Chinese is a monosyllabic tonal language written by means of characters representing complete words. The Chinese script is not phonetic and remains constant throughout China, but the spoken language has regional phonetic differences. Mandarin (Putonghua) is the official language of China. It is regarded as both a separate language and a dialect of the Chinese language. There are various Chinese dialects (or languages), and numerous minority languages, including Manchu, Mongol, Uyghur, Tibetan, and Korean spoken in China. No Western language has firmly established itself in mainland, but English is used in Hong Kong and Portuguese is used in Macao. English is the principal foreign language taught in China and used in business. Of the 55 recognized minority peoples in China, only the Hui and Manchus use Chinese as an everyday language. More then 20 minority nationalities have their own forms of writing for their own languages. Minority languages are used to varying degrees in state institutions in minority areas and in all newspapers and books published there. [Source: Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press 1998]

There are seven major Chinese dialects (or languages) and many subdialects. Mandarin, the predominant one, is spoken by over 70 percent of the population. It is taught in all schools and is the medium of government. About two-thirds of the Han ethnic group are native speakers of Mandarin; the rest, concentrated in southwest and southeast China, speak one of the six other major Chinese dialects. The most widely spoken Non-Chinese ethnic minority languages are Mongolian used in Inner Mongolia, Tibetan used in Tibet and Tibetan areas in Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan, Uyghur and other Turkic languages used in Xinjiang and Korean spoken in the northeast near Korea and Zhuang spoken by the Zhuang people in southern China. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2009, Gale, 2008]

Chinese (including Mandarin) is a Sino-Tibetan language. Sino-Tibetan languages predominate in China and mainland Southeast Asia. They are broken into three main subfamilies: 1) Tibeto-Burman, 2) Tai and 3) Sinitic, including many of the languages spoken in China. Sino-Tibetan languages are tonal, which means that the meaning of the word can change with the tone of pitch in which it is spoken. As is true with Vietnamese and Thai, Chinese words with the same basic sound can have different meanings depending on the way the tones of the sound change.

Nearly all of the languages spoken in China fall into thee families: 1) Sino-Tibetan, which includes Cantonese, Shanghaiese and the other Chinese dialects and languages; 2) Miao-Yao, which includes the languages spoken by many ethnic groups scattered around southern China and Southeast Asia; and 3) Tai-Kadai, another family of tribal languages spoken in southern China and Southeast Asia. Some minorities in Western China speak languages related to Turkish and Finnish.

Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese ; Learning Chinese Chinatown Connection ; Omniglot ; ; Pleco Chinese dictionairies ; Haiwang Yuan homepage Romanisation ay Pinyin Info: Chinese Pod; etymological dictionary character etymologies ; Translation Service ; Chinese Language sites: ; Rosetta Stone series ; Clavisinica ; China Sprout; Sound and Pronunciation of Chinese Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection

Chinese and the Language of the Han Chinese

Chinese is a group of languages that make up the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages. It is spoken by the ethnic Han Chinese and many minority ethnic groups in China. About 1.3 billion people (or approximately 16 percent of the world's population) speak a variety of Chinese as their first language. The spoken varieties of Chinese are usually considered by native speakers to be variants of a single language. Due to their lack of mutual intelligibility and the fact they are just as diverse, if not more so, than the Romance languages of Europe, linguists classify them as as separate languages in a language family. Chinese is the native language of the Han people as well as the Huis and Manchus. [Wikipedia]

Chinese is unrelated to any other language in world with the exception of Tibetan. In contrast, French, English, Greek, Polish, Persian, Hindi, Urdu and about a hundred other tongues are all part of the one family — Indo-European languages. In China, language is widely seen as bind that unites Chinese culture and is an intrinsic part of the national identity. In the 3rd century B.C., people in China spoke eight languages and countless dialects. The establishment of a unified writing system around 200 B.C. did as much as anything to unify China. .

