Learn the Trickiest Chinese Vowel Sounds to Make Your Mandarin Vroom!

If you’re used to understanding difficult concepts the first time around, you’re in luck.

We’ve got one just for you!

Chinese vowels.

But, don’t worry if you’re not that type of person.

If understanding Mandarin Chinese vowels doesn’t come easily to you, we’ll break it down for you.

And you’re not alone! There’s a reason why it takes practice.

The pinyin system is misleading for English speakers.

It uses the same letters/symbols as the Roman alphabet, yet the pronunciation varies.

A tricky business is what pinyin is. (Note that I said tricky, not impossible.)

Pinyin might sound really foreign, but the English language has enough vowel sounds for us to find the English equivalents to make pronunciation more manageable.

Not going to lie, though. It can be challenging not to fall into the trap of resorting to English pronunciation, reading mo as “Moe” and shi as “she.”

Mandarin Chinese vowels sounds are unique and arguably the hardest part of pinyin pronunciation, but once you get over that hill, you’ll find that the struggle was worth it. Besides, learning Chinese will take you places in life you might have never imagined, broadening both travel and career prospects.

But first things first.


A Quick Review of Chinese Consonants and Simple Vowels

As you might already now, the pinyin system can be divided into consonants and vowels. Just as a refresher, here are the consonants:

  • b p m f
  • d t n l g k h
  • j qi x zh ch sh r z c s y
  • w

In case you didn’t know, the consonants are normally categorized this way because of the vowel sounds they take on when reciting pinyin. The first line uses o, so it would be pronounced bo po mo fo. Second line uses e, third line uses i, while the fourth line uses u.

But I digress. Moving on to the vowels.

The list of Chinese vowels are composed of simple and compound vowels. Simple vowels in Chinese are sounds that are spelled with just one vowel. Since we’re going from the ground level up, let’s start with the simple vowels first: a, o, e, i, u, ü

If you’re having trouble sounding these Chinese vowels, here’s the American English pronunciation equivalent followed by example characters that use these simple vowels.

  • a — sounds like “ah”; used in 马 () meaning “horse”
  • o — sounds like the “o-” in “oh”; used in 我 () meaning “I”
  • e — sounds like “uh” but with a wider mouth; used in 和 () meaning “and”
  • i — sounds like “ee”; used in 力 () meaning “power”
  • u — sounds like “oo”; used in 服 () meaning “clothes”
  • ü — sounds like “u” in “June”; used in 去 ()* meaning “go”

Got it? Now we’re ready to move on to compound vowels.

The Fearless Guide to Pronouncing Chinese Compound Vowels

As you might have guessed, compound vowels are made up of two or three vowels, and in some cases, they’re paired with special consonants. Adding an initial consonant to a compound vowel forms a one-syllable character.

Compound vowels can contain:

  • Two simple vowels
  • Three simple vowels
  • One vowel + one special consonant (n)
  • One vowel + two special consonants (ng)
  • Two vowels + one special consonant
  • Two vowels + two special consonants

Simple and compound vowels form a group of sounds known as finals. There are a total of 33 finals, and all the compound vowels have been grouped together below according to their initial vowel. It helps to divide them this way since you already know how to pronounce the simple vowels, and from there, you can build up to pronouncing finals.

A lot of websites have charts to show English equivalents of pinyin, but they can seem a bit confusing for some learners. In the pronunciation guides below, I’ve split up the sounds so you can mimic them in a way that you could understand, although they’re meant to be combined so that each character is uttered as a single syllable.

If you’d like, you can have this pinyin chart open as you’re going through the vowels. It lists all the possible combinations of vowels and consonants, and each pinyin is accompanied with an audio clip to keep your pronunciation in check. YouTube is also full of helpful videos to help you get your vowels right.

Compound vowels starting with a

Here are the finals beginning with a:

  • ao
  • ai
  • an
  • ang

To reiterate, the Chinese vowel a is the equivalent of saying “ah,” so that’s our starting point for pronouncing these finals.

  • ao → “ah” + the “o-” in “oh,” or “ow” but with less emphasis on the “-w” sound
  • ai → “ah” + “ee,” or the word “eye” but less emphasis on the “-ye” sound
  • an → “ah” + “n”
  • ang → “ah” + “ng”

Seems easy enough, right? Now, let’s see some examples of characters that use these compound vowels. Don’t worry if you can’t get the tones right.

Combining pinyin with intonation can really throw off beginners, as both pronunciation and tones are complicated subjects in their own respect.

So for now, we’re just going to focus on the correct pinyin pronunciation, and once you’ve nailed this part, you can start practicing the different tones.

  • (māo, cat) — sounds like “m” + “ow” (but not pronounced like “mow”)
  • (càicuisine or vegetables) —  sounds like “ts” + “eye.” When put together, it sounds like you’re saying the word “tie” with an “s” sound inserted after “t”
  • (nán, difficult) — sounds like “n” + “ahn”
  • (chàng, to sing) — sounds like “ch” + “ahng”

Compound vowels starting with o

Here’s an easy section for you. Just two compound vowels for o:

  • ou
  • ong

These two are pronounced like so:

  • ou → the word “oh” or the letter “o”
  • ong → the “o-” in “oh” + “ng”

Here are the characters with these finals in pinyin:

  • (gǒu, dog) —sounds like the word “go”
  • (hóng, red) — sounds like “h” + “ohng”

Compound vowels starting with e

Now, onto finals starting with e:

  • ei
  • en
  • eng
  • er

Most of these start with the “uh” sound, but let’s break them down further.

