Wade-Giles was the main system of transcription in the English-speaking world for most of the 20th century, used in several standard reference books and in all books about China published before 1979. It replaced the Nanjing-based romanization systems that had been common until late in the 19th century. It has mostly been replaced by the pinyin system today, but parts of it, especially the names of individuals and certain cities remain in use in the Republic of China .
Transcription, not transliteration
Although frequently improperly called "transliteration", Wade-Giles' system is a of Chinese. There can be no transliteration of Chinese script into any phonetic script, like the Latin alphabet. Any system of romanization of Chinese renders the sounds and not the characters .
Wade-Giles was developed by Thomas Francis Wade, a British ambassador in China and Chinese scholar who was the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge University. Wade published the first Chinese textbook in English in 1867. The system was refined in 1912 by Herbert Allen Giles, a British diplomat in China.
The Wade-Giles system was designed to transcribe Chinese terms, for Chinese specialists. This origin has led to a general sense that the system is non-intuitive for non-specialists and not useful for teaching Chinese pronunciation.
The Republic of China has used Wade-Giles for decades as the de facto standard, co-existing with several official but obscure Romanizations in succession, namely, Gwoyeu Romatzyh , MPS II , and Tongyong Pinyin . Taiwanese place names are still being virtually written in Wade-Giles, and many Chinese Americans and also write their Chinese names in Wade-Giles.
The Hanyu Pinyin system is the official and most widely used system in the People's Republic of China. In Singapore, Pinyin is taught in national schools and widely used in official documents, although a reversal of government policy changed the requirement to register people's Chinese names in Pinyin. Wade-Giles spellings and Pinyin spellings for Taiwanese place names and words long accepted in English usage are still used interchangeably in English-language texts in both countries.
One symbol-multiple sounds
A common complaint about the Wade-Giles system is the representation of the stop consonant pairs using apostrophes: ''p, p', t, t', k, k', ch, ch'''. However, the use of apostrophes preserves ''b'', ''d'', ''g'', and ''j'' for the romanization of containing voiced consonants, such as Shanghainese and Taiwanese whose century-old Pe?h-ōe-jī is similar to Wade-Giles. POJ, Legge romanization, Simplified Wade, and EFEO Chinese transcription use the letter ''h'' instead of an apostrophe to indicate aspiration . The convention of the apostrophe or "h" to denote aspiration is also found in romanizations of other Asian languages, such as McCune-Reischauer for and ISO 11940 for .
People unfamiliar with Wade-Giles often ignore the apostrophes, even so far as leaving them out when copying texts, unaware that they represent vital information. Hanyu Pinyin addresses this issue by employing the Latin letters customarily used for voiced stops, unneeded in Mandarin, to represent the unaspirated stops: ''b, p, d, t, g, k, j, q, zh, ch.''
Partly because of the popular omission of the apostrophe, the four sounds represented in Hanyu Pinyin by ''j'', ''q'', ''zh'', and ''ch'' all become ''ch'' in many literature and personal names. However, were the diacritics to be kept, the system reveals a symmetry that leaves no overlap:
* The non-retroflex ''ch'' and ''ch''' are always before either ''i'' or ''ü''.
* The retroflex ''ch'' and ''ch''' are always before ''a'', ''e'', ''ih'', ''o'', or ''u''.
Furthermore, Wade uses ''lo'' for three distinct sounds ; ''jo'' for two ; and ''no'' for two .
One sound-multiple symbols
In addition to several sounds presented using the same letter, sometimes, one single sound is represented using several sets of letters. There exists two versions of Wade-Giles Romanizations for each of the Pinyin syllables ''zi'', ''ci'', and ''si''.
* The older version writes ''ts?'', ''ts'?'', and ''ss?''
* The newer version writes:
** ''tzu'' for ''ts?'', but it still remains ''ts-'' before other vowels, as in ''tsung'' for the Pinyin ''zong''.
** ''tz'u'' for ''ts'?'', but remains ''ts'-'' before other vowels.
** ''szu'' or ''ssu'' for ''ss?'', but is ''s-'' before other vowels. Note, not ''ss-''.
Precision with empty rime
On the other hand, Wade-Giles shows precisions not found in other major Romanizations in regard to the rendering of the two types of empty s :
* ''-u'' after the sibilant ''tz'', ''tz''', and ''s'' .
