In order to accommodate foreigners, systems of writing Chinese using Roman letters were developed. While I think any serious student of Chinese should avoid romanization as much as possible, you will nevertheless encounter various systems of romanization on street signs and maps, in the names of places and people, on computers that don’t have Zhuyin input installed, in books and textbooks, and even in the writing of native and non-native Chinese speakers who never learned Zhuyin. As such, it can be useful to be familiar with some of them.
Keep in mind, these systems are only designed for Mandarin Chinese. They cannot express all the sounds in other languages in the Chinese language family, like Cantonese and Taiwanese.
Over 150 years old, Wade-Giles is the oldest system of Mandarin romanization still in use today. It was used in virtually all western countries throughout almost the entire 20th century. Wade is no longer taught in schools, but it can still be found in the names of people (like Ching and Chuang) and places (like Taipei and Kaohsiung), albeit without the tone markers.
2. Hanyu Pinyin
Hanyu Pinyin (or just Pinyin for short) was developed in the 1950s and promoted heavily by the People’s Republic of China. It is the most widely used romanization system today, if only for that reason. It has many flaws, and also many zealous proponents. Debates over the usefulness of Hanyu Pinyin tend to be politically charged. While I don’t think it is as useful as Zhuyin for learning Chinese, you will undoubtedly run into it if you visit China. They don’t have Zhuyin over there, so if a Chinese person wants to write the sound of a character for you, this is the method they would to use.
3. Tongyong Pinyin
Tongyong Pinyin is probably as equally as flawed as Hanyu Pinyin, and equally political too. It was the official (though optional) romanization system of Taiwan for a short time, but was supplanted by Hanyu Pinyin when the political tides changed in 2008. It can still be found on street signs outside of Taipei.
Ahh, finally a system that a beginner can understand! Developed for U.S. servicemen in World War II, Yale is designed specifically for speakers of English who don’t have any previous knowledge of Chinese pronunciation. Instead of using English letters as code for things they were never used for previously (since when does x = sh??), this system follows familiar English spelling conventions. That way, there is no system that you have to learn before you can get started. Just read the word the same as you would if you were reading English.
This system was in wide use for learning Chinese well into the 1980s, until China realized it could bribe the ISO into making the inferior Hanyu Pinyin a worldwide standard. My opinion is that Yale is the best for people who DON’T know Chinese. If your mother is visiting you in China, this is the system you would use to write down useful phrases she can say when you’re not around to help her. It’s the system they should use for street signs in Taiwan, but I digress.
5. Chinese Postal Map Romanization
Romanized place names used for English addresses. You could run into anything here: toneless Wade-Giles, toneless Pinyin, regular English, romanization of other languages and dialects, or even a combination of these. Just be on your toes!
This is the biggest reason to know about other systems of Chinese romanization. You really never know what you’re going to get, and the situation is unlikely to change. Even if Google changed all its English place names to Pinyin, you would still have the matter of changing all the street signs in the Chinese speaking world, convincing all the people who live in Chinese named towns and cities to change the Romanization of their homes, and even giving Mandarin names to places where nobody speaks Mandarin. (The romanization of 淡水 district in Taiwan was recently officially changed from “Danshui” (Mandarin Chinese), back to “Tamsui” (Taiwanese Hokkien), at the request of its residents.)
A Quick Comparison
Let’s take a quick look at how all these systems compare. The “English” line is my own romanization, based on English spelling.
Notice any problems? The Yale romanization system at least makes sense, though “wu” has to drop the “w” when it becomes part of “ju”, because “jwu” might cause English speakers unnecessary confusion. Yale was created by Americans, for Americans, so it at least tries to adhere to English spelling conventions, while staying as consistent as possible.
Pinyin on the other hand, is all over the place. The syllable “zhi” is supposed to represent the “jrr” sound? Seriously? Pinyin was developed by Chinese, for Chinese, so only about half of the English spelling conventions you’re used to will apply, making it less useful for English-speaking students of Chinese.
Also notice how only Yale includes the “r” in its transcription of ㄓ. Pinyin ignores the “r” sound completely, which is strange considering that Mainland Chinese say ㄓ with a rather conspicuous “r” sound. The Tongyang spelling seems strange, but it actually kind of represents the way many Taiwanese pronounce ㄓ.
So um…do I need to need to know any of this?
Not to learn Chinese, no. But it’s good to be aware of the various systems. They might come in handy when you finally visit Asia!