What is the Bopomofo Chinese Alphabet?

The Bopomofo Chinese alphabet is a phonetic alphabet used to write standard Mandarin Chinese. It can be correctly called an “alphabet”, unlike Chinese characters, because each symbol represents a sound. The Bopomofo alphabet is more formally called Zhuyin Fuhao. The nickname “Bo-po-mo-fo” refers to the first four sounds of the Chinese phonetic alphabet.

The Bopomofo alphabet consists of thirty-seven symbols. The symbols are simplified variants of ancient Chinese characters. There are twenty-one symbols used to represent consonant sounds and sixteen symbols used for vowel sounds.

The Bopomofo alphabet was first released in 1913. It is based upon shorthand created by Zhang Binglin. In 1930 it was renamed Zhuyin Fuaho. Today it is mostly referred to as Bopomofo or simply Zhuyin.

The Bopomofo alphabet is used mainly in Taiwan. Before language reform in China, Bopomofo was also used there. Since 1949, however, the use of the Pinyin alphabet has superseded the use of the Bopomofo alphabet in China.

The main purpose of the Bopomofo alphabet in Taiwan is educational. It is used to teach standard Mandarin pronunciation to elementary school students. Texts in all subjects, including Mandarin, are entirely in Bopomofo for the first few school years. Bopomofo is then replaced by the Traditional Chinese characters. Bopomofo is also a useful alphabet for entering information into computers and cellular phones.

There have been many different alphabets devised over the years to phonetically write Chinese. The Bopomofo alphabet does a very good job to accurately and efficiently accomplish this. For that reason it could be a worthwhile alphabet to know for anyone wishing to study Chinese. Bearing no resemblance to Roman letters, the symbols can subconsciously minimize the tendency to compare Chinese sounds with English sounds. Naturally, this tendency depends on the individual, and this is, perhaps, a minor argument in support of learning the Bopomofo alphabet.

The Bopomofo alphabet does not offer some of the advantages that the Pinyin alphabet does. Many more products and learning materials are available in Pinyin in China and on the internet.

In Taiwan there has been discussion about replacing the Bopomofo alphabet with a pinyin alphabet. The biggest obstacle to this transition has been the teachers’ own lack of familiarity with any pinyin writing system. In general, if you hope to use a phonetic alphabet for writing Chinese in Taiwan, you will need to learn the Bopomofo alphabet, as the majority of Taiwanese people will not know Pinyin. The opposite is true in China.