The Han ethnic group makes up 91 percent of the population of China. They have their own spoken languages, dialects and written languages, which are effectively the same as those described as Chinese. The Han language is further divided by Chinese sources into nine dialects, the northern dialect, Wu dialect, Hunan dialect, Jiangxi dialect, Hakka dialect, southern Fujian dialect, Shanxi dialect, Guangdong dialect. . [Source: Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities in China, ]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “Han language, usually called Chinese, has been adopted by the United Nations as an official international language. Although there are several dialects, the written script, invented more than 3,000 years ago, is compatible with all of them. The popularization of the northern dialect (sometimes called Mandarin Chinese), which has become the common spoken language (putonghua) of China, has contributed to better communication and understanding among the various peoples, nationalities, and regions of China. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Stevan Harrell wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”:“Han people (with the exception of some Overseas Chinese) are all speakers of one or another of the languages usually known as Chinese, which comprise a branch of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family. All are tonal languages and rely on word order rather than morphology to express grammatical relationships.[Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

Chinese Languages and Dialects

The official language of China is standard Chinese or Mandarin (Putonghua, which means standard speech, based on the Beijing dialect). It is the world's most widely first spoken language and is the native language of the Han people. Other major dialects are Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghaiese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, and Hakka (Kejia). Mandarin, Shainghaiese, Cantonese and Sichuan are all regarded as dialects of Chinese although some linguists categorize them as distinct languages. Because of the many ethnic groups in China, numerous minority languages also are spoken. Many provinces have their own official languages such Mongolian in Inner Mongolia, Zhuang in Guanxi and Tibetan in Tibet.

Some think Chinese is best seen as a family of languages, with the major dialects categorized as separate languages. All of the Chinese dialects share a common written form that has evolved and been standardized during two millennia and serves as a unifying bond amongst the Han Chinese. The government has aggressively developed both shorthand Chinese and Pinyin (phonetic spelling) as ways to increase literacy and transliterate Chinese names. The Pinyin system was introduced in 1958 and was approved by the State Council in 1978 as the standard system for the romanization of Chinese personal and geographic names. In 2000 the Hanyu (Han language) Pinyin phonetic alphabet was written into law as the unified standard for spelling and phonetic notation of the national language.

Chinese — if viewed as a single language — is made up of six major dialects, or eight “big” dialects, depending on who you talk to, and several "small" dialects. Among the major dialects are Mandarin, Shainghaiese (also known as Wu), Cantonese (Yue), Fuzhou (Minbei), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, Hakka and Sichuanese.The major dialects are further broken into several dozen subdialects. In China there are also 55 minorities. Most have their own languages. Some have more than one language. Some have their own written languages.

Mandarin (Putonghua)

Mandarin, the most widely spoken dialect in China, is spoken with varying degrees of proficiency by most of the population and is the first language of Han Chinese from Beijing, the northeast and southwest. Mandarin is a term used by Europeans to describe Chinese scholars and the dialect gets its name from the fact that the Beijing dialect was the one most widely spoken by the scholar class in Beijing, China's capital and the home of the emperor and his bureaucracy of scholars. Even today speaking Mandarin is regarded as a sign of good breeding while not being able to speak it is associated with being lower class.

Mandarin is a "flat timbre" language with just four tones (high, rising, falling-rising and falling) and consonants that have no equivalent in Cantonese. Most Chinese call Mandarin “Putonghua.”

Only about half of China's 1.3 billion people speak Mandarin, according to government surveys. In the countryside virtually no one uses pure Mandarin as their everyday language. Mandarin did not become the official language of China until the Manchu's overthrew the Ming Dynasty in 1644. Although it was declared the national language of China after the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912 it did not really become the national language in practice until the Communists launched a nationwide literacy campaign after they came to power in 1949. Children are taught Mandarin in schools throughout the country.

