7. Initials (zh, j) and Finals (in, ing)

This lesson introduces the initials zh and j, with finals introduced in previous lessons as well as two new finals: in and ing.

Let’s start with a small group of exemplars, just to start exploring the distinctions between j and zh.


Remember that possible combinations do not always produce viable syllables in all four tones.

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
sluice (gate); brake
to wink
to send (something)
to swindle

What did you notice about these two initials? What is the difference between j and zh?

Do either of these sound like the j and dg in the English word judge?  If not, what is the difference? What did you notice about the vowels used after these initials? Think about what you learned in Lesson 6.  Which of these two vowels is a front vowel? You may want to listen to the first group of exemplars again as you think about these questions.

Test yourself.

Listening Quiz 1

Listen to the audio and choose the Pinyin equivalent for the syllable you hear.

Now let’s add two new easy finals: in and ing. Both of these only include one vowel, i, followed by a nasal consonant ending.  The finals an and ang were introduced in Lesson 2.2.


Which of these four finals start with a front vowel? Which two do not? Which ones can follow j and which ones can follow zh? Do you see a pattern here?

Now listen to the following exemplars.

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
machine, mechanism
to prick, pierce
still, quiet
to stand
to swell
come in
well (in the ground)

Again, listen carefully, and think about how the initial works with the vowel immediately following the initial. You have probably noticed that these two sounds are a little bit like the American English j, as in Jayhawk, but not quite the same. The Chinese j is produced in the front of the mouth, with the tongue in a position close to that is used by most speakers of American English to pronounce the ch in cheep, with the blade and the front of the tongue are raised higher. The zh sound is made with the upper surface of the tongue tip behind the alveolar ridge and the back of the tongue curled down.

One less technical way to think of this is the zh is made toward the back of the mouth, the Chinese j at the far front, and the English j somewhere in the middle. This is not a precise, technically accurate way to describe the differences but it is helpful for some learners.

It is easier for many learners to not think too hard about the manner of articulation and just focus on the sound. Listen carefully to the exemplars as many times as you need to. Can you hear the difference? When you feel confident that you can distinguish the two sounds, try imitating them. Can you match the audio exemplars?

The next group includes a tricky aspect of Pinyin spelling conventions.

Listen to the following exemplars and pay attention to how they are spelled in Pinyin:

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
to reside, dwell
to boil
to raise; to elect; to organize
to live, reside

Can you hear the difference? The letter “u’ in these syllables actually represents different sound. You may have noticed that we spelled the Pinyin for words that combine j and ü (e.g. chrysanthemum) as , rather than . In standard Pinyin spelling, the two dots are dropped when ü comes after j because it is assumed that readers realize that j cannot be followed by a standard u sound in standard Chinese. Try starting with that front-of-the-mouth j and then transition to a relaxed oo. Does it feel awkward? Pinyin spelling conventions assume this is understood and therefore use the regular u without the dots, for efficiency and convenience when j is spelled with finals starting with ü sound.

The following chart illustrating this pattern. We have included the ü spelling in parentheses to emphasize the distribution of sounds but remember that in standard Pinyin, the dots are omitted in syllables with a j initial.

jXju (jü)

Now check yourself.

Test yourself.

Listening Quiz 2

Listen to the audio and choose the Pinyin equivalent for the syllable you hear.

Here is another tricky aspect to Pinyin spelling:

Listen to the following exemplars. Some of this are repeated from a previous group. A few others are two-syllable worlds.

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
to weave
to send (something)

You may have noticed also that, in the syllables spelled zhi, you do not hear a sound that conforms to what most people think of as a vowel. These syllables sound more like the initial is lengthened into a syllable. Some linguists refer to these as syllabic consonants; others analyze these as including a subtle vowel sound (sometimes represented by the symbol ɨ). In any case, the developers of Pinyin needed to include a vowel symbol in these syllables, to conform to a Pinyin rule dictating that tone marks be placed above vowels. Therefore, they borrowed the letter i for these syllables. It was assumed that native speaker readers would realize that a retroflex such as zh could not be followed by a high front vowel like i pronounced as it usually is, as ee. It is physically difficult to pronounce a zh sound correctly and then transition immediately into an i. You may want to try this. What happens when you try to pronounce the zh sound and transition to an ee sound? For most people, this feels very awkward and difficult. The i in these syllables is actually a placeholder, a “fake i.”

 iɨ (i)

Now, test yourself.

Listening Quiz 3

Listen to the audio and choose the Pinyin equivalent for the syllable you hear.

Now listen to a mix of exemplars using a variety of finals from previous lessons, as well as the two new ones introduced in this lesson. This set of exemplars also includes some two-syllable words. Focus on listening to the syllable that includes j or zh.

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
saw (tool)
to catch
still, quiet
(courteous) you

Dictation Quiz

Check yourself: Listen to the following syllables. Write down the Pinyin, including the tone. Then click below to check your answers.

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