General Chinese is not specifically a romanization system, but two alternate systems: one uses Chinese characters phonetically, as a syllabary, and the other is an alphabetic romanization system with similar sound values and tone spellings to Gwoyeu Romatzyh.
Character-based General Chinese
The character version of General Chinese uses distinct characters for any traditional characters that are distinguished in any of the control varieties of Chinese, which consist of several dialects of , , , , and . That is, a single character will only correspond to more than one traditional character when these are homonyms in all control dialects. In effect, General Chinese is a syllabic reconstruction of the pronunciation of Middle Chinese, except that distinctions that have been lost from all major dialects are not bothered with.
Often the most common of these homonymic traditional characters is used for General Chinese, but when that character has strong semantic connotations that would interfere with a phonetic reading, Chao selected a less common character.
Romanized General Chinese
Romanized General Chinese has distinct symbols for the onsets and the rimes distinguished by any of the control dialects. For example, it retains the final consonants ''p, t, k'', and the distinction between final ''m'' and ''n'', as these are found in several modern dialects. General Chinese also maintains the "round-sharp" distinction, such as ''sia'' vs. ''hia'', though those are both ''xia'' in Beijing Mandarin. It also indicates the "muddy" stops of Shanghainese.
Like Chao's other invention, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, romanized General Chinese uses tone spelling. However, the system is somewhat different. The difference between the ''yin'' and ''yang'' tones is indicated by the voicing of the initial consonant, which is possible because the original voicing distinctions are retained.
The digraphs are not reliably ; for example, the digraphs for the voiced stops do not all follow the same pattern. This is because Chao ran frequency tests, and used single letters for the most common consonants and vowels, while restricting digraphs and trigraphs to the more infrequent ones.
An example of Romanized General Chinese can be illustrated with Chao's name:
All the General Chinese initials here are voiced: The ''h'' in ''dh'' shows that this is a "muddy" consonant, and the ''q'' in ''qiuan'' represents an initial ''ng-'' . This voicing shows up in the Cantonese ''yang'' tones, which are represented by aitches in Yale romanization. "Heavy" codas, such as ''remm'', indicate the "going" tone, as in Gwoyeu Romatzyh. Similarly, the spelling ''ao'' in ''dhyao'' indicates the "rising" tone, but because of the voiced initial, it merges with "going" in Mandarin and literary Cantonese . The ''y'' in ''dhyao'' indicates that the initial is a stop in Min and Japanese, but otherwise an affricate. Cantonese and Korean retain the final ''m'' of ''remm''. These pronunciations are all predictable given the General Chinese transcription. Both the pre-war and post-war Japanese orthographies are recoverable.
In every modern dialect, some syllables with different spellings will be pronounced the same. However, which these will be depends on the dialect. There are some irregular correlations: Often a particular dialect will have a pronunciation for a syllable that is not what you would expect from the general convention, due to irregular developments in that dialect. This is especially true with the voicing of Japanese consonants, which has evolved idiosyncratically in different compound words. However, except for Japanese voicing, the system is phonetic about 90% of the time.
Utility of romanized General Chinese vs. traditional characters
A common argument for retaining Chinese Characters is that romanization systems are insufficient to unambiguously represent the Chinese language, due to the large number of homonyms. Because General Chinese makes many distinctions that Pinyin does not, it has many fewer homonyms to confuse the reader. Combine this with the fact that many traditional Chinese characters are restricted to specific compounds, and that many homonymic characters distinguish meanings of what are historically the same word, and which are therefore understandable in context, Chao believed that General Chinese begins to approach the effectiveness of traditional characters in representing Chinese.