Is it Pa-Kua or Ba-Gua?

Sérgio M. de Souza
4 min readFeb 13, 2020

Pa Kua is the romanization or transliteration of characters 八 (Pa) and 卦 (Kua).

What are Romanization and Transliteration Systems?

Romanization is the act of representing a spoken language which uses a non-Latin alphabet, such as Russian, Arabic and Mandarin, into the Latin alphabet that English uses.

Transliteration takes this a step further: this is the mapping of one system of writing into another, with the end result being that, from a predefined set of rules, it becomes possible to reconstruct phonetic pronunciation from one language into another. In other words, transliteration is the process by which it becomes possible to convert “北京” into “Beijing”.

In order to standardize the West’s transliterations of their names, the Chinese government has developed and embraced several romanization systems. These systems include pinyin, Wade-Giles and bopomofo (sometimes called zhuyin), which allowed for the phonetic transcriptions of Mandarin into the Latin alphabet. That is, these systems allow one to transcribe from Mandarin’s system of ideograms (a single written character that represents an idea) directly into the Latin alphabet. Its adoption, experts say, also served to facilitate communication with the rest of the world by easing communication and pronunciation.

Pinyin, literally meaning “spelling of sounds,” is the romanization method officially used by the People’s Republic of China. The most common and most widely used variant of pinyin is called hanyu pinyin, where hanyu means Mandarin. Hanyu pinyin was approved in 1958 and adopted in 1979 by the government of the People’s Republic of China. The original idea of ​​the government was to use pinyin as the official written language of China, setting aside the ideograms.

Pinyin replaced previous romanization systems, such as the Wade-Giles (developed in 1859), and the postal romanization system (1903), and also replaced bopomofo (1918) as the method of Chinese phonetic translation in mainland China. The Chinese Government had several goals in adopting this system, but, as mentioned, one of the primary goals was to facilitate communication with the West.

Pinyin as a system deals in romanization, not in anglicization; it uses Latin letters to attempt to represent the standard sounds of Mandarin. But as pinyin is a system, the way pinyin romanizes sounds, in some cases, differs from the ways certain sounds were previously romanized by the other romanization systems mentioned. For example, the sounds indicated in Mandarin dialect by the letters “b” and “g” correspond more precisely to the sounds represented, respectively, by the letters “p” and “k” in the western use of the Latin alphabet. If you’d like to learn more, you can refer to this this audio pronunciation guide:

By allowing alphabetic characters to refer to specific Chinese sounds, pinyin performs an accurate and concise romanization, which is very convenient for both native-born Chinese and academics. However, this approach also means that a person who has neither studied Chinese nor the pinyin system may easily make serious pronunciation errors. This is a less serious problem with earlier romanization systems such as Wade-Giles, which was created by the British professors of the same name, with English speakers in mind. This helps to explain part of the pronunciation confusion we’ve been examining.

Incidentally, the adoption of pinyin as an official system was also what caused the change of the spelling of the name Mao Tse-Tung, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, to the newer spelling Mao Zedong. The change in spelling was a decision which fell to the Chinese government.

Returning at last to the pronunciation of pa kua, in Wade-Giles, the characters 八卦 are romanized as “Pa Kua”, with “P” and “K”. As a result of the Western focus of the school, and that the official adoption of the pinyin system happened after the founding of the Pa-Kua school in 1976, within the school this spelling is preferred. Despite being an older system, there are still many words which still use “P” and “K” in this way. Here are some further examples:


Mao Tse-tung — Confucius — Peking — Kung Fu — Lao Tze — Tai Chi — Pa Kua


Mao Zedong — Kung Fu Zi — Beijing — Gong fu — Lao zi — Tai Ji — Ba Gua

As you can see, ultimately, both “pa kua” and “ba gua” are correct. They are just written with different romanization systems.

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