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Transcription into Chinese characters is the use of traditional or simplified Chinese characters to phonetically transcribe the sound of terms and names of foreign words to the Chinese language. Transcription is distinct from translation into Chinese whereby the meaning of a foreign word is communicated in Chinese. Since, in mainland China and often in Taiwan, Hanyu Pinyin is now used to transcribe Chinese into a modified Latin alphabet and since English classes are now standard in most secondary schools, it is increasingly common to see foreign names and terms left in their original form in Chinese texts. However, for mass media and marketing within China and for non-European languages, particularly those of the Chinese minorities, transcription into characters remains very common.

Despite the importance of Cantonese and other southern coastal varieties of Chinese to foreign contact during the 19th century (as seen, for instance, in the number of Cantonese loanwords in English), the northern capital dialect has been formally sanctioned within the country for centuries. This status continued under the Republic, which retained the importance of the "National Language" (國語 Guóyǔ) despite moving its capital to Nanking, Chungking, and Taipei, none of which natively spoke it. Similarly, "Standard Chinese" (普通话 Pǔtōnghuà) has been mandatory for most media and education throughout the People's Republic of China since 1956.[1][2] Except for a handful of traditional exceptions, modern transcription therefore uses the standardized Mandarin pronunciations exclusively.

Very rarely, characters are specially made for the transcribed terms. This was formerly more common: by adding the appropriate semantic radical, existing characters could be used to give a sense of the sound of the new word. , for instance, was formed out of (the water radical) + , which at the time had the sound value khong,[7] to approximate the Yue name *Krong. Similarly, the addition of (the grass radical) produced 茉莉 mòlì to translate the Sanskrit name for jasmine (malli) and (clothes) was added to other characters to permit 袈裟 jiāshā, the Chinese version of Sanskrit kasaya. Another such example is 乒乓 pīngpāng the Chinese word for ping pong, in which both characters are formed by removing a stroke from the similar sounding character bīng, and at the same time, the two characters look like a net and a paddle. The most general radical for transcription is the mouth radical, which is used to transcribe not only certain foreign terms (such as 咖啡 kāfēi, "coffee"), but also terms for which no Chinese characters exist in non-Mandarin varieties of Chinese (such as in Cantonese). Such phono-semantic compounds make up the majority of Chinese characters, but new ones coined to communicate foreign words only infrequently reach common use today. Notable exceptions are the Chinese characters for chemical elements, which mostly consist of combining pre-existing characters with the appropriate radicals, such as for gases.

See also