Sensible Pinyin Course: Tricky Consonants Zh, Ch, Sh and R

This is part of our Sensible Pinyin Course. To see an overview of the course check out this Sensible Pinyin Course homepage

Still with us? Believe me you are doing well. We’ve covered all the basics and a lot of the slightly weird sounds in Chinese. This is the home stretch!

In this section we’re going to tackle the sounds that are usually considered “difficult”.

These sounds are:

Zh, Ch, Sh, Z, C, S and r.

In this first article we’ll look at Zh, Ch, Sh and R. In the next article we’ll cover Z, C, S.

These sound are mainly “difficult” because they are not pronounced how we would expect them to be in English. The fact that Roman letters are used just makes it confusing. That’s one of the weaknesses of pinyin. For a number of the sounds the letters are the same or at least very close to the English sound that uses the same letter.

Now we’re at the point where we need to totally ignore the fact that these letters exist in English and try to remove any sound associations we already have. C for example is pronounced closer to “ts”, nothing like the English c.

The good news is that if we relate these sounds to other Chinese sounds we have already learned our task is much simpler. This little hack will help us get a grip with these sounds a lot quicker than if we work from English sounds. Let’s get cracking!

Zh, Ch, Sh Group

Remember j, q and x from the last section? If it’s been a while quickly go back and listen to them again, practice making the noise, remember where the tongue is position. I’ll wait here.

OK good. Remember that j, q and x are all pronounced forward in the mouth, the tongue tip touching the back of the bottom teeth and the middle of the tongue pushing up towards the roof of the mouth.

Here’s a neat trick:

Zh = J
Ch = Q
Sh = X

But with the tongue tip curled back in a higher, curled position against the hard palate. As you make the sound the curl is released to “throw forward” the sound.

It’s useful to think J, Q and X as the forward versions of Zh, Ch and Sh. This is also why J, Q and X are used with ü and Zh, Ch, Sh with u.

Ü is forward in the mouth like J, Q and X.

U is further back in the mouth with the Zh, Ch, Sh sounds.

Swapping the ü and u sounds to go with their “incorrect” initial feels very awkward in the mouth because the tongue is in the wrong part of the mouth.

Zh: “dj” in jam, jewels, George.

Zha, Zhe, Zhi, Zhu

Curl the tongue backwards so that the tip is resting on the roof of your mouth or near enough. Not so far back that it’s awkward. Don’t think too much about rolling the tongue back, just aim for the English J sound and roll slightly further back and you’ll be in the right area.

Clench your teeth closed and pronounce “dj”, allowing the tongue to unroll.

Again, listen to the reference audio rather than rely on these descriptions! This is especially important now that we are moving into the most difficult sounds in Chinese.

Ch: “tch” in Church, chain, check

Cha, Che, Chi, Chu

Same tongue position as in Zh above but making a “tch” sound instead of “dj”, uncurling the tongue as the sound is thrown foward. This is the curled tongue version of Q.

Sh: “shh” is wash, shower or “shh, be quiet!

Sha, She, Shi, Shu

Same beginning tongue position as Zh and Ch but when saying the “shh” sound the tongue is not thrown foward. Instead it rests in place, allowing the air to hiss through the gap above the tongue and the roof of the mouth.

See, nothing too tricky here. If we go from the equivalent Chinese sounds J, Q, X the Zh, Ch and Sh sounds are much easier to get a handle on.

The big problem therefore is learning how to distinguish Zh/J, Ch/Q and Sh/X. Unfortunately these sounds can be very difficult to distinguish.

If you have a look at a pinyin chart you’ll see X, Q and J all by themselves all the way at the bottom in their own self-contained “block” of sounds. This lack of crossover will make them a lot easy to distinguish later.



Let’s look in a little more details at zh, ch, sh and j, q, x only:


a o e i u ü
zh zha zhe zhi zhu
ch cha che chi chu
sh sha she shi shu
j ji ju
q qi qu
x xi xu

For the most part though these sounds can be discriminated from one another based upon the finals that follow them. Have a look at the chart above – you’ll see that the final -i can exist with all of these initials. The other we need to watch out for is ü vs. u. And -a and -e are simple – they can only exist with zh, ch, sh. 

The next set of exercises uses all of the sounds in the small chart above. Be especially careful about anything ending in -i,  u or ü!

[slickquiz id=6]

Before we leave our new friends Zh, Ch and Sh we’re going to look at R.

Why’s that? Doesn’t seem very similar does it? The reason we’re covering it now is because like Zh, Ch and Sh, R begins with the tongue rolled back. This is the only place it fits really. It doesn’t have it’s own group. Poor R!

R: “rr” war, raw, grr

Re, Ri, Ru

The r in Chinese is pronounced with the tongue vibrating in the curled back position. It’s a little like the English R but with more buzzing. It’s not trilled as in Spanish.

Here’s a neat trick to find that R sound. Say the English word “measure”. At the middle of the word the S takes on the buzz of the Mandarin R.

Say “measure” and hold that middle sound. Feel the strange buzzing noise? Your tongue should be in the same position as it was for Zh, Ch, Sh as above. That’s the Mandarin R.


This is part of our Sensible Pinyin Course. To see an overview of the course check out this Sensible Pinyin Course homepage