†These authors contributed equally.
The neutral tone is a unique tone form in Mandarin as it distinguishes from four canonical tones or full tones on the one hand and integrates phonetic, morphological, syntactical and prosodic information on the other hand. Research to date has been focusing on its unique and variant acoustic features. However, little is known about how native Mandarin speakers process such a unique tone. In the present study, the mismatch negativity was used to explore the comparison-based pre-attentive change detection of Mandarin neutral tone. The mismatch negativity at the time window of 400-800 ms post-first-tone onset was obtained by subtracting event-related potentials to standard neutral tone from event-related potentials to a deviant natural tone. The source analysis of mismatch negativity showed the cortex generator was located at the left temporal lobe. The data suggest that Chinese native speakers process neutral tone automatically under non-attentional conditions, as revealed by the mismatch negativity data aligned with a neutral tone, and that neutral tone does exist as an automatically recognizable one in native Mandarin speakers’ tone system.