The Wade-Giles method of writing Chinese

old book, calligraphy
A page from an old book.

The Hanyu Pinyin system is not the only way to write Chinese using a Western alphabet. Pinyin was introduced in 1958 but took many years before it became widely adopted. Many systems have been tried over the centuries to achieve the same result. Due to its continued use in Hong Kong and Taiwan the Wade-Giles system is the most widely seen alternative. It was the system used in the early twentieth century and so it is found in most of English books from this period (1890-1970). The Wade-Giles system is still sometimes seen today in the spelling of such names as Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong ); Peking (Beijing); Szechuan (Sichuan) and Yangtse Kiang (Yangzi Jiang).

It was developed by Sir Thomas Wade , a British ambassador and scholar, in 1859 and later refined by Herbert Giles , another British ambassador and scholar in the 1890s. They were both, at different times, Professors of Chinese at Cambridge University, UK. It remained in use in Western countries up to the 1970s. Other systems were developed, but not as widely used, including the American Yale system of 1943.

The differences between Pinyin and Wade Giles illustrate the problem of mapping Chinese sounds to similar English ones. For example the Chinese ‘b’ sound is somewhat intermediate between English ‘b’ and ‘p’. The Chinese ‘r’ sound is made in a different way to the English ‘r’ and this is why some Chinese (particularly Cantonese people) can have difficulty with ‘r’s and ‘l’s. Both systems have merit; in mandarin ‘c’ is nothing like the English sound - the Wade-Giles alternative of ‘ts’ is closer. Wade-Giles does have its oddities too, for example while Ch’ing is pronounced Ching; Chiang is pronounced Jee-ang. One reason for the stark differences is that some Wade-Giles spellings are based on the local rather than the Beijing dialect; this was because the early linguists listened to local dialect speakers particularly in southern China not just people from Beijing.

Wade-Giles tones

Pinyin representations should have tone marks over vowels, Wade Giles was devised at a time when it was not possible to print these marks and it makes use of apostrophes (') instead. As many books miss out the all important apostrophes the Chinese text is almost impossible to decipher correctly. As a guide to correct vowel sounds the pinyin representation is far superior.

There are some general rules on pronunciation in Wade-Giles, but particularly for place names there are exceptions that do not follow them. Once a place was transliterated into English the written name tended to stick even though it bears little relation to the modern name. ‘Peking’ is an example of an established transliteration that had been in use long before Wade-Giles was invented and so was included into the scheme. From the early days of European contact it was necessary for major settlements to have an agreed international name, so many places were given ‘Post Office’ spellings as accepted by the Chinese Postal Service and these names show little uniformity. Many place names in the U.K. are equally difficult to guess from the written form as the spoken sound has diverged from the original. For example London is pronounced ‘Lundun’; Edinburgh as ‘Edinbre’; Cambridge as ‘Came-bridge’.

For the full set of pinyin consonants and vowels please see our Basic Chinese introduction.

Wade-Giles Initials

This table shows the way that Wade-Giles writes initial parts of Chinese characters compared to Pinyin.

bpThe sound is intermediate between the 'b' and 'p'.
cts' or tz'The 'tz' of Wade Giles is closest.
dtThe sound is intermediate between the 'd' and 't'.
gkA widely used name Guomindang is still widely seen in Wade-Giles form as Kuomintang - it is pronounced as 'gwo-min-dung'. A 'gu' initial often becomes 'kw' in Wade-Giles.
jchThe distinction between ji and chi is hard for English people to master. In many place names 'jing' in Wade Giles is 'king' as in Beijing vs. Peking this was a carry forward from earlier systems.
qch'Even closer to the ch sound is the Chinese 'q'. Hearing the differences between ji; qi; zhi and chi takes practice.
sss or szWade Giles more accurately emphasizes the longer and stressed 's' in Chinese. Most common example is Sichuan for Szechuan.
xhsOnce again Wade-Giles gives the better hint on pronunciation as in Deng Xiaoping vs. Teng Hsiao-p'ing.
zts or tzThe Yangzi River provides the most widely known example as Yangtse.
zhchThe Beijing pronunciation is more like 'j' in judge. So Hangzhou Hangchow is pronounced 'hang-joe'.

