Episode 12: Chinese Tones

Each episode is accompanied by a blog post which examines various elements mentioned in the video at a deeper level and draws connections to the world we live in today. The following blog post is by Kiril Bolotnikov, student at New York University Shanghai.

Chinese is, as many know, a tonal language. There are four tones: one flat, one rising, one that falls and then rises, and one falling. There is also the possibility for a syllable to be said with no tone at all, which some refer to as the fifth tone.

There are other tonal languages—several other East Asian languages such as Vietnamese and Thai, a number of African languages, for example the Bantu language group, and a number of indigenous American languages.

Chinese is by far the most widely spoken tonal language, though perhaps it should be noted that Chinese itself subdivides into hundreds of local languages and dialects, not all of which (e.g. Shanghainese) are as tonal as “Standard” Chinese (Mandarin), which has four tones—though some, such as Cantonese, have more tones. For the purpose of this article, however, we will discuss 普通话 (Pǔtōnghuà, where pǔtōng means “common” or “general” and huà means “speech” or “language”), which refers to Mandarin.

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“The tone of how you say the word completely changes the meaning, to the point where a lot of times, especially without context, Chinese people have no idea what you’re saying if you say the word in the wrong way.”

Jesse gives a number of examples, referring to the similar pronunciations of the provinces 山西 and 陕西 (Shānxī and Shǎnxī, respectively, though the latter is written as Shaanxi in English) and the similarity of the words 橡胶 (Xiàngjiāo, rubber) and 香蕉 (Xiāngjiāo, banana).

Being able to differentiate between purely tonal differences is not something that is easy to pull off. Anyone who remembers when they started out studying Chinese knows that there is a long period, exacerbated at the beginning, when certain intonations seem to sound exactly the same. They remember not being able to tell if a word was a second or a third tone, or being told that their fourth tone was not strong enough, or being reminded that a third tone is actually sometimes a second tone under certain circumstances. There can also be a lag period between the development of listening and speaking abilities, where the capacity to differentiate one tone from another is developed, but the ability to replicate it in speech is not..

I have studied Chinese for six years, and these tones still sometimes remain confusing. Thankfully, as I go deeper into Chinese and encounter more familiar sounds and sentences, I don’t always have to think about the tone in order to comprehend the meaning of a sentence, or when I am having a conversation with a friend. But sometimes that results in my not being quite so “on-my-toes” about it, and I forget to pay attention to listen carefully or speak correctly.

This can be problematic when accent comes into play as well. Living in Shanghai, I am surrounded by the Shanghainese accent, which is one of many around China which sometimes switches up the “s” and the “sh” sounds found in the standard pronunciation of Chinese. In standard pronunciation, the number four is pronounced sì and the number ten is pronounced shí. However, Shanghainese people have a tendency to pronounce four as shì and ten as sí. This means that if I’m buying a piece of fruit and ask how much it costs, I have to be careful to listen not to the pronunciation of the syllable but to whether the tone of the syllable is rising or falling—only through this can I understand whether I am being asked to pay 4RMB ($0.63) or 10RMB ($1.57).

One of my high school Chinese teacher’s favorite examples was when we learned the word for panda (熊猫) which is pronounced Xióngmāo; she drilled into us the correct tones for it because she said she didn’t want to have us saying that we liked going to see 胸毛(Xiōngmáo), or “chest hair”.

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“The cool thing about these tones, though, is that it makes the language very musical. Regular conversations sound like music, and sound like people singing, and that’s something that really drew me here and really kept me interested in studying Chinese—the musical nature to the language.”

There are many reasons to study Chinese—historical, political, social, global—but to many, it is the beauty of the language itself. The more confident I become in my Chinese, and in my tones, the less I have to think about which tone I am using, and the more I am able to appreciate simply the way that it sounds—it feels like I am singing when I speak; it turns every casual encounter into a musical duet between singing partners. And that, personally, is why I fell in love with the Chinese language.

One thing that has fascinated me since I moved to China is that Chinese people themselves are not always completely aware of what tones they are using.If you think about it, it makes sense that babies absorbing Chinese don’t really consider whether the words they are repeating back are using a third tone or a fourth tone; it’s just encoded in them, so to speak, because they repeatedly hear each word. Many times I have asked Chinese friends for help with my homework, or to help me pronounce something, but if I ask them to clarify which tones they are using, they sometimes stall, not completely sure what to tell me.

I like that, though: if one were taught to sing from birth, how would they explain to you how to sing?

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I hope that you found this post valuable and informative, that you now have a deeper understanding of Chinese tones, and that you will start to hear and enjoy the music in them. Please share this article with anyone who you think would find it interesting: friends, family, teachers, students! This is the final post in our twelve-part series diving into the immensity and many complexities of China.

Asia Society and the China Learning Initiatives appreciate your interest in learning more about China. If there are any topics you want to learn more about, feel free to email us at Chinese@asiasociety.org.


  • The Great LOL of China video series with Jesse Appell explores modern Chinese people and society from a foreigner’s perspective and an emphasis on the humor in cross-cultural misadventures.
  • A project that aims at making the learning about China more fun and engaging.