I can't think of any minimal pairs; like shu vs. xu probably shouldn't count as a minimal pair since the vowel is different.

2 Answers 2


This is a classic problem with defining phonemes. Looking for "complementary distribution" of sounds does not uniquely determine a phonological analysis. In Mandarin (I'll use pinyin here), the palatal set of consonants (j,q,x) is in complementary distribution with all of the following sets:

  • zh, ch, sh
  • z, c, s
  • g, k, h

This gives you three different options on which things to treat as the "same" phonemes. And you can go in the opposite direction too: Pinyin distinguishes all these consonant-sets, but then it merges the written form of the front-vs-back vowels. You could do a phonological analysis like that too, or at least, you almost could, as /u/ and /y/ contrast when following /n/ and /l/.

And indeed it's the case that different romanization systems make different choices about how to do this. To quote from Wikipedia:

The Yale and Wade–Giles systems mostly treat the palatals as allophones of the retroflexes; Tongyong Pinyin mostly treats them as allophones of the dentals; and Mainland Chinese Braille treats them as allophones of the velars. In standard pinyin and bopomofo, however, they are represented as a separate sequence.

The palatals arose historically from a merger of the dentals [t͡s, t͡sʰ, s] and velars [k, kʰ, x] before high front vowels and glides. Previously, some instances of modern [t͡ɕ(ʰ)i] were instead [k(ʰ)i], and others were [t͡s(ʰ)i] . The change took place in the last two or three centuries at different times in different areas, but not in the Jianghuai dialect used at the imperial court. This explains why some European transcriptions of Chinese names (especially in postal romanization) contain ki-, hi-, tsi- or si- where a palatal might be expected. Examples are Peking for Beijing, Chungking for Chongqing, Fukien for Fujian, Tientsin for Tianjin; Sinkiang for Xinjiang, and Sian for Xi'an.


Here is another input. I learnt some Chinese linguistics in a course in university.

In my opinion, with historical evidence, they could be different phonemes.

In my following text, IPA is used in slashes and Pinyin is used in monospaced font unless otherwise stated. i.e. the "x" in /x/ represents the velar consonant in IPA (h in Pinyin) and x is the palatal consonant in Pinyin (/ɕ/ in IPA). Do be aware.

Historically speaking, the x (/ɕ/) in the group of jqx (/tɕ/ /tɕʰ/ /ɕ/), which were the result of the movement called 尖團合流 which happened in Mandarin, producing jqx from the Middle Chinese equivalent of zcs (/ʦ/ /ʦʰ/ /s/) and gkh (/k/ /kʰ/ /x/).

The name of the movement indicates the speakers of what resulted in the modern Mandarin, combined alveolar sounds(尖音) and velar sounds(團音) into palatal sounds. Some other dialects still separate these sounds, with Cantonese as an example.

Roughly half of the modern jqx came from zcs and the other half came from gkh.

For example:

  • 精清星
    • Middle Chinese equivalent of zcs
    • Cantonese Jyutping: zing cing sing
    • Mandarin Pinyin: jing qing xing and
  • 經傾興
    • Middle Chinese equivalent of gkh
    • Cantonese Jyutping: ging king hing
    • Mandarin Pinyin: jing qing xing

sound the same in Mandarin, but different in Cantonese.

Here is a diagram of the consonant migration in IPA notation:

Middle      ʈʂ      ʦ              k
Chinese     ʈʂ      ʦʰ             kʰ
            ʂ       s              x
            |       |\            /| 
            |       | \          / |
            |       |  \        /  |
            |       |   \      /   |
            |       |    \    /    |
            |       |     \  /     |
            |       |      \/      |
Mandarin    ʈʂ(zh)  ʦ (z)  tɕ (j)  k (g)
            ʈʂ(ch)  ʦʰ(c)  tɕʰ(q)  kʰ(k)
            ʂ (sh)  s (s)  ɕ  (x)  x (h)
Middle      ʈʂ      ʦ       k
Chinese     ʈʂ      ʦʰ      kʰ
            ʂ       s       x
            |       |       | 
            |       |       |
            |       |       |
            |       |       |
Hong Kong   ʧ       |       |
Cantonese   ʧʰ      |       |
(100y ago)  ʃ  \    |       |
                \   |       |
                 \  |       |
Hong Kong         \ ʦ       k
Cantonese           ʦʰ      kʰ
(now)               s       h

Side note: Hong Kong Cantonese further combined the zcs and zhchsh sounds, with the reason still uncertain. The Hong Kong government's 正音運動 (Proper Cantonese Pronunciation Movement) certainly has helped this migration, as dictionaries are using Jyutping, which does not distinguish the 2 sets; and teachers are trained to teach this specific "proper Cantonese".

Since sh and x were historically different phonemes in Middle Chinese, I believe it is a valid argument to say that they are still different phonemes in Mandarin.

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