Wade-Giles Endings

This table shows how Wade-Giles writes the final 'vowel' part of Chinese characters compared to Pinyin.

-e-ehThe 'e' sound is not stressed.
-i-i or -u
-ian-ienAs in Tianjin compared to Tientsin is pronounced 'tyen-gin'.
-ong-ungAn example is Chongqing compared to Chungking. In this case the rule for 'q' becoming 'ch' is not followed.
-ou-uSometimes this becomes 'ow' in Wade-Giles as in Guizhou for Kweichow.
-ui-ueiThe pronunciation is a little like 'way', so Sui is pronounced 'sway'.
-uo-oThe ancient city of Luoyang was written Loyang and pronounced 'lore-yang'.

Commonly used Wade-Giles

Here is a list of Wade-Giles names that you may still see in old books and on some web sites. The pinyin equivalent name is shown to the right of each name. Some of these, like ‘Peking’ are historical artifacts, the romanized names had already been in use long before Wade-Giles was devised and they chose to retain the existing spellings rather than confuse with new ones.

Amoy » Xiamen
Anhwei » Anhui
Canton » Guangzhou
Chekiang » Zhejiang
Cheng Ho » Zheng He
Chengchow » Zhengzhou
Chengteh » Chengde
Chengtu » Chengdu
Chenkiang » Zhenjiang
Chhin Shih Huang Ti » Emperor Qin Shihuangdi
ch'i » ch_qi_gas
Ch'in Dynasty » Qin dynasty
Ch'ing Dynasty » Qing dynasty
Chinghai » Qinghai
Chou Enlai » Zhou Enlai
Chu Teh » Zhu De
Ch'ü Yüan » Qu Yuan
Chu Yuanchang » Emperor Hongwu
Chuanchow » Quanzhou
Chuang Tzu » Zhuangzi
Chungking » Chongqing
Foochow » Fuzhou
Fukien » Fujian
Hangchow » Hangzhou
Heilungkiang » Heilongjiang
Honan » Henan
Hopei » Hebei
Hsüan-tsang » Xuanzang
Hsün Tzu » Xunzi
Hupeh » Hubei
Hwang Ho » Yellow River
I Ching » Yi Jing
joo-i » symRuYi
Kansu » Gansu
Kiangsi » Jiangxi
Kiangsu » Jiangsu
Kirin » Jilin
Koxinga » Guoxingye
Kung fu » Gong fu
Kuomintang » Guomindang
Kwangsi » Guangxi
Kwangtung » Guangdong
Kweichow » Guizhou
Kweilin » Guilin
Lao Tzu » Lao Zi
Li Po » Li Bai
Loyang » Luoyang
Lu Hsün » Lu Xun
Mao Tse-tung » Mao Zedong
Meng Tzu » Mencius
Mo Tzu » Mozi
Mukden » Shenyang
Nanking » Nanjing
Ningsia » Ningxia
Pao Cheng » Bao Zheng
Peking » Beijing
Po Chü-i » Bai Juyi
P'u-i » Puyi
Shansi » Shanxi
Shantung » Shandong
Shensi » Shaanxi
Sian » Xi'an
Sinkiang » Xinjiang
Soochow » Suzhou
Su Shih » Su Shi
Sun Tzu » Sun Wu
Sung dynasty » Song dynasty
Szechuan » Sichuan
Szu-ma Ch'ien » Sima Qian
T'ai chi ch'uan » taijiquan
Talien » Dalian
T'ang dynasty » Tang dynasty
Tao Te Ching » Dao De Jing
Tatung » Datong
Teng Hsiao-p'ing » Deng Xiaoping
Tientsin » Tianjin
Ts'ao Ts'ao » Cao Cao
Tsinan » Jinan
Tsingtao » Qingdao
Tu Fu » Du Fu
Urumchi » Urumqi
Wang Hsi-chih » Wang Xizhi
Wusih » Wuxi
Yangtse » Yangzi River
Yenan » Yan'an

If you want to convert pinyin to Wade-Giles you can try our free online dictionary.

See also