This page is part of other pages on China and the Chinese language.
The Han people (an ethnic group that comprises the majority of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) share a common written language. There are variations in vocabulary, and there are two distinct character sets (traditional and simplified), but the written language is mutually intelligible to most Chinese people, whether citizens of mainland China or members of the Chinese diaspora.
In contrast to the written language, the spoken language has numerous dialects. Unlike say English, French or Spanish, the dialects of Chinese are not mutually intelligible. Learning to speak Mandarin will not help you to speak Cantonese, or vice versa.
According to Ethnologue (published by the Summer Institute of Linguistics), the following are the most commonly used Chinese dialects:
Most of China; Singapore
Yue (Cantonese, Guangdonghua)
Southern China (except Guangdong); Taiwan natives, Malaysia
Hunan, parts of Sichuan
Eastern and northeastern Guangdong
Jiangxi and southeastern corner of Hubei
Other than Mandarin, the Cantonese dialect is the one most likely to be known by Westerners, largely because for 200 years the people of Canton (Guangdong) province and Hong Kong have been the Chinese most actively trading with the West.
One dialect (called Mandarin in English) is the dialect of the region around China's capital, Beijing, and thus has become the common dialect for oral communication among the Chinese people. However, dialects such as Cantonese (in Southern China) and those around Shangahi and Fuzhou are commonly spoken.
A form of the Mandarin dialect has been taught in Taiwan as the preferred spoken dialect. Similarly, the Singapore government &endash; seeking to unify descendants of Chinese refugees from many parts of China &endash; in 1979 launched its Speak Mandarin Campaign to assure a common spoken dialect for its ethnic Chinese citizens.
Mandarin is the version of Chinese in which each syllable is pronounced using one of four possible tones. See more at Online Mandarin Chinese.
Like anything else that divided mainland China from capitalist enclaves of Chinese people elsewhere, the Chinese language and even the terms used to describe the language have political overtones.
There are two written forms of the Chinese characters:
As a practical matter, by weight of sheer numbers the simplified characters are used by more people today, but the traditional characters must be learned for reading older printed materials or for anything published in Taiwan.
The term Mandarin is a Western term for the main Chinese dialect that has nothing to do with terms in Chinese for the language; Cantonese is a bit more descriptive in that its named after the Chinese province (using the Wade-Giles transcription) where it is found.
In Chinese, there are several terms for the language, and, not suprisingly, some of the differences are political:
Language of the han people
Middle kingdom writing
Usually refers to written language
PRC term for Mandarin dialect
Taiwan term for Mandarin dialect
For native speakers, Chinese is written using the Chinese characters and never using the roman characters of European languages. However, when communicating with foreigners, Chinese (like Japanese, Russian and other non-Roman scripts) requires some form of transliteration to represent the sounds in a form that can be shown (such as in E-mail).
The oldest transliteration scheme was developed by diplomat Thomas Wade in 1859 and modified by linguist Herbert Giles in 1912. The system of the two Britons was adopted as the standard in the English-speaking world.
As part of its language reforms, in the 1950s Peoples Republic replaced the foreign transliteration system with a system developed earlier in the Asian part of the Soviet Union. The new system, pinyin, more accurately captured the linguistic nuances of the language.
The two systems generally produce different transliterations, as shown below:
Most international groups adopted the PRC system in the 1980s. American and British libaries historically cataloged Chinese documents using Wade-Giles, but since around 1990 have been switching over to Pinyin.
For more information: