Wade–Giles was developed by Thomas Francis Wade, a scholar of Chinese and a British ambassador in China who was the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge University. Wade published in 1867 the first textbook on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin in English, Yü-yen Tzŭ-erh Chi (traditional: 語言自邇集; simplified: 语言自迩集), which became the basis for the Romanization system later known as Wade–Giles. The system, designed to transcribe Chinese terms for Chinese specialists, was further refined in 1912 by Herbert Allen Giles, a British diplomat in China and his son, Lionel Giles, a curator at the British Museum.
Taiwan has used Wade–Giles for decades as the de facto standard, co-existing with several official but obscure Romanizations in succession, namely, Gwoyeu Romatzyh (1928), Mandarin Phonetic Symbols II (1986), and Tongyong Pinyin (2000). With the election of the Kuomintang party in Taiwan in 2008, Taiwan officially switched to Hànyǔ Pīnyīn. However, many people in Taiwan, both native and overseas, use or transcribe their legal names in the Wade–Giles system, as well as the other aforementioned systems.
Singapore has also made limited use of Wade–Giles romanization, such as in the romanization of the middle syllable of Lee Hsien Loong's name.