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Literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese文白異讀
Simplified Chinese文白异读

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 (文讀/文读; wéndú) are usually used in loanwords, names (geographic and personal), literary works (like poetry), and in formal settings, while colloquial/vernacular readings (白讀/白读; báidú) are usually used in everyday vernacular speech.

For example, Mandarin normally read "white" () with colloquial pronunciation bái ([pǎɪ]), but can read it with the literary pronunciation ([pwǒ]) as a name or in some formal or historical settings. 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] The colloquial readings is generally believed to represent a substratum, while their literary counterparts a superstratum. Such differences reflect a history of dialect mixing and the influence of education and instruction on the area.[3]


Colloquial readings typically reflect the native phonology of a given Chinese variety,[4] while literary readings typically originate from other Chinese varieties,[5] typically more prestigious varieties. Colloquial readings are usually older, resembling the sound systems described by old rime dictionaries like the Guangyun, whereas literary readings are often closer to the phonology of newer sound systems. In certain Mandarin and Wu dialects, many literary readings are the result of influence from Nanjing Mandarin or Beijing Mandarin during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Formal education and discourse usually use past prestigious varieties, so formal words usually use literary readings. Although the phonology of the Chinese variety in which this occurred did not entirely match that of the prestige variety, literary readings tended to evolve toward the prestige variety. Also, neologisms usually use the pronunciation of prestigious varieties.[6] Colloquial readings are usually used in informal settings because their usage in formal settings has been supplanted by the readings of the prestige varieties.[6]

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 Mandarin dialects of the Central Plain had few literary readings, but they now have literary readings that resemble the phonology of Modern Standard Chinese.[7] On the other hand, the relatively influential Beijing and Canton dialects have fewer literary readings than other varieties.[3]

Some Chinese varieties may have many instances of foreign readings replacing native readings, forming multiple 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.[6] Sometimes literary and colloquial readings of the same character have different meanings.

An 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 Sino-Japanese on'yomi (音読み), and the older native, more colloquial kun'yomi (訓読み). Unlike in Chinese varieties, where readings are usually genetically related, in Japanese the borrowed readings are unrelated to the native readings.[8] Furthermore, many kanji in fact have several on'yomi, reflecting borrowings at different periods – these multiple borrowings are generally doublets or triplets, and are sometimes quite distant in time. These readings are generally used in particular contexts, such as readings for Buddhist terms, many of which were earlier go-on (呉音) borrowings.[8]

Behavior in Chinese


Cantonese literary and colloquial readings have quite regular relationships. A character's meaning is often different depending on whether it is read with a colloquial or literary reading.





Chinese character Middle Chinese1 Colloquial reading Literary reading
IPA Jyutping Meaning IPA Jyutping Meaning
*labial: heavy labial [p(ʰ)] vs light labial [f]
pʰou˨˩ pou4 (of a person) show up, appear fɐu˨˩ fau4 float
pʰou˩˧ pou5 bride fu˩˧ fu5 woman
pou˨꜔꜒ bou6*2 the original character in Sham Shui Po (埠→埗) fɐu˨ fau6 pier, dock, port
*'疑' initial: [ŋ] vs [j]
ŋɐm˨˩ ngam4 groan jɐm˨˩ jam4 recite, chant
ŋan˨˩ ngaan4 grind jin˨˩ jin4 research
*'梗' rime group: [ɛːŋ], [ɛːk] vs [ɪŋ], [ɪk]
tsiᴇŋ tsɛːŋ˥ zeng1 clever tsɪŋ˥ zing1 spirit
tɕiᴇŋ tsɛːŋ˧ zeng3 correct, good tsɪŋ˧ zing3 correct
dziᴇŋ tsɛːŋ˨ zeng6 clean tsɪŋ˨ zing6 clean
kɣiæŋ kɛːŋ˥ geng1 be afraid kɪŋ˥ ging1 frighten
bɣiæŋ pʰɛːŋ˨˩ peng4 inexpensive pʰɪŋ˨˩ ping4 flat
tsʰeŋ tsʰɛːŋ˥ ceng1 blue/green, pale tsʰɪŋ˥ cing1 blue/green
siᴇk sɛːk˧ sek3 cherish, (v.) kiss sɪk˥ sik1 lament
*'梗' rime group: [aːŋ], [aːk] vs [ɐŋ], [ɐk]
ʃɣæŋ saːŋ˥ saang1 raw, (honorific name suffix) sɐŋ˥ sang1 (v.) live, person
ʃɣæŋ saːŋ˥ saang1 livestock sɐŋ˥ sang1 livestock
*'果' rime group: [œː] vs [ɔː]
tœ˥ doe1 just this much tɔ˥ do1 many, more
tœ˧˥ doe2 (classifier for flowers, clouds, etc) tɔ˧˥ do2 name, nickname, title
tœ˨ doe6 droopy, saggy tɔ˨ do6 (v.) fall, sink
*full-muddy rising-tone: (aspirated) yang rising vs (tenuis) yang departing
pʰei˩˧ pei5 blanket pei˨ bei6 passive voice
tʰam˩˧ taam5 bland, tasteless tam˨ daam6 off-season
tʰyn˩˧ tyun5 (v.) break tyn˨ dyun6 (v.) decide, determine
tsʰɔ˩˧ co5 (v.) sit tsɔ˨ zo6 compound with 骨 (bone) in 坐骨 (ischium)
sœŋ˩˧ soeng5 go up, board (vehicles) sœŋ˨ soeng6 up there, previous
kʰɐn˩˧ kan5 near kɐn˨ gan6 near (in nearsightedness)
ɦep kɛːp˨ gep6 clamp kiːp˨ gip6 clamp
deu tɛːu˨ deu6 discard tiːu˨ diu6 turn, discard
lʌi lɐi˨˩ lai4 come lɔːi˨˩ loi4 come
使 ʃɨ sɐi˧˥ sai2 use siː˧˥ 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 has instances of differing literary and colloquial readings.[9]


