How to Pronounce the Chinese City "Shenzhen"

Shenzhen skyline at twilight
Yongyuan Dai/Getty Images

Since Shenzhen was designated the first "Special Economic Zone" and an experiment in market capitalism in China in 1980, it has appeared frequently in Western news media. Today, it has a population of around 10 million people, with about twice that many in the larger metropolitan area. Considering that the city had little more than 300,000 citizens in 1980, it's one of the fastest growing cities on record, even though the growth has recently slowed down considerably. The city was chosen as a Special Economic Zone because of its proximity to Hong Kong. Shenzhen is written 深圳 in Chinese, which means "deep" and "ditch (between fields)."

We're going to provide a quick and dirty explanation of how to pronounce the name so you have a rough idea of how to say it, followed by a more detailed description, including analysis of common errors.

The Easy Way to Learn to Pronounce Shenzhen

Most Chinese cities have names with two characters (and therefore two syllables). Here's a brief description of the sounds involved: 

  1. Shen - Pronounce "sh" in "sheep" plus "an" as in "an apple"
  2. Zhen - Pronounce as "j" in "jungle" plus "an" as in "an apple"

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

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

Pronouncing Names in Chinese

Pronouncing names in Chinese can be very hard if you haven't studied the language; sometimes, it's hard even if you have. Many letters used to write the sounds in Mandarin (called Hanyu Pinyin) don't match the sounds they describe in English, so simply trying to read a Chinese name and guess the pronunciation will lead to many mistakes.

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. 

How to Actually Pronounce Shenzhen

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 two syllables in more detail, including common learner errors:

  1. Shēn (first tone): The initial is a retroflex, unaspirated, fricative. What does that mean? It means that it should feel like the tongue is slightly curled backwards as when saying "right", and then pronounce a hissing sound (such as when urging someone to be quiet with "Shhh!") This is close to "sh" in "sheep," but the tongue tip is farther back. The final is reasonably easy to get right and sounds close to the short description above ("an" in "an apple").
  2. Zhèn (fourth tone): This syllable is fairly easy to get right if you get the "shen" right. The only difference between the two is that "zhen" has a small stop in front of the hissing sound; you can think about it as a small and rather soft "t." This type of sound is called an affricate, a combination between a stop and a fricative. The final part is pronounced the same as in "shen."

The are some variations for these sounds, but Shēnzhèn (深圳) can be written like this in IPA:

[ʂən tʂən]

Conclusion

Now you know how to pronounce Shēnzhèn (深圳). Did you find it hard? If you’re learning Mandarin, don't worry, there aren't that many sounds. Once you learn the most common ones, learning to pronounce words (and names) will become much easier!