Literary and Colloquial Readings of Chinese Characters
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Literary and Colloquial Readings of Chinese Characters
Literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese?
Simplified Chinese?

Differing literary and colloquial readings for certain Chinese characters are a common feature of many Chinese varieties, and the reading distinctions for these linguistic doublets often typify a dialect group. Literary readings (/; wéndú) are usually used in loanwords, names (geographic and personal), literary works (like poetry), and in formal settings, while colloquial/vernacular readings (/; báidú) are usually used in everyday vernacular speech.

For example, in Mandarin the character for the word "white" (?) is generally pronounced bái ([pǎi]), but as a name or in certain formal or historical settings it can be pronounced ([pwǒ]). This example is particularly well known due to its effect on the modern pronunciation of the names of the Tang dynasty (618-907) poets Bai Juyi and Li Bai (alternatively, "Bo Juyi" and "Li Bo").

The differing pronunciations led linguists to explore the linguistic strata.[1][2] It is generally believed that the colloquial readings represent a substratum, while their literary counterparts a superstratum. In other words, colloquial readings preserve more ancient and conservative pronunciations, while literary readings represent recent pronunciations of foreign influence, especially by the prestigious dialects of historical capitals such as Nanjing or Beijing. The case is reversed in Mandarin Chinese, however, where literary pronunciations are usually older.


For a given Chinese variety, colloquial readings typically reflect native phonology,[3] while literary readings typically originate from other Chinese varieties,[4] typically more prestigious varieties. Colloquial readings are usually older, resembling the sound systems described by old rime dictionaries such as Guangyun. Literary readings are closer to the phonology of newer sound systems. Many literary readings are the result of Mandarin influence in Ming and Qing.

Literary readings are usually used in formal settings because past prestigious varieties were usually used in formal education and discourse. Although the phonology of the Chinese variety in which this occurred did not entirely match that of the prestige variety when in formal settings, they tended to evolve toward the prestige variety. Also, neologisms usually use the pronunciation of prestigious varieties.[5] Colloquial readings are usually used in informal settings because their usage in formal settings has been supplanted by the readings of the prestige varieties.[5]

Because of this, the frequency of literary readings in a Chinese variety reflects its history and status. For example, before the promotion of Modern Standard Chinese (Mandarin), the dialects of the central plains had few literary readings, but they now have literary readings that resemble the phonology of Modern Standard Chinese. Outside the central plains, the relatively influential Beijing and Canton dialects have fewer literary readings than other varieties.

In some Chinese varieties, there may be many instances of foreign readings replacing native readings, forming many sets of literary and colloquial readings. A newer literary reading may replace an older literary reading, and the older literary reading may become disused or become a new colloquial reading.[5] Sometimes literary and colloquial readings of the same character have different meanings.

The analogous phenomenon exists to a much more significant degree in Japanese, where individual characters (kanji) generally have two common readings - the newer borrowed, more formal on'yomi, and the older native, more colloquial kun'yomi. Unlike in Chinese varieties, which are genetically related, in Japanese the borrowed readings are unrelated to the native readings. Further, many kanji in fact have several borrowed readings, reflecting borrowings at different periods - these multiple borrowings are generally doublets or triplets, sometimes quite distant. These readings are generally used in particular contexts, such as older readings for Buddhist terms, which were early borrowings.

Behavior in Chinese


In Cantonese, colloquial readings tend to resemble Middle Chinese, while literary readings tend to resemble Mandarin. The meaning of a character is often differentiated depending on whether it is read with a colloquial or literary reading. There are regular relationships between the nuclei of literary and colloquial readings in Cantonese. Colloquial readings with [?] nuclei correspond with literary [?] and [i] nuclei. It is also the case with colloquial [a] and literary [?], and colloquial [?i] and literary [i]. Of course, not all colloquial readings with a certain nucleus correspond to literary readings with another nucleus.


