9. Initials sh, x

This lesson introduces the initials sh and x as well as two new finals. This lesson also refers to the discussion of types of vowels addressed in Lesson 6. You may find it helpful to review that lesson before continuing with this one.

Let’s start by exploring the possible combinations of x and sh with the finals a and i.  Remember that these combinations do not always produce viable syllables in all four tones.


Now listen to exemplars of syllables formed by these initials and finals. Remember that this is an exercise in listening for distinctions in sound, not in vocabulary building. We have included the English translations just as a reminder that these are real syllables with meanings.

Character and PinyinEnglish Equivalent
bamboo mat
play, show
an instant

What did you notice about these two finals? What is the difference between x and sh?

Do either of these sound like the “sh” in the English word “shop?” If not, what is the difference? What did you notice about the vowels used after these initials? Think about what you learned in Lessons 6 and 7. 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. If you have completed Lesson 7, you have probably realized that the distinction here is parallel to that for zh and j and ch and q.

Now let’s add the two new finals introduced in Lesson 7, 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 3.


Which of these four finals can follow x and which ones can follow sh? Do you see a pattern here?

Now listen to the following exemplars. Some of these are disyllabic words, which will give you the opportunity to hear these sounds in a more natural context. A few syllables include finals that have not yet been introduced.

Character and PinyinEnglish Equivalent
up; top
commerce; business
to wash
to appreciate
kind; benevolent

Listening Quiz 1

Again, listen carefully, and think about how the initial works with the vowel immediately following the initial. You have probably noticed that the sh sound is very much like the American English “sh” as in “shop.” The x represents a “sh-like” sound that is produced in the front of the mouth, with the tongue in a position close that used by most speakers of American English to pronounce the “ch” in “cheep” but with less resistance, to make a softer sound. As you may have noticed already, this distinction is analogous to that between zh and j and between ch and q.

It may be easier to just listen to the sounds and try to hear the difference, then imitate it. For those who find it helpful to think about the anatomy of producing these sounds, the “sh” sound is made with the tip of the tongue behind the alveolar ridge and the back of the tongue curled down. Sounds made with this type of tongue position are called “retroflexes.” Again, this is like the zh and the ch.

The next group includes a tricky aspect of Pinyin spelling conventions. In Lesson 6, you learned that ü is a front vowel. Remember how to pronounce this sound by starting with an “ee” sound and then pushing your lips forward to make a rounded shape? The u, however, is not a front vowel. When you make an u sound, the highest part of your tongue is further back in the mouth.

Listen to the following exemplars.

Character and PinyinEnglish Equivalent
must; have to
a surname
to permit, allow

Can you hear the difference? You may want to listen several times. Now here comes the tricky spelling part. You may have noticed that we spelled the Pinyin for words that combine x and ü (e.g., 旭 sunrise) as xu, rather than . In standard Pinyin spelling, the two dots are dropped when ü comes after x because it is assumed that readers realize that x cannot be followed by a standard “u” sound. Try starting with that front-of-the-mouth x 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.

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 q initial.

x-xu (xü )

Listening Quiz 2

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
bamboo mat
play; show
to be

What did you notice about the syllables spelled shi? If you have completed the previous two lessons, you have probably realized that these syllables are similar to the syllables zhi and chi. In all three of these syllables, it is difficult to hear a sound that resembles what we usually consider a vowel. In these syllables, the initial is drawn out into what some people call a syllabic consonant. The developers of Pinyin, however, needed to add a vowel, to conform to the Pinyin rule that a tone mark must be placed over a vowel. Therefore, they borrowed the letter “i” to complete these syllables. They assumed that native speaker readers would intuitively realize that the letter “i” in these syllables could not represent its usual “ee” sound because these initials cannot be followed by that sound. The letter “i” in these syllables is a placeholder and does not represent an “ee” sound.

 iɨ (i)

Listening Quiz 3

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 x or sh.

Character and PinyinEnglish Equivalent
consult; discuss
vow; pledge
scoop; ladle
go; walk
sunset; dusk

Dictation Quiz

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