Chinese Language & Mandarin

Home China Facts Chinese Language: Mandarin



When the Chinese language is mentioned, people normally think about Cantonese in the past century. Mandarin has been recognized more often since the past decades.

Cantonese is actually one of the seven major dialects in China. It became well known because early Chinese immigrants were mostly from the Guangdong and Fujian provinces where Cantonese serves as a common language.

Besides Cantonese, the other six of the seven major dialects are: Northern dialect, Wu , Xiang, Gan, Kejia and Min dialect.

With the door open and the outreach effort made, more and more Mandarin speakers from China have come to the world scene and made Mandarin, the official language in China , better known.

Why Mandarin Is Spoken in China

Mandarin is called Pu Tong Hua or Putonghua by Chinese people in mainland China. It means "common language" or "standard language". It's called Guo-Yu in Taiwan, meaning "national language."

You can say Mandarin is China's lingua franca. China is huge, and its languages have been as diversified as its ethnic groups (56). Even among the same ethnic people, such as Han, the languages can differ from each other more or less.

Hundreds of dialects have been spoken in China's history and about 300 living Chinese languages are still used today according to some scholars. But the numbers are less according to the information from the China's Educational Department in 2005: there are more than 80 languages in speaking, 30 of which are also written languages.

The statistics may vary depending on the standards and methods used. The common conclusion we may have is that: China has many languages and they may be frustrating in terms of effective communication.

This has been a reality through China's history. A working language or bridge language is needed, especially among officials for communicative purposes as seen by imperial China.

The "Speech of Officials"

Since China's capitals have been mostly located in northern China, such as Beijing, the official language established by imperial China was based on the Northern dialect and Beijing speech. It was further standarized after 1949 and is the language for education, media and formal situations.

The name Mandarin was given in English when Jesuit missionaries learned this standard language in the 16th century, they called this Chinese language Mandarin, meaning "speech of officials".

Mandarin became dominant during the Qing Dynasty because the empire took certain steps to make other local pronunciations conform to the Beijing standard.

Nowadays, most Chinese people can speak intelligible Mandarin with various regional accents.

Mandarin in Hong Kong and Macau

However, In Hong Kong and Macau, the two of China's Special Administrative Areas, the language of education, media, formal speech and everyday life remains the local Cantonese. This is due to their colonial and linguistic history, although Mandarin is now very influential.

Written Chinese: Traditional or Simplified

Though both China and Taiwan use Mandarin, the way they write the characters are different.

Taiwan uses traditional way to write Chinese characters which have more strokes and are easier to trace back the reasons why the characters are created certain ways; P.R. China uses simplified form of characters which are much easier to write with less strokes to worry about.

There have been debates about which way is better among Chinese people who are concerned about their traditional culture. In the eyes of the Chinese calligraphy, the traditional characters are more in favor.

You might have noticed that Chinese newspapers and prints have been in traditional Chinese, but simplified versions are emerging more and more. This is because more and more people from the mainland China come overseas. They use simplified Chinese and speak Mandarin in general, while they may speak their local dialects with their hometown people.

Chinese characters are called Chinese symbols by many. Some Chinese lucky symbols are often seen in some forms of art designs in the western world.

Related Readings:


Home China Facts Chinese Language




China Highlights