Chinese character Middle Chinese1 Colloquial reading Literary reading
IPA Jyutping Meaning IPA Jyutping Meaning
? tsi? ts zeng1 clever ts zing1 spirit
? t?i? ts zeng3 correct, good ts zing3 correct
? dzi? ts zeng6 clean ts zing6 clean
? k?iæ?? k geng1 be afraid k ging1 frighten
? b?iæ?? p peng4 inexpensive p ping4 flat
? ts?e?? ts? ceng1 blue/green, pale ts? cing1 blue/green
? ?ep? k?p? gep6 clamp kip? gip6 clamp
? si?k? s?k? sek3 cherish, (v.) kiss s?k? sik1 lament
? æ?? sa saang1 raw, (honorific name suffix) s sang1 (v.) live, person
? æ?? sa saang1 livestock s sang1 livestock
? deu? t?u? deu6 discard tiu? diu6 turn, discard
? l?i? l?i lai4 come l?i loi4 come
? ? s?i sai2 use si si2 (v.) cause, envoy

1. Middle Chinese reconstruction according to Zhengzhang Shangfang. Middle Chinese tones in terms of level (?), rising (?), departing (?), and entering (?) are given.


Hakka contains instances of differing literary and colloquial readings.[6]


Chinese character Literary reading Colloquial reading
? sa s?n?
? t?i t
? ka? k?a?
? fui p?ui
? sit? siak?
? t?in (), t?a () t?a


Unlike most varieties of Chinese, literary readings in the national language are usually more conservative than colloquial readings. This is because they reflect readings from before Beijing was the capital,[4] e.g. from the Ming Dynasty. Most instances where there are different literary and colloquial readings occur with characters that have entering tones. Among those are primarily literary readings that have not been adopted into the Beijing dialect before the Yuan Dynasty.[4] Colloquial readings of other regions have also been adopted into the Beijing dialect, a major difference being that literary readings are usually adopted with the colloquial readings. Some of the differences between the national standards of Taiwanese Guóy? and mainland Chinese P?t?nghuà are due to the fact that Putonghua tends to adopt colloquial readings for a character[7] while Guoyu tends to adopt a literary reading.[8]

Examples of literary readings adopted into the Beijing dialect:

Chinese character Middle Chinese1 Literary reading Colloquial reading
IPA Pinyin IPA Pinyin
? h?k? x xei? h?i
? b?æk? pw pai bái
? bw?k? pw p? báo
? pk? pw b? p b?o
? k?i?p? t?i j? kei g?i
? kk? k? tj? qiào
? luo? lu l? lòu
? l?uk? lu lj? liù
? duk? ?u shú shóu
? k? s ?ai sh?i
? sk? ? xu? ?j xi?o
? kk? t jué t?j ji?o
? hwet? xuè ?j? xi?

1. Middle Chinese reconstruction according to Zhengzhang Shangfang. Middle Chinese tones in terms of level (?), rising (?), departing (?), and entering (?) are given.

Examples of colloquial readings adopted into the Beijing dialect:

Chinese character Middle Chinese1 Literary reading Colloquial reading
IPA Pinyin IPA Pinyin
? k? t?j ji?ng k g?ng
? ?am? j?n yán ai ái
? kk? tj qiào k?

1. Middle Chinese reconstruction according to Zhengzhang Shangfang. Middle Chinese tones in terms of level (?), rising (?), departing (?), and entering (?) are given.


In Sichuanese, colloquial readings tend to resemble Ba-Shu Chinese (Middle Sichuanese) or Southern Proto-Mandarin in Ming Dynasty, while literary readings tend to resemble modern standard Mandarin. For example, in the Yaoling Dialect the colloquial reading of "?" (meaning "things") is [væ?],[9] which is very similar to its pronunciation of Ba-Shu Chinese in Song Dynasty (960 - 1279).[10] Meanwhile, its literary reading, [vo?], is relatively similar to the standard Mandarin pronunciation [u]. The table below shows some Chinese characters with both literary and colloquial readings in Sichuanese.[11]

Example Colloquial Reading Literary Reading Meaning Standard Mandarin Pronunciation
? t? tsai at tsai
? tia t?i lift t?i
? tie ty go ty
? k? t?y cut t?y
? xa ?ia down ?ia
? xuan xu?n across x
? ?an ?ian stricked ian
? suei su rat ?u
? t?ai ta big ta
? to? tsu master t?u


In the northern Wu-speaking region, the main sources of literary readings are the Beijing and Nanjing dialects during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and Modern Standard Chinese.[12] In the southern Wu-speaking region, literary readings tend to be adopted from the Hangzhou dialect. Colloquial readings tend to reflect an older sound system.[13]

Not all Wu dialects behave the same way. Some have more instances of discrepancies between literary and colloquial readings than others. For example, the character ? had a initial in Middle Chinese, and in literary readings, there is a null initial. In colloquial readings it is pronounced /?u?/ in Songjiang.[14] About 100 years ago, it was pronounced /?u?/ in Suzhou[15] and Shanghai, and now it is /u?/.

