If I ask you to draw a short horizontal line, will you be able to do it? Luckily we don’t have to be an artist to accomplish this. If you can draw a short horizontal line, then congratulations! You have just written your first Chinese character, “one”, which is written as 一 (yī, one). Don’t underestimate this one short line.
Before we get into the concepts of the Chinese character 一 (yī, one), we need to understand a little background on Chinese Mandarin. One astounding feature of Chinese Mandarin is the Pinyin system – a fixed sound system. Under the Pinyin system, you can combine Pinyin letters with a tone to formulate the Chinese word you wish to convey. The benefit of Pinyin is that you get a fixed set of 400-something syllables. You will hear only those sounds. That means, there are no weird or unexpected sounds from Chinese Mandarin. Any sound heard in Chinese Mandarin comes from the Pinyin chart.
Take 我 (wŏ, I) as an example: 我 is pronounced wŏ (wo with the 3rd tone sound)
It doesn’t matter where 我 (wŏ, I) is written, the sound is the same. The wo is always pronounced with the 3rd tone.
Although the meaning of 一 (yī) is “one”, it plays two key roles in my class! 一 (yī) is an architect and a mood changer. This character might look simple to write, but it has several meaningful layers that’s worth diving into below.
一 (yī) as an architect
I have always been fond of the Chinese character 一 (yī, one). It is the first character that I teach in my Introduction to Chinese Characters course. 一 (yī) is one of the fundamental building blocks for writing Chinese characters. If you can draw a line from point A to point B, then you can already write the Chinese character “one”. How cool is it to arrive in class and learn that you are already pre-equipped with a Chinese character under your belt? That is awesome and already a small win, isn’t it? Another concept that 一 (yī) can enable you to start practicing is the stroke order when writing Chinese. In general, the stroke order goes from left to right and 一 (yī, one) is an excellent introductory character for that concept.
一 (yī) as a mood changer
Most of the Chinese characters have one fixed sound to it (the Pinyin and the tone mark), but there are exceptions of course. 一 (yī, one) presents an interesting case called Tone Sandhi or a tone change. To learn about 一’s tone change, we are going to take a look at its functions.
When 一 stays as yī (yi with the 1st tone)
一’s tone does not change when it is used as an ordinal number.
When 一 (yī) changes in tone
By default, 一 (yī) is pronounced in the 1st tone, which is a high flat sound; let’s associate that with “gentleness”. Everyone gets angry at some point and our gentle 一 (yī) is no exception. When 一 (yī) is followed by a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd tone Chinese character, it becomes angry and changes to the 4th tone. So instead of yī (yi with the 1st tone sound), we say yì (yi with the 4th tone sound). If you have taken my Tone Introduction class, then you will have learned that I associate “anger” with the 4th tone. There is also the tip of “short angry no" as a means to remember how to pronounce the 4th tone sound.
The column “Pinyin” shows the original Pinyin sound for each word. The column “Pinyin with Tone Sandhi” shows how they are actually pronounced.
When you are building up your Chinese vocabulary as you continue to practice speaking Chinese, keep in mind that a lot of Pinyin converters do not give you the Pinyin after the tone change. So pay more attention to your tones when you see 一 (yī) is followed by a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd tone Chinese character.
What about the 4th tone?
What if 一 (yī) is written next to a 4th tone character - the angry tone? Then, its’ “anger” strength is halved! What is half of 4? 2. So when our gentle 一 (yī) tries to act tough with the angry tone, it is only half as strong. Therefore, when一 (yī) is followed by a 4th tone Chinese character, it is pronounced in the 2nd tone. So instead of yī (yi with the 1st tone sound), we say yí (yi with the 2nd tone sound).
一 (yī) Tone Sandhi Summary
- 一 (yī) is pronounced in the 4th tone when it is written next to a Chinese character in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd tone.
- 一 (yī) is pronounced in the 2nd tone when it is written next to a Chinese character in the 4th tone.
While 一 (yī) might look simple; it teaches us two important concepts in Chinese Mandarin. First off, 一 (yī) can be an architect in boosting a learner’s confidence by letting them know Chinese characters aren't that scary; and in fact, beginners are already pre-equipped with knowing the symbol 一 (yī). It also serves as a great reminder that the rule of thumb for stroke order when writing Chinese is from left to right. Secondly, 一 (yī), as a mood changer, also teaches us the Tone Sandhi scenario which can confuse students in pronunciation when they encounter 一 (yī) in a phrase. We learned that 一 (yī) can be pronounced in the first, second, and fourth tones depending on how 一 (yī) is worded in a sentence. 一 (yī) is the perfect example of 一石二鸟 (Kill two birds with one stone)!
Try the following questions to test your understanding. What tones should the following一 (yī) be pronounced in?
Pinyin with Tone Sandhi