It seems very likely that the current Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) will become China’s Premier in March 2013. He’ll replace his current boss Wen Jiabao (温家宝). Wen Jiabao’s name is relatively easy for English-speakers to pronounce. If you have a guess at it you should get something that’s about right. That can’t be said for the pronunciation of Li Keqiang, though. That Q is a real spanner in the works!
If you’ve studied much Mandarin, then hopefully you can pronounce this name pretty well once you’ve seen the pinyin: Lĭ Kèqiáng. If you haven’t studied any Mandarin, though, you probably can’t get the pronunciation right on the first attempt (or even attempt it!), and this post is for you.
A basic approximation of ‘Li Keqiang’
If all you want is a rough idea of how to pronounce Li Keqiang in English, then this might do the trick:
“lee kuh cheeang”
That’s “lee” like the common name, or in ‘leeway’. The “kuh” sound is a bit like the beginning of the word ‘cup’, and the “cheeang” is a little like the beginning of the word ‘cheese’ followed by the beginning of the word ‘angst’. Note that this is simply a convenient way to pronounce the name in English. It’s certainly not how you should pronounce the name accurately in a nice Mandarin accent.
Regular readers may be horrified to see me spreading such unscientific pronunciation guides, but we’ve got to remember that not everyone is 好好学习，天天向上ing like we do (that means “study hard and improve every day”, if you didn’t know).
You could spend a long time practicing pinyin and Mandarin pronunciation, but if you just want to know how to pronounce ‘Li Keqiang’ in everyday English conversation, I think the pronunciation described above is perfectly acceptable.
The scientific approach: IPA pronunciation
The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) for Li Keqiang is:
Good luck with that!
Pinyin: the standard romanisation system for Mandarin
If you really want to pronounce Li Keqiang accurately, you’ll probably have to learn a romanisation system for Mandarin Chinese and put a lot of time into practicing it. But read on and see what you can achieve in a few minutes!
The way we convert Mandarin Chinese names into English is now based on a standard system called pinyin. Literally this means “spelling by sound”. It’s also the standard system for writing the pronunciation of Mandarin words using the Roman alphabet. Here’s Li Keqiang written in full pinyin, colour-coded for tones:
First up, we’ve got three different tones here. Mandarin’s tones are a real nightmare for learners, and getting them right takes a long time. I’ve always held the view that when you’re using Mandarin words or names in English, though, you can ignore the tones. Just to clarify: tones are absolutely essential to get right when speaking Mandarin, but I think there’s no need to include them in the middle of an English sentence.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the consonants and vowels. The surname Li is pretty straightforward, to be honest. It’s very close to the name ‘Lee’ in English, as mentioned above. It’s not totally the same, though, which you might be able to tell from this recording: lǐ.
The first part of the given name, Ke, is actually a little tricky though. It’s not really the “kuh” sound given in the approximate pronunciation given above. The vowel starts in the mouth but almost descends down into the throat (that’s just my subjective description of how it feels to pronounce it). You can have a listen to a recording here: kè.
Then we get to the tricky bit for people who haven’t studied Mandarin. Just what is that Q doing there? In Mandarin pinyin, q has actually been re-purposed to cover a sound that doesn’t have a letter to cover it in English. Mandarin Chinese has two distinct sounds that both sound like “ch” to English-speakers. In pinyin, one of these is covered by “ch” and the other is covered by “q”.
So you know that this “q” sound is similar to “ch” but not the same. The difference is that to pronounce “ch”, your tongue should be somewhere on the roof of your mouth, and to pronounce “q”, the tip of your tongue should be just behind your lower front teeth.
This is seriously difficult to get right, so I won’t go into it in more detail here. But that basic explanation should help you get it slightly more correct than everyone who just says “lee kuh cheeang”.
And now we have the rest of the ‘qiang’ syllable. It begins with the ‘ee’ sound from the surname, Li. Then it has a long ‘ah’ sound, but it’s not just ‘ah’. It always sounds to me like it’s got a bit of ‘or’ in it. Go for a long ‘a’ sound with your throat a bit more open and you’ll do better than other people who haven’t studied Mandarin, anyway.
After that it’s a got a nasal closing sound, which is similar to the end of words like ‘bang’ and ‘young’ in English. Again, put some time into researching and practicing this is you actually want to pronounce it accurately.
Here’s a recording of the ‘qiang’ syllable so you know what it should sound like: qiáng.