Mandarin Chinese is known by many names. In Taiwan, it is called 國語 / 国语 (guóyǔ - national language), in Singapore it is known as 華語 / 华语 (huáyǔ - Chinese language), and in China it is called 普通話 / 普通话 (pǔtōnghuà - common speech). In the United Nations it is known simply as "Chinese".
Historically, Mandarin Chinese was called 官話/官话 (guānhuà - "speech of officials") by the Chinese people. The English word "mandarin" meaning "bureaucrat", is derived from the Portuguese name for guānhuà. The Portuguese word for bureaucratic official was mandarim, so they called guanhua "the language of the mandarims" or "mandarim" for short. The final "m" was converted to an "n" in the English version of this name.
The name 普通話 / 普通话 (pǔtōnghuà) originates in the early 20th century, during the last days of the Qing Dynasty (清朝 - Qīng Cháo), although at this time, the official language of China was known as 國語 / 国语 (guóyǔ).
After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the new Republic Of China desired to standardize a common national language, and eventually the Beijing dialect was chosen as the pronunciation standard. This dialect was originally called 國語 / 国语 (Guóyǔ), but after the shift of power to the People's Republic of China, the name guóyǔ was replaced by pǔtōnghuà in 1955.
Putonghua - Common Speech
Putonghua is the official language of The People's Republic of China (Mainland China). It is based on the Beijing dialect, which was used during the much of the Qing Dynasty as the official language of the Imperial Court.
But pǔtōnghuà is not the only language spoken in China. There are five major language families with a total of up to 250 distinct languages or dialects. This wide divergence intensifies the need for a unifying language that is understood by all Chinese people.
Historically, the written language was the unifying source of many of the Chinese languages, since Chinese characters have the same meaning wherever they are used, even though they may be pronounced differently in different regions.
The use of a common spoken language has been promoted since the rise of the People's Republic of China, which established pǔtōnghuà as the language of education throughout the Chinese territory.
Hong Kong & Macau
Cantonese is the official language of both Hong Kong and Macau, and is the language spoken by the majority of the population. Since the ceding of these territories (Hong Kong from Britain and Macau from Portugal) to the People's Republic of China, pǔtōnghuà has been used as the language of communication between the territories and the PRC, and the PRC is promoting greater use of pǔtōnghuà by training teachers and other officials.
The outcome of the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950) saw the Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party) retreat from Mainland China to the nearby island of Taiwan. Mainland China, under the Mao's People's Republic of China, saw changes in language policy, including the introduction of simplified Chinese characters, and the official use of the name pǔtōnghuà. Meanwhile, the KMT in Taiwan retained the use of traditional Chinese characters, and the name guóyǔ continued to be used for the official language, both policies which continue up to the present time.
Traditional Chinese characters are also used in Hong Kong, Macau, and many overseas Chinese communities.
Pǔtōnghuà has four distinct tones which are used to differentiate homophones. For example, the syllable ma has four distinct meanings, depending on the tone.
The grammar of pǔtōnghuà is relatively simple when compared with many European languages. There are no tenses or verb agreements, and the basic sentence structure is subject-verb-object.
The use of untranslated particles for clarification and temporal location is one of the features that make pǔtōnghuà challenging for second-language learners.