Chinese character Literary reading Colloquial reading
saŋ˦ sɛn˦
tʰi˥˧ tʰɛ˦
ka˦ kʰa˦
fui˧˥ pʰui˧˥
sit˩ siak˩
tʂin˥˧ (正宗), tʂaŋ˦ (正月) tʂaŋ˥˧


Literary readings in Modern Standard Mandarin are usually native pronunciations more conservative than colloquial readings.[3] This is because they reflect readings from before Beijing was the capital,[5] 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.[5] 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 Mandarin and mainland Chinese Pǔtōnghuà are due to the fact that Putonghua tends to adopt colloquial readings for a character[10] while Guoyu tends to adopt a literary reading.[11]

Examples of literary readings adopted into the Beijing dialect:

Chinese character Middle Chinese1 Literary reading Colloquial reading
IPA Pinyin IPA Pinyin
hək xɤ˥˩ xei˥ hēi
bɣæk pwɔ˧˥ pai˧˥ bái
bwɑk pwɔ˧˥ pɑʊ˧˥ báo
pɣʌk pwɔ˥ pɑʊ˥ bāo
kɣiɪp tɕi˨˩˦ kei˨˩˦ gěi
kʰɣʌk tɕʰɥɛ˥˩ què tɕʰjɑʊ˥˩ qiào
luo lu˥˩ lɤʊ˥˩ lòu
lɨuk lu˥˩ ljɤʊ˥˩ liù
dʑɨuk ʂu˧˥ shú ʂɤʊ˧˥ shóu
ʃɨk sɤ˥˩ ʂai˨˩˦ shǎi
sɨɐk ɕɥɛ˥ xuē ɕjɑʊ˥ xiāo
kɣʌk tɕɥɛ˧˥ jué tɕjɑʊ˨˩˦ jiǎo
hwet ɕɥɛ˥˩ xuè ɕjɛ˨˩˦ xiě

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
kɣʌŋ tɕjɑŋ˨˩˦ jiǎng2 kɑŋ˨˩˦ gǎng
ŋam jɛn˧˥ yán ai˧˥ ái
kʰɣʌk t͡ɕʰɥɛ˥˩ / t͡ɕʰjɑʊ̯˥˩ què / qiào kʰɤ˧˥

1. Middle Chinese reconstruction according to Zhengzhang Shangfang. Middle Chinese tones in terms of level (), rising (), departing (), and entering () are given.
2. 's only attested reading is gǎng; **jiǎng is purely hypothetical.


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 [væʔ],[12] which is very similar to its pronunciation of Ba-Shu Chinese in the Song dynasty (960–1279).[13] Meanwhile, its literary reading, [voʔ], is relatively similar to the standard Mandarin pronunciation [u]. The table below shows some Chinese characters with both literary and colloquial readings in Sichuanese.[14]

Example Colloquial reading Literary reading Meaning Standard Mandarin pronunciation
tsai at tsai
tia tʰi lift tʰi
tɕʰie tɕʰy go tɕʰy
tɕy cut tɕy
xa ɕia down ɕia
xuan xuən across xəŋ
ŋan ȵian stricked ian
suei su rat ʂu
tʰai ta big ta
toŋ tsu master tʂu


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.[15] 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.[16]

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 [ŋ] initial in Middle Chinese, and in literary readings, there is a null initial. In colloquial readings it is pronounced /ŋuɛ/ in Songjiang.[17] About 100 years ago, it was pronounced /ŋuɛ/ in Suzhou[18] and Shanghai, and now it is /uɛ/.

Some pairs of literary and colloquial readings are interchangeable in all cases, such as in the words 吳淞 and 松江. Some must be read in one particular reading. For example, 人民 must be read using the literary reading, /zəɲmiɲ/, and 人命 must be read using the colloquial reading, /ɲiɲmiɲ/. Some differences in reading for the same characters have different meanings, such as 巴結, using the colloquial reading /pʊtɕɪʔ/ means "make great effort," and using the literary reading /pɑtɕɪʔ/ means "get a desired outcome." Some readings are almost never used, such as colloquial /ŋ̍/ for and literary /tɕiɑ̃/ for .


