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Introduction to Mandarin Chinese

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Eastern China. Light brown shows Mandarin-speaking areas

SVG from Gohu1er, based on work from Wu Yue

Mandarin Chinese is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan, and is one of the official languages of Singapore and the United Nations. It is the most widely-spoken language in the world.

Mandarin Chinese is sometimes referred to as a “dialect,” but the distinction between dialects and languages is not always clear. There are many versions of Mandarin spoken throughout China, and these are usually classified as dialects.

There are other Chinese languages such as Cantonese (spoken in Hong Kong) that are very distinct from Mandarin. However, many of these languages use Chinese characters for their written form, so that Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers (for example) can understand each other through writing, even though the spoken languages are mutually unintelligible.

Language Family

Mandarin is part of the Chinese family of languages, which in turn is part of the Sino-Tibetan language group. All Chinese languages are tonal, which means that the way words are pronounced varies their meanings. Mandarin has 4 tones. Other Chinese languages have up to 10 distinct tones.

The word “Mandarin” actually has two meanings when referring to language. It can be used to refer to a particular group of languages, or more commonly, as the Beijing dialect that is the standard language of Mainland China.

The Mandarin group of languages includes standard Mandarin (the official language of Mainland China), as well as Jin (or Jin-yu), a language spoken in the central-north region of China and Inner Mongolia.

Local Names for Mandarin

The name “Mandarin” was first used by the Portuguese to refer to the magistrates of the Imperial Chinese Court and the language they spoke. Mandarin is the term used through much of the Western world, but the Chinese themselves refer to the language as Pǔ tōng huà, Guó yǔ or Huá yǔ.

Pǔ tōng huà literally means “common language” and is the term used in Mainland China. Taiwan uses Guó yǔ (the national language) and Singapore and Malaysia refer to it as Huá yǔ (Chinese language).

History of Mandarin

Due to its geographic size, China has always been a land of many languages and dialects. Mandarin emerged as the language of the ruling class during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644).

The Capital of China switched from Nanjing to Beijing in the latter part of the Ming Dynasty, and remained in Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912). Since Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, it naturally became the official language of the court.

Nonetheless, the large influx of officials from various parts of China meant that many dialects continued to be spoken at the Chinese court. It was not until 1909 that Mandarin became the national language (guó yǔ) of China.

When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912, the Republic of China maintained Mandarin as the official language. It was renamed pǔ tōng huà (common speech) in 1955, but Taiwan continues to use the name guó yǔ (national language).

Written Chinese

As one of the Chinese languages, Mandarin uses Chinese characters for its writing system. Chinese characters have a history dating back more than two thousand years. The early forms of Chinese characters were pictographs (graphic representations of real objects), but characters became more stylized and came to represent ideas as well as objects.

Each Chinese character represents a syllable of the spoken language. Characters represent words, but not every character is used independently.

The Chinese writing system is very complex and the most difficult part of learning Mandarin. There are thousands of characters, and they must be memorized and practiced to master the written language.

In an attempt to improve literacy, the Chinese government began simplifying characters in the 1950’s. These simplified characters are used in Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia, while Taiwan and Hong Kong still use the traditional characters.

Romanization

Students of Mandarin often use Romanization in place of Chinese characters. Romanization uses the Western (Roman) alphabet to represent the sounds of spoken Mandarin, so is a bridge between learning the spoken language and beginning the study of Chinese characters.

There are many systems of Romanization, but the most popular for teaching materials (and the system used on this website) is Pinyin.

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