History of romanization of Chinese before 1949
In 1605, the Jesuit missionary
Matteo Ricci published Xizi Qiji (《西字奇蹟》; Xīzì Qíjī; Hsi-tzu Ch'i-chi; "Miracle of Western Letters") in Beijing.
 This was the first book to use the Roman alphabet to write the Chinese language. Twenty years later, another Jesuit in China,
Nicolas Trigault, issued his Xi Ru Ermu Zi (《西儒耳目資》; Hsi Ju Erh-mu Tzu; "Aid to the Eyes and Ears of Western Literati") at Hangzhou.
 Neither book had much immediate impact on the way in which Chinese thought about their writing system, and the romanizations they described were intended more for Westerners than for the Chinese.
One of the earliest Chinese thinkers to relate Western alphabets to Chinese was late Ming to early Qing Dynasty scholar-official,
Fang Yizhi (方以智; Fāng Yǐzhì; Fang I-chih; 1611–1671).
The first late Qing reformer to propose that China adopt a system of spelling was Song Shu (1862–1910). A student of the great scholars
Yu Yue and
Zhang Taiyan, Song had been to Japan and observed the stunning effect of the
kana syllabaries and Western learning there. This galvanized him into activity on a number of fronts, one of the most important being reform of the script. While Song did not himself actually create a system for spelling Sinitic languages, his discussion proved fertile and led to a proliferation of schemes for phonetic scripts.
The Wade–Giles system was produced by
Thomas Wade in 1859, and further improved by
Herbert Giles in the Chinese–English Dictionary of 1892. It was popular and used in English-language publications outside China until 1979.
In the early 1930s,
Communist Party of China leaders trained in Moscow introduced a phonetic alphabet using Roman letters which had been developed in the Soviet Oriental Institute of Leningrad and was originally intended to improve literacy in the
Russian Far East.
Sin Wenz or "New Writing"
 was much more linguistically sophisticated than earlier alphabets, with the major exception that it did not indicate tones.
In 1940, several thousand members attended a Border Region Sin Wenz Society convention.
Mao Zedong and
Zhu De, head of the army, both contributed their calligraphy (in characters) for the masthead of the Sin Wenz Society's new journal. Outside the
CCP, other prominent supporters included
Sun Yat-sen's son,
Cai Yuanpei, the country's most prestigious educator;
Tao Xingzhi, a leading educational reformer; and
Lu Xun. Over thirty journals soon appeared written in Sin Wenz, plus large numbers of translations, biographies (including Lincoln, Franklin, Edison, Ford, and Charlie Chaplin), some contemporary Chinese literature, and a spectrum of textbooks. In 1940, the movement reached an apex when Mao's Border Region Government declared that the Sin Wenz had the same legal status as traditional characters in government and public documents. Many educators and political leaders looked forward to the day when they would be universally accepted and completely replace characters. Opposition arose, however, because the system was less well adapted to writing regional languages, and therefore would require learning Mandarin. Sin Wenz fell into relative disuse during the following years.
In 1943, the U.S. military engaged Yale University to develop a romanization of Mandarin Chinese for its pilots flying over China. The resulting system is very close to pinyin, but doesn't use English letters in unfamiliar ways; for example, pinyin x is written as sy. Medial semivowels are written with y and w (instead of pinyin i and u), and apical vowels (syllabic consonants) with r or z. Accent marks are used to indicate tone.