Each Chinese character is represented by a syllable and an accompanying tone; some characters may have more than one way to pronounce them.
A syllable consists of
a. an initial + a final
b. a final without an initial
An initial is a consonant.
A final can be
a. a simple vowel, e.g. a, e, i, o, u;
b. a compound vowel, e.g. ao, uo, ou;
c. a vowel followed by "n" or "ng," e.g. in, en, ang, ong.
There are four (first, second, third and fourth) basic tones and a fifth tone referred to as the neutral tone.
The first tone is high and remains high with no change in pitch; e.g. mā
The second tone is a raising tone, which starts from the middle pitch and goes up to the high pitch; e.g., má
The third tone can be either a full third tone or a half third tone
The full third tone shows a curve in pitch. It starts from the mid-low pitch and is raised to the mid-high pitch. mǎ
The half third tone has no change in pitch. It is low and remains low. In normal speech, a half-third tone is usually adopted unless the speaker wishes to place stress on a third-tone syllable. mǎ
When the first syllable of a disyllabic word is the third tone, the half third tone is nearly always adopted in normal speech. mǎlù
The fourth tone is a falling tone, which starts high and drops to the low pitch. mà
A neutral tone is light and low with no obvious change in pitch. ma
The tone marks representing the four basic tones are (the first tone), (the second tone), (the third tone) and (the fourth tone). There is no specific tone mark for the neutral tone.
When there are more than two third tones in a row, the general rule described above is still followed; however, where to pause in the speech can play a role in deciding which third tone will be changed into the second tone.
e.g. Famous cellist Yo-yo Ma’s name (Yǒǔyǒu Mǎ) is normally pronounced 2nd ,2nd and 3rd, Yǒǔyǒu Mǎ but when his name is pronounced with the last name first (Mǎ Yóuyǒu), it is normally 3rd, 2nd and 3rd Mǎ Yóuyǒu.
Character 一 (yi) can be pronounced in the first, the second or the fourth tone, depending on the tone following it.
Character 不 (bu) can be pronounced in either the second tone or the fourth tone depending on the tone following it.
Tone marks should not be put on top of initials.
Do not put tone marks above "i," "u" or "ü" when the final is or has a compound vowel. Other cases are ǎo, iú and uì.
Do not start a syllable with "i" or "u." Change "i" to "y," "u" to "w" and "ü" to "yu."
e.g., i → y/yi, u → w/wu, ü → yu
e.g., i → yi; in → yin; ie → ye
e.g., u → wu; uo → wo; uang → wang
e.g., ü → yu; üe → yue; ün → yun
"uo" never comes after b, p or m (bilabials – sounds involving both lips) although the "u" part should be pronounced. This is because "u" is imbedded in the Chinese bilabial sounds.
"–i" after zh, ch, sh, r, z, c, s is a "dummy" i. This means i after zh, ch, sh, r, z, c, s is not pronounced the same way as when it is after another initial or as a stand-alone vowel.
"i" or "ü" never follows zh, ch, sh, r, z, c, s. On the other hand, j, q, x is ALWAYS followed by either "i" or "ü."
"e" in "ie" is pronounced differently from a regular "e". It is similar to the vowel in English yet or yes, whereas a regular "e" is similar (but not identical) to the vowel in English hut or bus.
"an," when following "i" or "ü," is pronounced differently from a regular "an," which is similar (but not identical) to the vowel in English line. "an" after "i" or "ü," is similar to the vowel in English den, or end.
"iou," when following an initial, is written as "iu," and the tone mark should be placed above "u;" e.g., niú, diū.
"uei," when following an initial, is written as "ui," and the tone mark should be placed above "i," e.g. duī, ruì.
"uen," when following an initial, is written as "un" e.g., dūn, hùn.
We need not and should not write "ü" for umlaut when "ü" follows j, q, x. This is because a regular "u" can never follow j, q, x; e.g. jǔ, qún, xuǎn.
An apostrophe (’) is used when a syllable beginning with "a," "o," or "e" follows another syllabus; e.g. Xī'ān, nǚ'ér.
The first letter of a proper name should be capitalized; e.g. Zhōngguó, Běijīng, Shànghǎi.