Some pairs of literary and colloquial readings are interchangeable in all cases, such as in the words and . Some must be read in one particular reading. For example, must be read using the literary reading, /zmi?/, and must be read using the colloquial reading, /?i?mi?/. Some differences in reading for the same characters have different meanings, such as , using the colloquial reading /p?t/ means "make great effort," and using the literary reading /p?t/ means "get a desired outcome." Some colloquial readings are almost never used, such as for ? and /t?i/ for ?.


Chinese character Literary reading Colloquial reading
? /s/ in /s/ in
? /z/ in /?i?/ in
? /d?/ in /d?/ in
? /v/ in /m/ in
? /t?ia/ in /k?/ in

Min Nan

Min languages, such as Taiwanese Hokkien, separate reading pronunciations () from spoken pronunciations () and explications (). Hokkien dictionaries in Taiwan often differentiate between such character readings with prefixes for literary readings and colloquial readings (? and ?, respectively).

The following examples in Pe?h-o?-j? show differences in character readings in Taiwanese Hokkien:[16][17]

Chinese character Reading pronunciations Spoken pronunciations / +explications English
? pe?k pe?h white
? bi?n b?n face
? su chu book
? seng se? / si? student
? put m?+ not
? hóan t?g+ return
? ha?k o?h to study
? jîn / lîn lâng+ person
? siàu chió few
? chóan t?g to turn

In addition, some characters have multiple and unrelated pronunciations, adapted to represent Hokkien words. For example, the Hokkien word bah ("meat") is often written with the character ?, which has etymologically unrelated colloquial and literary readings (he?k and jio?k, respectively).[18][19]

For more explanation, see Literary and colloquial readings in Hokkien.

Min Dong

In the Fuzhou dialect of Min Dong, literary readings are mainly used in formal phrases and words derived from the written language, while the colloquial ones are used in more colloquial phrases. Phonologically, a large range of phonemes can differ between the character's two readings: in tone, final, initial, or any and all of these features.

The following table uses Foochow Romanized as well as IPA for some of the major differences in readings.

Character Literary Colloquial
Literary reading Phrase Meaning Colloquial reading Phrase Meaning
? hèng [hei] hèng-l? luggage giàng [kja] giàng-duô to walk
? s?ng [sei] s?ng-tái zoology, ecology s?ng [sa] s?ng-gi?ng childbearing
? g?ng [kou] G?ng-s? Jiangsu gng [køy] Mìng-gng Min River
? báik [pai] báik-ku? encyclopedical báh [pa] báh-sáng common people
? h? [hi?] h?-g? aeroplane bu?i [pwi?] bu?i-c?u flying birds
? hàng [ha] Hàng-s?k Cold Food Festival gàng [ka] ti?ng gàng cold, freezing
? [ha] dâi-hâ mansion â [a] Â-muòng Amoy (Xiamen)


The following are examples of variations between literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters in Gan Chinese.

Chinese character Literary reading Colloquial reading
? /s?n/ as in (student) /sa?/ as in (be born)
? /lon/ as in (Microsoft) /?ion?/ as in (cartilage)
? /tin/ as in (youth) /tia?/ as in (vegetables)
? /u/ as in (visit) /m/ as in (look)

