In the West, Chinese names almost never seem to be written using pinyin tone marks or numbers. For example, the current president's name will simply be written as Xi Jinping. I had to Google to discover that it is Xí Jìnpíng, and even this top ranked Google search result gives what sounds to me like a very incorrect pronunciation.

I realise that it is assumed that the target audience will simply Westernise the pronunciation regardless, but what is the correct approach to pronouncing these names?

Options I see:

1. Use the correct sound and neutral tone.

2. Treat it like a Westernised version of the name, and pronounce it like an English speaking person would.

3. Acquire name pronunciation knowledge. Is this option even possible? Is there a 1 - 1 mapping between a pinyin-without-tones name and a character?


As a native speaker, this is what I do in such a case:

  1. If my listener is not Chinese, does not know Chinese, or I am speaking in an event that doesn't require my listener(s) to know Chinese - I pronounce it in whatever tone I feel comfortable. Sometimes I mimic the listeners' pronunciation. (However, if I can guess the tones, I may tend to guess, because that makes me comfortable.)

  2. If my listener is Chinese, I usually guess the tones, and add that I am not sure if the tones I used are correct.

Chinese people will understand that you cannot make the tones perfectly correct - when you are only given the Pinyin without tone marks - because there's missing information.

Here is my idea about your options:

  1. Using neutral tone is creative :-) I have never heard anyone do that. It will make the pronunciation funny.

  2. I believe this would be okay if both you and your audience are English speakers, corresponding to my first point above.

  3. This is corresponding to my second point above. Guessing the tones require knowledge about common names and naming conventions. This is possible, but may not be accurate for all names. This would be the best you can do. In most cases, last names are easier because there are only tens of frequently used last names.

A few examples for guessing last names: Zhang (first tone: 张, 章), Li (third tone: 李), Liu (second tone, 刘), Wang (second tone, 王 - but it might be first tone, 汪, which is less frequent).

First names are harder. For common names it is still possible, like Ming (second tone, 明), Hao (forth tone, 浩 or 昊). Names like Jinping would be difficult but I would guess it to be 金平 if it is not the president's name, because 金 is more common than 近.

  1. Hearing English speaking folks pronounce Beijing as ”Beizhing” makes this an unrealistic ambition (is it really that hard pronouncing jing quite naturally as in jingle bells?). You simply can't expect people to correctly pronounce names or stuff in another language. Certainly, in some European countries, there are ambitions to come as close as possible: while Americans would say G'orbachev, educated Europeans would say Garbach'ov, which is much closer to the real pronounication. Bet you didn't know that.

  2. This is the actual case, to the degree that Chinese names are already reversed in Japanese inferiority complex style. They would say or write Jinping Xi in all other cases than when there is an actual known person. I am just waiting to hear some media idiot say Zedong Mao.

  3. Nope, it is not possible without learning the language. And probably not important either. A close approximation, without tones, is praiseworthy.

  • Expanding on your first point, in English we do not have the distinct sounds "j" and "zh". So actually the j in Beijing and jingle bells are the same to the English speaker who hasn't learned any Chinese.
    – JBentley
    Mar 17 '20 at 13:08

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