Evidently there’s a method of inscribing Chinese characters that has eluded me for years: it’s called Zhuyin (colloquially known as Bopomofo – no joke). I’m still learning how this works, but here’s the jist of it.

In the words of Wikipedia:

Zhuyin Fuhao, often abbreviated zhuyin, and colloquially Bopomofo is a phonetic system for transcribing Chinese, especially Mandarin, for people learning to read, write or speak Mandarin. This semi-syllabary is currently in wide use in Taiwan. Consisting of 37 letters and 4 tone marks, it is a comprehensive system that can transcribe all the possible sounds in Mandarin.

Although often thought of as an alphabet, zhuyin is not based on consonants and vowels but on syllable onsets and rimes, based on the Chinese rime tables but with diacritics rather than separate rimes for the tones. As in an alphabet, the consonants (onsets) are represented by distinct letters. These constitute 21 of bopomofo’s 37. However, excluding the medial glide, each rime also has a distinct letter, which conflates vowels, diphthongs, and final consonants. For example, luan is written ??? (l-u-an), where the last letter ? represents the entire final -an. These finals constitute the other 16 letters of bopomofo. (However, final -p, -t, -k, which are not found in Mandarin, are written as subscript letters after a final that represents only the vowel.)

Bopomofo letters are written like Chinese characters, including the general order of strokes and positioning. They are always placed to the right of the Chinese characters, whether the characters are arranged vertically or horizontally. Technically, these are Ruby characters. Very rarely do they appear on top of Chinese characters when written horizontally as furigana would be written above kanji in a Japanese text. Because a syllable block contains usually two or three bopomofo letters (which themselves fit in a square format) stacked on top of each other, the blocks are rectangular.


8/17/2010 Update: I’ve subsequently learned that this is a Taiwanese transliteration method that pre-dates pinyin. It’s being phased out and probably isn’t worth learning. Good thing, because it’s intimidating.