How to pronounce Mao Zedong

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

Chinese RMB banknotes Yuan
Mao Zedong's portrait appears on every RMB banknote. Christian Petersen-Clausen/Getty Images

In this article, we will look at how to pronounce Mao Zedong (毛泽东), sometimes also spelled Mao Tse-tung. The former spelling is in Hanyu Pinyin, the second in Wade-Giles. The first is by far the most common spelling today, even though you will sometimes see the other spelling in non-Chinese texts.

Below you can see a rough idea of how to pronounce the name for non-Chinese speakers, followed by a more detailed description, including analysis of common learner errors.

Pronouncing Names in Chinese

Pronouncing can be very hard if you haven't studied the language; sometimes it's hard even if you have. Ignoring or mispronouncing tones will just add to the confusion. These mistakes add up and often become so serious that a native speaker would fail to understand. Read more about how to pronounce Chinese names.

An Easy Explanation of How to Pronounce Mao Zedong

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.

Listen to the pronunciation here while reading the explanation. Repeat yourself!

  1. Mao - Pronounce as the first part of "mouse"
  2. Ze - Pronounce as a British English "sir" with as very short "t" in front
  3. Dong - Pronounce as "dong"

If you want want to have a go at the tones, they are rising, rising and high-flat 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 Mao Zedong

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. Máo (second tone) - This syllable is not terribly difficult and most native speakers of English will get it right by just trying. It rhymes with "how" in English, or as given above, with the beginning of "mouse". The only difference is that "a" in Mandarin is more open and further back than in English, so move your tongue a bit back and down. Let your jaw drop a bit.
  2.   (second tone) - The second syllable is by far the most difficult one. It is an affricate, which means that there is a stop sound (a soft "t", without aspiration), followed by a hissing sound like an "s". The start of this syllable sounds a little bit like the end of the word "cats" in English. Actually, the pronunciation in Wade-Giles captures this more accurately with the "ts" spelling in "tse". The final is difficult to get completely right, but start with a mid-central vowel as in English "the". From there, go even further back. There is no corresponding vowel in English.
  1.  Dōng (first tone) - The final syllable shouldn't cause that much of a problem. There is some variation among native speakers here, where some say "dong", which would almost rhyme with "song" in English, whereas others round their lips even more and move it even further back and up. There is no such vowel in English. The initials should be unaspirated and unvoiced.

The are some variations for these sounds, but Mao Zedong (毛泽东) can be written like this in IPA:

[mɑʊ tsɤ tʊŋ]

Conclusion

Now you know how to pronounce Mao Zedong (毛泽东). 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!