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What is Bopomofo?

Diane Goettel
Updated May 23, 2024
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Bopomofo or Zhùyi-n fúhào is a very important part of the Chinese language and has an interesting, and somewhat complicated, history. Bopomofo is simply a phonetic and alphabetic way to simplify the Chinese language, which is made up of thousands of characters.

In 1913, the government of China sponsored the Conference in Unification of Pronunciation during which delegates worked toward developing a new, simplified version of Chinese script. This new alphabet was originally called the Zhùyin Zìmu, or “phonetic alphabet.” It was later renamed Gúoyin Zìmu, or “national phonetic alphabet. In 1930, the alphabet was given yet another name, Zhùyin Fúhào. This official name, which has not been altered since 1930, translates to mean “phonetic symbols.”

Despite the many name changes and altered definitions of this set of Chinese symbols, it is most popularly known as bopomofo. This name is simply a composite of the first four symbols; bo, po, mo, and fo. It is much as if English speakers called the alphabet "ABCD" instead of simply "the alphabet". Bopomofo is often used in Chinese dictionaries in order to explain the pronunciation of a word. It is also used in some magazines and textbooks. In some ways, Bopomofo is much like the phonetic system that English speakers use in dictionaries and other grammatical texts.

Bopomofo includes 37 different symbols that have each been derived from traditional Chinese characters. The fact that the Chinese language has been condensed into this 37-character short hand language is an incredible feat. In its simplified form, the Chinese language includes over 6,000 characters. During the Quing Dynasty (1662-1723) a massive dictionary of Chinese characters was compiled. It included over 45,000 characters.

Bopomofo is an incredibly helpful tool for individuals who are learning Chinese and need help with pronunciation. Furthermore, Bopomofo is very useful in the world of technology. Bopomofo allows Chinese-speaking people to input text into their cell phones. For example, Bopomofo is used in phone contact lists, web browsing, and text messaging.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
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Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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