What are the Mandarin Chinese Tones?

January 28, 2015 | Articles

In previous articles, we discussed the various nuances of learning Mandarin Chinese such as the nature of Chinese characters(汉子) and the pronunciation of pinyin. In this article, we will discuss one crucial aspect of speaking the language, tones.  In order to understand this article, you must have a grasp on reading pinyin.

Tone can be defined as the pitch and fluctuation with which a syllable is pronounced.  In English, we use tones to give a word a different mood. However in Chinese, tone gives the word a different meaning.

Read this dialogue out loud:

Son: “What are we having for dinner?”
Mom: “Bananas.”
Son: “Bananas?”

If you’re a native English speaker, it’s likely you changed the tone of voice for the phrase “Bananas?”  We use a tone that rises from a low pitch to a high pitch in order to denote a question.

In Chinese, tones play a more important role in determining meaning.  The following two sentences have the exact same pinyin spelling:

Wǒ xiǎng yào mǎi xiē yīfu.
“I want to buy some clothing.”
Wǒ xiǎng yào mài xiē yīfu.
“I want to sell some clothing.”

Differences in tone can have a big impact on how your sentence is understood.

So lets get down to business.  There are five total tones that can be used in pronouncing syllables in Chinese.

Name(Mark) Pronunciation
First Tone(ā or a1) Consistent high pitch.
Second Tone(á or a2) Pitch rises from low to high pitch.
Third Tone(ă or a3) Pitch starts low and slightly rises.
Fourth Tone(à or a4) Pitch starts high and sharply falls.
Neutral Tone (no marking) Pronounced short and relaxed at normal speaking pitch.

Visual Representation of Tones


Using the proper tone while pronouncing Chinese words is essential to understanding and being understood when conversing in Mandarin. Always learn the tone of a character along with the pinyin. Keep practicing and pretty soon tones will come second nature! 好好学习!