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 Tz?
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)