* ''-ih'' after the retroflex ''ch'', ''ch''', ''sh'', and ''j'' .
These empty rimes are all written as ''-i'' in Hanyu Pinyin , and all written as ''-ih'' in Tongyong Pinyin. Zhuyin, as a non-Romanization, does not require the representation of any empty rime.
Partial interchangeability of ''uo'' and ''e'' with ''o''
What is pronounced as a close-mid back unrounded vowel is written usually as ''-e'' as in pinyin, but sometimes as ''-o''. This vowel in an isolate syllable is written as ''o'' or ''ê''. When placed in a syllable, it is ''e''; except when preceded by ''k'', ''k''', and ''h'', when it is ''o''.
What is actually pronounced as ''-uo'' is virtually always written as ''-o'' in Wade-Giles, except ''shuo'' and the three syllables of ''kuo'', ''k'uo'', and ''huo'', which already have the counterparts of ''ko'', ''k'o'', and ''ho'' that represent pinyin ''ge'', ''ke'', and ''he''.
In addition to the s used for distinguishing the , Wade-Giles uses hyphens to separate all syllables within a word, whereas Pinyin only uses apostrophes to separate ambiguous syllables. Originally in his dictionary, Giles used left apostrophes consistently. Such orientation was followed in Sinological works until the 1950s or 60s, when it started to be gradually replaced by right apostrophes in academic literature. On-line publications almost invariably use the plain apostrophe . Apostrophes are completely ignored in Taiwanese passports, hence their absence in overseas Chinese names.
If the syllable is not the first in a word, its first letter is not , even if it is a proper noun. The use of apostrophes, hyphens, and capitalization is frequently not observed in placenames and personal names. For example, the majority of overseas Chinese of Taiwanese origin write their given names like "Tai Lun" or "Tai-Lun", whereas the Wade-Giles actually writes "Tai-lun". The capitalization issue arises partly because ROC passports indiscriminately capitalize all letters of the holder's names . It is also due to the misunderstanding that the second syllable is a middle name.
Wade-Giles uses superscript numbers to indicate , and official Pinyin uses diacritics. The tone marks are ignored except in textbooks.
Comparison with Pinyin
* Wade-Giles chose the -like ''j'' to represent a Northerner's pronunciation of what now is represented as ''r'' in Pinyin.
* ''?'' always has a diaresis above, while Pinyin only employs it in the cases of ''nü'' and ''lü'', while leaving it out in ''-ue'', ''ju-'', ''qu-'', ''xu-'', ''-uan'' and ''yu-'' as a simplification because u cannot otherwise appear in those positions. Because ''yü'' must have a diaresis in Wade, the diaresis-less ''yu'' in Wade-Giles is freed up for what corresponds to ''you'' in Pinyin.
* The Pinyin vowel cluster ''ong'' is ''ung'' in Wade-Giles.
* After a consonant, both the Wade-Giles and Pinyin vowel cluster ''uei'' is written ''ui''. Furthermore, both Romanizations use ''iu'' and ''un'' instead of the complete syllables: ''iou'' and ''uen''.
* Single ''i'' is never preceded by ''y'', as in pinyin. The only exception is in placenames, which are hyphenless, so without a ''y'', syllable ambiguity could arise.
* The isolated syllable ''eh'' is written as ''ê'', like in Pinyin. But unlike Pinyin, which uses ''-e'' if there is a consonant preceding the sound, Wade-Giles uses ''-eh''.
* In addition to being the schwa, ''ê'' also represents the Pinyin ''er'' as ''êrh''.
Note: In Hanyu Pinyin the so-called 5th accent is written leaving the syllable with no diacritic mark at all. In Tong-yong Pin-Yin a ring is written over the vowel instead.
Chinese Postal Map Romanization is based on Wade-Giles, but incorporating a number of exceptions that override the systematic rules.