How to pronounce Deng Xiaoping

Some quick and dirty tips, as well as an in-depth explanation

China, Guangdong Province, Shenzhen, huge bulletin board of Communist leader, Deng Xiaoping
A billboard portrait of Deng Xiaoping. Keren Su/Getty Images

In this article, we will look at how to pronounce Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), the name of one of the most important politicians in China during the previous century and one of the main forces behind China's economic development.

Below, I will first give you a quick and dirty way if you just want to have a rough idea how to pronounce the name. Then I’ll go through a more detailed description, including analysis of common learner errors.

Pronouncing Deng Xiaoping if You Don't Know Any Mandarin

Chinese names usually consist of three syllables, with the first being the family name and the last two the personal name. There are exceptions to this rule, but it holds true in a vast majority of cases. Thus, there are three syllables we need to deal with.

  1. Deng - Pronounce as "dang", but replace "a" with the "e" in "the"
  2. Xiao - Pronounce as "sh" plus "yow-" in "yowl"
  3. Ping - Pronounce as "ping"

If you want want to have a go at the tones, they are falling, low and rising respectively.

Note: This pronunciation is not correct pronunciation in Mandarin. It represents my best effort to write the pronunciation using English words. To really get it right, you need to learn some new sounds (see below).

How to Actually Pronounce Deng Xiaoping

If you study Mandarin, you should never ever rely on English approximations like those above. Those are meant for people who don't intend to learn the language!

You have to understand the orthography, i.e. how the letters relate to the sounds. There are many traps and pitfalls in Pinyin you have to be familiar with.

Now, let's look at the three syllables in more detail, including common learner errors:

  1. Dèng  (fourth tone) - The first syllable rarely causes serious problems for speakers of English. The only things you should pay attention to is the initial, which is unaspirated and unvoiced. The vowel sound is a relaxed central sound close to the schwa in English "the". 
  1.  Xiǎo (third tone) - This syllable is the hardest of the three. The "x" sound is produced by putting the tongue tip just behind the lower teeth and then pronouncing an "s", but slightly further back than a normal "s". You can also try to say "shhh" as when telling someone to be quite, but place your tongue tip behind the lower teeth. The final isn't all that difficult and sounds close to what I mentioned above ("yowl" minus the "l").
  2.  Píng (second tone) - This syllable is relatively close to the English word with the same spelling. It has slightly more aspiration on the "p" and sometimes have an added, light schwa (central vowel) between the "i" and the "ng" (this is optional). I have written more about this very final here

The are some variations for these sounds, but Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) can be written like this in IPA:

[təŋ ɕjɑʊ pʰiŋ]

Conclusion

Now you know how to pronounce Deng Xiaoping (邓小平). Did you find it hard? If you’re learning Mandarin, don't worry; there aren't that many sounds. Once you’ve ​learned the most common ones, learning to pronounce words (and names) will become much easier!