Li PoBoBai – transliterating Chinese

How do we transcribe Chinese into English? Over the years, many Romanization systems have been devised to represent Chinese characters phonetically. And so you may see Li Po or Li Bo or Li Bai; P’o Chui or Bai Jui…If you are strictly reading English translations, this confusion will be limited to the poets’ names. If you are trying to pronounce the sound of the original Chinese, that is another matter.

The two most commonly used systems you are likely come across are the Modified Wade-Giles and Pinyin systems.

The Wade-Giles romanization system was developed by British scholar Sir Thomas Wade and later revised by Herbert Allen Giles. The resulting effort became the de facto standard for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese for the majority of the twentieth century and was used by translators and sinologists. Although the system is linguistically sound, the Chinese government thought it ineffective for popular use and sponsored the development of a new simpler system – Pinyin – that has largely supplanted Wade-Giles in contemporary usage.

[quote_right] Here in the ocean of poems we’re continuing to use the Wade-Giles names most likely to be familiar to you.[/quote_right] While the Pinyin system may be easier and is now the official system, names familiar in Wade-Giles continue to be used by translators. Here in the ocean of poems we’re continuing to use the Wade-Giles names most likely to be familiar to you.

As the names using Wade-Giles can appear quite different in Pinyin, the following list of some of the names and terms you will find here might prove useful.


Chia Tao
Chuang Tzŭ
Lao Tzu
LI Ch’ing-chao
Li Pai
Mei Yao-ch’en
Meng Chai
Meng Hao-jan
Ou-yang Hsiu
Po Chu-I
Ssu K’ung-t’u
Su Tung-p’o
T’ao Ch’ien
Tu Fu


Jia Dao
Li Qingzhao
Li Po
Mei Yaochen
Meng Jiao
Meng Haoran
Ouyang Xiu
Bo Juyi
Sikong Tu
Su Dongpo
T’ao Qian
Du Fu

Not all names change with pinyin. Wang Wei is Wang Wei, Yuan Mei is Yuan Mei. . .

Be aware, as well, that some names have several alternate spellings regardless of the system. Li Po, for example, goes as well by the name Li Pai in Wade Giles (or Li Bo and Li Bai in Pinyin), and Su Tung-p’o is also known as Su Shih.

For a complete list of poets names in both Wade-Giles and Pinyin see the web companion to Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping’s Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry >>>

There are many resources for converting between the two systems.

Here's one from TEXPERA (Texas Program for Educational Resources on Asia)
Wade-Giles Pinyin Pronunciation in English
ch’ (aspirated) q ch
(The name of Mao’s widow is written “Chiang
Ch’ing” in Wade-Giles, “Jiang Qing” in Pinyin, and would
be pronounced “Jiang Ching.”)
ch (unaspirated) j or zh j
(“Chou Enlai” in Wade-Giles is spelled “Zhou Enlai”
in Pinyin and would be pronounced “Joe Unlie.”)
k’ (aspirated) g k
(“Hua Kuofeng” in Wade-Giles
has become “Hua Guofeng” in Pinyin)
k (unaspirated) g g
p’ (aspirated) p p
p (unaspirated) b b
(The capital of Taiwan is no longer written
Taipei but Taibei.)
t’ (aspirated) t t
t (unaspirated) d d
(The t in Mao’s name changes to d: Mao Zedong.)
ts’ and tz’ (aspirated) c ts
ts and tz (unaspirated) z a or ds
(ds as in “woods”.)
hs x sh
(The first part of Deng Xiaoping changes
from Hsiao to Xiao.)
j r French j plus r(No exact English equivalent.)
a a a (as in star)
e e e (as in set)
i i e (as in he) or i (as in machine)
ou ou o (as in over)
u u oo (as in too)
en en un (as in under)
ih i ir (as in bird — no exact English equivalent.)
u u German u (no exact English equivalent)
ai ai ie (as in lie) or i ( as in i)
ei ei ay (as in day)
ao ao ow (as in now)
uo uo oo ( as in too) plus ou (as in ought)
ui, uei ui oo (as in too) plus ay (as in day)
ung ong oo (as in book) plus ng (as in thing)
Chart courtesy of TEXPERA (Texas Program for Educational Resources on Asia)

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.