I recently wrote a short article discussing the use of Pinyin and Zhuyin. One of the sentences I wrote, without thinking too much about it, was that Pinyin is normally written below the characters (in contrast with Zhuyin, which is written vertically on the right). However, I had two native speakers look at the text and both wanted to correct "below" to "above". They said Pinyin is usually written above the characters.

After looking through a dozen beginner textbooks, it seems much more common to write Pinyin below the characters, at least in this context. This is also what I find most in electronic or online dictionaries (MDBG, Pleco). However, a Google image search for 拼音 gives more diverse results with Pinyin sometimes written above the characters, sometimes below. My guess is that it doesn't matter much, but I have two questions:

1) Is there a defined standard for where Pinyin should be placed? 2) If so, are there any arguments (scientific or otherwise) for that decision?

  • As a native speaker, I don't know any standard about the Pinyin's place. But it is strange that you see Pinyin is below chars in beginner books. In China main land, I think everyone is familiar with the "above" version when educated. Maybe the books you see is written for foreigners.
    – halfelf
    Nov 1, 2012 at 2:45
  • Yes, I meant beginner textbooks for foreigners. I wasn't aware there were beginner textbooks for native speakers.
    – Olle Linge
    Nov 1, 2012 at 6:52
  • Agree with halfelf that in textbooks for native speakers in mainland, Pinyin is definitely above characters.
    – NS.X.
    Nov 2, 2012 at 1:21
  • This is interesting. Next time I go to the library, I'll check more textbooks for foreigners. Will report later. :)
    – Olle Linge
    Nov 2, 2012 at 6:32
  • 1
    Check this post newsmth.net/bbstcon.php?board=Picture&gid=85363. There are some images of old textbooks in primary school in mainland China. Most Chinese born in 1980s and early 1990s used these.
    – halfelf
    Nov 4, 2012 at 6:57

2 Answers 2


As far as a "defined standard", I believe there are no official rules for pinyin placement. Texts in Mainland China are likely to place pinyin above the characters, while texts for foreigners differ in their approach. Sometimes even a single text will have different standards; for example, the New Practical Chinese Reader sometimes places pinyin above and other times places it below.

If I were to argue for one approach or the other, I would reason as follows: if the pinyin is to come in a block (e.g., a full paragraph instead of a word-to-word matching) then I would put the Chinese characters first and the pinyin second, to force foreign language learners' exposure to Hanzi without pinyin, and have them try to get through the characters as best as they can without resorting to pronunciation help.

In the word-to-word matching that I think is your primary concern, I would argue for pinyin placed above the characters. The first reason is consistency with texts used by native speakers (though one might very well say consistency with native approaches is not in general best for foreign language learners). The second, more important reason is that the tone marks (more than most letters) may appear to foreign language learners as if they are part of the characters. Placing pinyin above characters allows the letters to serve as a sort of buffer between tone marks and Hanzi.

Nevertheless, I highly suspect that a longitudinal study on the difference between learning outcomes for foreign language learners whose texts had pinyin above and learners whose texts had pinyin below would show no statistical differences. If your intuition tells you otherwise, I encourage you to find a first-year Chinese teacher and see if you can institute such a study, as it would be very easy to carry out. More interesting, I think, would be to include an additional group for whom the text's lessons are first written solely in Chinese characters, with pinyin presented separately afterwards (as opposed to a word-to-word matching). I think it's possible that the latter approach would show small differences in learning outcomes between either of the former two groups (my guess is the block group would fare better; others might disagree) though I'm not convinced they'd be statistically significant either.

  • Of course, if the lines are too close together then the next line's pinyin will interfere with the previous line's characters. I suppose this could be resolved by putting horizontal demarcations between each pinyin/Hanzi line, but that might be overkill. In any event, I don't think either approach (above or below) will make much of a difference.
    – user2251
    Nov 5, 2012 at 6:18
  • A very good answer indeed. I don't think there would be any difference at all. I didn't ask this question because I'm planning to write a textbook (not any time soon anyway), but because I realised that my intuitive answer was wrong. I simply wanted to figure out what was going on. Thank you very much for your detailed answer! Accepted!
    – Olle Linge
    Nov 5, 2012 at 15:38

Pinyin is not normally written with the characters. While 注音符號 (Zhuyin) has rules as to how the symbols are in relation to a character, 漢語拼音 (Pinyin) does not. Do not think of the two systems as equal.

Also, Zhuyin can be written on the top or on the right, according to Taiwan's Ministry of Education.


Click on both of the links here to see examples of both the vertical versions (直式) and the horizontal (橫式) versions.

  • What do you mean when you say "do not think of the two systems as equal"? I never implied that they were, I'm simply asking if there are rules for where the Pinyin should go. As for Zhuyin, I have never seen the horizontal version, it must be very rare.
    – Olle Linge
    Nov 1, 2012 at 13:41

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