See also


  1. ^ LaPolla, Randy J. (2010). Language contact and language change in the history of the Sinitic languages. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2(5), 6858-6868.
  2. ^ LaPolla, Randy J. (2009). Causes and effects of substratum, superstratum and adstratum influence, with reference to Tibeto-Burman languages. Senri Ethnological Studies, 75, 227-237.
  3. ^ (2006), ?--?, Language and Linguistics, 7 (1)
  4. ^ a b c (2006), ?, , 32 (9)
  5. ^ a b c (2003), , ? (3)
  6. ^ ? [Dictionary of Common Words in Taiwanese Hakka], version 2016 (in Chinese). Ministry of Education, R.O.C.
  7. ^ Chung-Yu, Chen; (1994). "Evidence of High-Frequency Colloquial Forms Moving Towards the Yin-Ping Tone / ". Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 22 (1): 1-39. JSTOR 23756584.
  8. ^ Cheng, Robert L. (June 1985). "A Comparison of Taiwanese, Taiwan Mandarin, and Peking Mandarin". Language. 61 (2): 352-377. doi:10.2307/414149. JSTOR 414149.
  9. ^ (1985?S2?),,?
  10. ^ (2010?04?),,(?)
  11. ^ (1958?01?),,(?)
  12. ^ Qian, Nairong (2003). ?. Shanghai. p. 70. ISBN 978-7-208-04554-5.
  13. ^ Wang, Li (1981). . China Book Company. SH9018-4.
  14. ^ (2003). . ?. ISBN 978-7-5326-1391-5.
  15. ^ Ting, Pang-hsin (2003). . ?. ISBN 978-7-5320-8561-3.
  16. ^ Mair, Victor H. (2010). "Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Taiwan's language situation: How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language". / Archived from the original on 13 December 2014. Retrieved 2014.
  17. ^ ? [Dictionary of Common Words in Taiwanese Hokkien] (in Chinese). Ministry of Education, R.O.C. 2019.
  18. ^ Klöter, Henning (2005). Written Taiwanese. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 21. ISBN 978-3-447-05093-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  19. ^ "Entry #2607 (?)". ? [Dictionary of Frequently-Used Taiwan Minnan]. (in Chinese and Hokkien). Ministry of Education, R.O.C. 2011.

Further reading

  • Bauer, Robert S. (1996). Identifying the Tai substratum in Cantonese. In Pan-Asiatic Linguistics: Proceedings of the Fourth International Symposium on Languages and Linguistics (Vol. 5, pp. 1806-1844).
  • (Wang Hong-jun). (2009). [A Historical relation model of Chinese dialects with multiple perspectives of evolution, level and stratum]. , 2009(3), 204-218.
  • (Wu Ruei-wen). (2002). [Chronological Strata of Qieyun Grade IV Finals in Min]. Language and Linguistics, 3(1), 133-162.
  • (Wu Tsuei-Ping). (2006). [Competing Of the Colloquial and Literary in Taiwan Southern Min: Semantic Analysis]. ?, 26, 147-158.
  • . (1999). ?. ?, 1, 96-110.
  • . (2014). . , 9, 163-179.
  • (Hsu Fang-min). (1995). :?. , 7, 217-252.
  • (Hsu Fang-min). (2010). ?(?)---- [Original Characters in Chinese Dialects and the Search for Pronunciations (2): "Da" and Phonetic Correspondences between Literary and Vernacular Pronunciations ]. ?, 72, 35-65.
  • (Hsu Kuei-jung). (2004). [The Research Between the Speech Sound and the Pronunciation of Taiwanese Hakka]. , 2, 125-154.
  • . (2003). ?. , 27.
  • (Khng Siâu-Tsin). (2013). ?ê?kap? [The Usage Situation and Influencing Factors for Young People's Choice of Colloquial or Literary Pronunciations in Taiwanese]. Journal of Taiwanese Vernacular, 5(2), 38-53.
  • (Zhang Jian). (2018). [Zhengyin and the New Literary Pronunciation of Chaozhou Dialect]. ?, 36(3), 209-234.
  • (Chen Zhongmin). (2018). : [Strata Subgrouping of Wu and Jianghuai Mandarin Dialects--Based on the Pronunciations of Some Initials in Middle Chinese]. ?, 36(3), 295-317.
  • (Yang Hsiu-fang). (1982). ?(Doctoral dissertation). Department of Chinese Literature, National Taiwan University.
  • . (2014). ?. Hakka Affairs Council, Taiwan R.O.C.

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