Chinese Polyphones

Jan 18, 2019 | Linguistics

Chinese learners often struggle with polyphones – characters with two or more pronunciations. In this article, we will look at 5 common Chinese polyphones.


Chinese Polyphones: One Character, Two Meanings

In simple words, polyphones are Chinese characters which, depending on the context, have two or more pronunciations. Chinese polyphones often make a sentence (or even the whole article) quite difficult to understand. So mastering them is one more step to becoming a pro!


行 xíng vs. 行 háng

行 xíng, to walk | 行 háng, bureau

行 xíng is a formal term meaning “to walk”. Some typical examples with 行 xíng include words like:

旅行 lǚxíng (to travel)

行李 xínglǐ (luggage)

行踪 xíngzōng (trace), and so on.

行 háng means “bureau”, and the use of this character is often related to government apparatus, such as 银行 yínháng (bank).


Tom非常喜欢旅行。Tom fēicháng xǐhuan lǚxíng. (Tom really likes travelling.)

我的家附近有一个银行。Wǒde jiā fùjìn yǒu yī gè yínhang. (There is a bank near my house.)


难 nán vs. 难 nàn

难 nán, difficult | 难 nàn, disaster

难 nán is usually used as an adjective, which means “difficult”. You can use it to describe literally anything – a task, an exam, or even a time period.

难 nàn can be only treated as a noun, and it means “catastrophe”.


我觉得中文很难。Wǒ juéde zhōngwén hěn nán. (I think Chinese is very difficult.)

那场森林大火是个灾难。Nà chǎng sēnlín dàhuǒ shì gè zāinàn. (The forest fire was a catastrophe.)


干 gān vs. 干 gàn

干 gān, dry | 干 gàn, to do

干 gān can be used on its own as an adjective meaning “dry”. However, 干 gàn is a colloquial word for “to do”, which is similar to 做 zuò. In addition, 干 gàn can be only used in certain collocations, which means 干 gàn and 做 zuò are not always interchangeable.


我喜欢吃牛肉干。Wǒ xǐhuan chī niúròu gān. (I like beef jerky.)

你在干什么?Nǐ zài gàn shénme? (What are you doing?)


还 hái vs. 还 huán

还 huán, to return | 还 hái, also

Both characters can be used on their own and are very commonly used in Chinese people’s daily life. 还 hái is an adverb meaning “still, also”, whereas 还 huán is usually used as a verb meaning “to return something, to give something back”.


除了英语,他还会说法语。Chúle yīngyǔ, tā hái huì shuō fǎyǔ. (Besides English, he can also speak French.)

他还你钱了吗?Tā huán nǐ qián le ma? (Did he give you your money back?)


便 pián VS. 便 biàn

便 pián, cheap | 便 biàn, convenient

Both 便 pián and 便 biàn are rarely used on their own. They are usually followed by other characters to form proper words. One of the most popular words containing 便 pián is 便宜 piányi, which means ‘cheap, inexpensive’. And an extremely useful word with 便 biàn is 方便 fāngbiàn, which means ‘convenient’.


这些鞋子很便宜。Zhèxiē xiézi hěn piányi. (These shoes aren’t expensive.)

这个手机用起来很方便。Zhège shǒujī yòngqǐlái hěn fāngbiàn. (This mobile phone is very easy to use.)

[If you like this post, you can also have a look at our article about “Chinese reversible words” here!]

[There’re lots of homonyms in English. But how many Chinese homonyms do you know? You can read about them in our post here!]

What other polyphones do you know?

Share in comments – or tweet us at @thatsmandarin!


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