I've started to learn Chinese about a month ago (as a foreign language) and I'm a little bit confused about how to pronounce the third tone (while dropping aside the tone sandhi rules).

I'm confused with the following points I've read:

  1. The third tone should be pronounced as falling-raising tone.
  2. The third tone should be pronounced low, then fall a little bit and then stay flat.
  3. The third tone should be pronounced low and flat (same as the first tone but low in the sound level).

My teacher told me to pronounce the third tone as falling-raising tone (starting medium, go low, and then high) but now as I read about the two other pronunciation options I'm confused.

Which one is correct?

  • Trust your teacher.
    – user4452
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 11:42
  • @倪阔乐 But so many sites specify that the 3rd open should be used. How is it possible? Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 12:33
  • How to pronounce 'should have' in English, you would say should've, falling-raising is 'should have', the other case is 'should've'''
    – sfy
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 10:56

4 Answers 4


In isolation, any third-tone character should indeed properly be pronounced falling, then rising. In the five-level scale that is common in specifying tones for tonal languages, the typical characterization of the third tone is 2-1-4; that is, the end of the tone contour is higher than the start (though not as high as the first tone or the end of the second tone).

In conjunction with other characters in an utterance, however (as opposed to, say, a list of third-tone characters), the contour is truncated and it is, more or less, simply 2-1. Being the only tone with a "bent" shape to it, as it were, it takes longer to say, and the natural rhythm of the speech simply doesn't permit enough time to draw it out to its completion. I suppose in principle, it would be possible to speed it up so that the entire 2-1-4 contour could fit into the same "space" as a first, second, or fourth-tone character, but in practice, that doesn't happen. (For that matter, it may be that a character undergoing tone sandhi was originally just the "other half" of the tone contour—the 1-4 half, that is. It should be noted that the second tone is usually specified as 3-5, or sometimes 2-5.)

See pp. 45-46 in Robert Ramsay's The Languages of China and pp. 147-48 in Jerry Norman's Chinese for more details. (I'm afraid I'm an old fuddy-duddy who reads books as well as on-line materials, and this is what I have. Maybe you can find excerpts in Google Books.)

Norman's book, incidentally, includes a second case of tone sandhi that is not often described. He writes, in the closing of the aforementioned passage:

In addition to the cases of tone sandhi mentioned in conjunction with the third tone above, one other minor case should be mentioned. In a three-syllable combination, if the second syllable is a second tone (either an original second tone or a raised third) and the first syllable is either a first or second tone, the middle syllable changes to a first tone in rapid speech...: [聯合國] liánhéguó "United Nations" is pronounced liánhēguó, and [他買馬] tā mǎi mǎ "he buys a horse" becomes tā māi mǎ. [The characters in brackets are my addition.]

I don't know if this is universal amongst Mandarin speakers, but when I read this, I was mildly surprised to find that I actually observe it in my own speech. It might be interesting to see how broadly this rule is observed.


The third tone should be falling - rising tone. It is the most difficult tone. Fall down first, then goes up. I think the best way is to learn the four tones is to read after a real Chinese teacher. Here is a video where you can learn how to pronounce the four tones one by one. http://www.hanbridgemandarin.com/course/demo/chinese-four-tones

  • Most difficult? That was the easiest one for me, I struggle with 2nd tone Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 13:24

OK, let's make an answer of this, it is really a good and valid question.

Alternative 1 is the correct way of pronunciation in standard mandarin. In learning, whether you are native child or a foreign student, you need to master tones and pronounce them like a news anchor. This will make your language clear and easy to understand.

Alternative 2 and 3 are colloquial speech, how it is often pronounced in fast and less clear everyday speech – you will pick up that naturally later, but you must still master the standard. And it doesn't really stay flat, it is just cut off shortly after starting rising in a little jerk, as to speed up the speech.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAqayUpWr_o explains in detail.


From what I've learnt in a University Intro Chinese Linguistic course. We are taught the third tone is pronounced as follows in a scale of 1-5 with 1 being lowest pitch:

  • Character on its own or last: 214 (水214)
  • Character before another character: 21 (水21 份51)
  • Before another third tone: 35 (水35 果214)

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