Chinese character Literary reading Colloquial reading
/səɲ/ in 生物 /sɑ̃/ in 生菜
/zəɲ/ in 人民 /ɲiɲ/ in 大人
/dɑ/ in 大饼 /dɯ/ in 大人
/vəʔ/ in 事物 /məʔ/ in 物事
/tɕia/ in 家庭 /kɑ/ in 家生

Min Nan

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

The following examples in Pe̍h-oē-jī show differences in character readings in Taiwanese Hokkien:[19][20]

Chinese character Reading pronunciations Spoken pronunciations / explications English
pe̍k pe̍h white
biān bīn face
su chu book
seng seⁿ / siⁿ student
put not
hóan tńg return
ha̍k o̍h to study
jîn / lîn lâng person
siàu chió few
chóan tńg 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 肉, which has etymologically unrelated colloquial and literary readings (he̍k and jio̍k, respectively).[21][22]

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 [heiŋ˥˧] 行李 hèng-lī luggage giàng [kjaŋ˥˧] 行墿 giàng-duô to walk
sĕng [seiŋ˥] 生態 sĕng-tái zoology, ecology săng [saŋ˥] 生囝 săng-giāng childbearing
gŏng [kouŋ˥] 江蘇 Gŏng-sŭ Jiangsu gĕ̤ng [køyŋ˥] 閩江 Mìng-gĕ̤ng Min River
báik [paiʔ˨˦] 百科 báik-kuŏ encyclopedical báh [paʔ˨˦] 百姓 báh-sáng common people
[hi˥] 飛機 hĭ-gĭ aeroplane buŏi [pwi˥] 飛鳥 buŏi-cēu flying birds
hàng [haŋ˥˧] 寒食 Hàng-sĭk Cold Food Festival gàng [kaŋ˥˧] 天寒 tiĕng gàng cold, freezing
[ha˨˦˨] 大廈 dâi-hâ mansion â [a˨˦˨] 廈門 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
/sɛn/ as in 學生 (student) /saŋ/ as in 出生 (be born)
/lon/ as in 微軟 (Microsoft) /ɲion˧/ as in 軟骨 (cartilage)
/tɕʰin/ as in 青春 (youth) /tɕʰiaŋ/ as in 青菜 (vegetables)
/uɔŋ/ as in 看望 (visit) /mɔŋ/ as in 望相 (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. ^ a b c Wang, William S.-Y.; Sun, Chaofen (2015). The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Linguistics. Oxford University Press. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-19-985633-6.
  4. ^ 王洪君 (2006), 層次與演變階段—蘇州話文白異讀析層擬測三例, Language and Linguistics, 7 (1)
  5. ^ a b c 王福堂 (2006), 文白異讀中讀書音的幾個問題, 語言學論叢, vol. 32
  6. ^ a b c 陳忠敏 (2003), 重論文白異讀與語音層次, 語文研究
  7. ^ Zhang, Jie. "Evolution of Initials in TaiYuan Dialect in the Past 100 Years--《Journal of Jinzhong University》2012年05期".
  8. ^ a b Labrune, Laurence (2012). The phonology of Japanese (1 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 18–20. ISBN 978-0199545834. Retrieved 25 August 2023.
  9. ^ 臺灣客家語常用詞辭典 [Dictionary of Common Words in Taiwanese Hakka], version 2016 (in Chinese). Ministry of Education, R.O.C.
  10. ^ Chung-Yu, Chen; 陈重瑜 (1994). "Evidence of High-Frequency Colloquial Forms Moving Towards the Yin-Ping Tone / 常用口语字阴平化的例证". Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 22 (1): 1–39. JSTOR 23756584.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 杨升初(1985年S2期),《剑阁摇铃话音系记略》,湘潭大学社会科学学报
  13. ^ 王庆(2010年04期),《四川方言中没、术、物的演变》,西华大学学报(哲学社会科学版)
  14. ^ 甄尚灵(1958年01期),《成都语音的初步研究》,四川大学学报(哲学社会科学版)
  15. ^ Qian, Nairong (2003). 上海語言發展史. Shanghai: 上海人民出版社. p. 70. ISBN 978-7-208-04554-5.
  16. ^ Wang, Li (1981). 漢語音韻學. China Book Company. SH9018-4.
  17. ^ 張源潛 (2003). 松江方言志. 上海辭書出版社. ISBN 978-7-5326-1391-5.
  18. ^ Ting, Pang-hsin (2003). 一百年前的蘇州話. 上海教育. ISBN 978-7-5320-8561-3.
  19. ^ Mair, Victor H. (2010). "Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Taiwan's language situation: How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language". 拼音/ Archived from the original on 13 December 2014. Retrieved 13 December 2014.
  20. ^ 臺灣閩南語常用詞辭典 [Dictionary of Common Words in Taiwanese Hokkien] (in Chinese). Ministry of Education, R.O.C. 2019.
  21. ^ Klöter, Henning (2005). Written Taiwanese. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 21. ISBN 978-3-447-05093-7.
  22. ^ "Entry #2607 (肉)". 臺灣閩南語常用詞辭典 [Dictionary of Frequently-Used Taiwan Minnan]. (in Chinese and Hokkien). Ministry of Education, R.O.C. 2011.

Further reading