  • ei → like “-ey” in “hey,” or the letter “a”
  • en “uh” + “n,” or “-un” in “bun”
  • eng → “uh” + “ng,” or “-ung” in “hung”
  • er → “uh” + “r,” like the word “are” with a lighter “r” sound

Let’s take a look at examples of characters, followed by an American pronunciation guide.

  • (běi, black) — sounds like “b” + “ey,” or like the divisive pop culture term “bae”
  • (wén, to smell) — sounds like “w” + “uhn”
  • (lěng, cold) — sounds like “l” + “uhng,” or the word “lung”

Note: er manifests on its own, with no initial consonant. Examples of characters with that pinyin include 二 (èr) which means “two,” and 耳 (ěr) which means “ear.”

Compound vowels starting with i

Brace yourself for this section. There’s a lot to cover here, but it’s pretty straightforward. Here’s the full list of compound vowels with i:

  • ia
  • ie
  • iu
  • iao
  • in
  • ing
  • ian
  • iang
  • iong

These all begin with the “ee” sound:

  • ia → “ee” + “ah
  • ie → “ee” + “eh” (not to be mistaken with the Canadian “eh”)
  • iu → “ee” + the letter “o”
  • iao → “ee” + “ow” with less emphasis on the “w”
  • in → “ee” + “n”
  • ing → “ee” + “ng”
  • ian → “ee” + “ehn”
  • iang → “ee” + “ahng”
  • iong → “ee” + “ohng”

Did you notice that you combined the syllabic parts for most compound vowels with a “y” sound?

And here are characters that have these compound vowels:

  • (xià, down) — sounds like “sh” + “ee” + “ah,” or “sh” + “yah”
  • (bié, do not) — sounds like “b” + “ee” + “eh,” or “b” + “yeh”
  • (qiú, ball) — sounds like “ch” + “ee” + the letter “o,” or “ch” + “yo”
  • (tiào, to jump) — sounds like “t” + “ee” + “ow,” or the words “tea” + “ow”
  • (yīn, because) — sounds like “ee” + “n” (“yi-” is pronounced “ee-,” not “yee-“)
  • (jìng, actually) — sounds like “j” + “ee” + “ng,” or “j” + “eng-” in “English”
  • (nián, year) — sounds like “n” + “ee” + “ehn,” or “n” + the word “Yen”
  • (liǎng, two) — sounds like “l” + “ee” + “ahng” or the name “Lee” + “yahng”
  • (qióng, poor) — sounds like “ch” + “ee” + ohng,” or “chee” + “yohng”

Compound vowels starting with u

Theses are the compound vowels beginning with u:

  • ua
  • uo
  • ue
  • ui
  • uai
  • un
  • uan
  • uang

In this pronunciation guide, you’ll notice each make use of the “w” sound to create the diphthong:

  • ua “oo” + “ah,” or “wah”
  • uo → “oo” + the “o-” in “oh,” or “who-” in “whoa”
  • ue → “oo” + “eh,” or “weh”
  • ui → “oo” + “-ey” in “hey,” or the word “way”
  • uai → “oo” + “ah” + “ee,” or the word “why”
  • un → “oo” + “ehn,” or “wen”
  • uan → “oo” + “ahn,” or “wan”
  • uang “oo” + “ahng,” or “wahng”

Now for character examples:

  • (guā, melon) — sounds like “g” + “ooh” + “ah,” or “g” + “wah”
  • (huǒ, fire) — sounds like “h” + “oo” + “o,” or “h” + “who-” in “whoa”
  • (yuè, month or moon) — sounds like “y” + “oo” + “eh,” or the word “you” + “weh”
  • (tuǐ, leg) — sounds like “t” + “oo” + “ey,” or the words “too” + “way”
  • (kuài, fast) — sounds like “k” + “oo” + “ah” + “ee,” or “qui-” in “quiet”
  • (lùn, theory) — sounds like “l” + “oo” + “ehn,” or the name “Lou” + “wen”
  • (yuǎn, far) — sounds like “y” + “oo” + “ahn,” or the words “you” + “an”
  • (guāng, light or luster) — sounds like “g” + “oo” + “ahng,” or “g” + “wahng”

Compound vowels starting with ü

Last, but not least, the finals with ü are:

  • üe
  • ün
  • üan

These compound vowels are actually not normally included in Chinese vowels because they’re pronounced the same as yue, yun and yuan, with ü being the same as yu.

Since they have the same pronunciation, the dots in the ü (aka umlaut) are dropped to avoid redundancy. Thus, even though 云 (yún), the character for cloud, could technically be written with the umlaut, it’s not necessary. The same goes for when these finals are combined with consonants j, q and x.


  • (jué, to feel) — sounds like “j” + “weh”
  • (qún, skirt) — sounds like “ch” + “win-” in “wing”
  • (xuǎn, to choose) — sounds like “sh” + the word “when”

The only time the ü appears in text is when it must be distinguished from the u sound, like  and lu, as well as and nu. Here are example characters:

  • 绿 ( , green) — sounds like “l” + “u” sound in “June”
  • (, road) — sounds like the name “Lou” but with a hard “l” sound
  • (girl) — sounds like “ne-” in “new”
  • (, rage) — sounds like “nu-” in “nude”


Who knew that there was so much groundwork to cover when it comes to Chinese vowels?

Once you’ve got these down, you can move on to practicing the tones, and then from there, pinyin will be a breeze.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.

Experience Chinese immersion online!

Comments are closed.