provide standard answers to test students on correct pronunciation.

How many characters have variant readings is actually quite hard to answer; one reason is the large number of 'literary' readings which are still often used when reading or reciting older literature. Chinese opera of all varieties typically uses such readings. This phenomenon (called 文白異讀) is quite extreme in some dialects; in the Minnan dialect for example, there are variant readings (sometimes multiple variants) for almost every character.

Note: Here is the official version of 普通话异读词审音表 from the 国家语言文字工作委员会 (State Language Commission). They don't seem to have a pdf version, but you can copy the text from places such as 百度百科 (here).

All those characters where the list says 统读 mean that those characters 'used to' have different readings in earlier versions of the list. Now through a wave of the SLC's magic wand, they have miraculously disappeared. Actually many (most) people continue to use them, but For your HSPK you may skip them. This is one way to pick out the first ones to learn.

The ROC list is much longer than the PRC list, because it reflects more of the 文白 differences. Be sure to keep the ROC and PRC readings separate! A number of the differences between the two standards are because the PRC simplification process has merged two different forms with two different readings into one form with (still) two different readings.

  • Interesting! I didn't realize that there were so many, especially that there were so many rare readings. I'm wondering if there are any lists of the more common alternate readings. I'm basically looking for something that would be a helpful reference for a student of Mandarin. I understand that most people probably just learn them as the come up, but I feel like having a lot of the common ones in one place would match my learning style. Have you seen anything like that? – newpollution Oct 9 '15 at 21:30
  • "This phenomenon (called 文白異讀) is quite extreme in some dialects; in the Minnan dialect for example, there are variant readings (sometimes multiple variants) for almost every character." I think 潮州话 is similar in this respect. – user3306356 Oct 10 '15 at 0:26
  • It may be helpful to note that these are called 破音字 – RexYuan Oct 10 '15 at 10:49
  • @newpollution Try using the PRC list, I added a couple of links to it in the answer. – wpt Oct 10 '15 at 17:27

1235/3000 or 41%, by using grep '[.].[.*' on Wenlin's frequency list.

1 的 [de] (grammatical particle) [dì] 目的 mùdì goal [dí] 的确 [dī] cab

3 是 [shì] to be [tí]

4 不 [bù] not [bú] [fǒu] [fōu] [fū]

5 了 [le] (particle) [liǎo] 了解 comprehend [liào] (=瞭) [liāo] [liáo]

9 有 [yǒu] have; there is; 没有 haven't; 有的 some [yòu] (=又) [wěi]

10 中 [zhōng] middle; in; 中国 Zhōngguó China [zhòng] hit (a target)


Under the 3000 most used characters according to Jun Da's list, there are 470 characters with at least 2 different readings.

I counted myself and used the 现代汉语词典(第六版) from the Commercial Press as a reading pattern.

Counting all the dictionary's characters (around 13,000) you can say that around 9~10% of all characters have multiple readings.

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