Tonal Languages

Tonal languages are most common in China, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In these languages subtle differences in pitch can change the meaning of vowels, consonants and syllables. Studies have shown that people who speak tonal languages possess a form of absolute pitch, something that had previously been thought to be possessed by people with unusual musical talent such as Mozart or Beethoven. One study at the Eastman Music School in Rochester, New York found that 63 percent of the Asians there had absolute pitch while only 7 percent of the non-Asians had it.

But the propensity towards absolute pitch by Asians is not explained by language. Japanese, for example, are more likely to have perfect pitch than Westerns and Japanese is not a tonal language. Perhaps a genetic predisposition for absolute pitch is more common among Asians. Or perhaps, the cultural emphasis on musical training at an early age — something that is true in Japan — is the determining factor.

Research by scientists as the University of Edinburgh found that two genes involved in brain development were common in speakers of non-tonal languages while a different genetic profile was found in speakers of tonal languages. Research also seems to indicate that the first human languages were non-tonal, and tonal languages emerged about 5,800 years ago. All humans have the innate ability to speak both kinds of languages fluently but research indicates genes may make it slightly easier to learn one or the other.

Tones and Syllables in Chinese languages

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: Mandarin has five tones: level, rising, dipping, falling and neutral; Cantonese has nine. How much the tones are emphasised varies between dialects and between speakers. Some Chinese almost sound like they’re singing arias every time they speak, while others have only a slight inflection of the voice. Tones become really important only in the relatively rare cases where two near-homonyms (words with identical basic pronunciation) are distinguishable only by tone, and where the context doesn’t allow a distinction between them. The phoneme ‘ma’, for instance, can famously—depending on the tone—mean mother, horse, hemp, a scolding or a question, but these meanings are unlikely to be confused even if you leave all tones off altogether.” [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: Ancient Chinese was largely a “monosyllabic language”: that is, the semantic (meaning) units of the language were almost always expressed by a single syllable. Each of these semantically significant syllables constituted a word. Words were uninflected: they did not take variable endings that indicated features such as tense, number, gender, or case. For this reason, it was relatively simple to build into syllables – which corresponded to meaning units – a tonal element that would help distinguish their meaning. In standard Mandarin there are four “tones” – inflections that are a stable part of the pronunciation of each word or meaningful syllable: level, rising, low, and falling. Not every syllable can carry every tone, but tones in Chinese mean that, in practice, roughly 4 x 450 = 1500 syllables are actually possible in Mandarin. (Not that this removes all ambiguity – a small dictionary lists 130 different characters that are all pronounced as “yi” with a falling tone!) The syllable-poor nature of Chinese is one reason why, for foreigners, Chinese words may seem to look alike. Having few syllable choices, there is an unusual degree of resemblance among words transcribed into our Roman alphabet, and it makes it hard for Westerners when they encounter Chinese names and terms in their own script. In Chinese, the ambiguity is greatly reduced by the other striking feature of the language – written characters.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Studies using brain scans have found that Mandarin speakers use more areas of their brain than people who speak English. Unlike English speakers who use only one side of their brain, Mandarin speakers generally use both sides. In a study by scientists at the Wellcome Trust Research Charity on Britain, the left temporal lobe of English speakers lit up on brain scans when they heard their language while the left and right temporal lobes of Mandarin speakers lit up on brain scans when they heard their language. The right lobe is normally used to process melody, music and speech. Some have theorized this side may be activated by Mandarin because of its tonal quality.

Explaining why the actress Gong Li had difficulty with non-tonal languages like English, her English teacher Michael Mann told the Los Angeles Times: “The difficulty is: in Mandarin, the muscles in your mouth aren’t used to make Rs and Ls. She never developed those muscles. It’s not just making a different sound. Her tongue is not conditioned to be behind her teeth and to breath in the same way. She had to do facial expressions just to be able to make these sounds. The degree of difficulty is high.”

Ancient Chinese Language

Dr. Eno wrote: “The earliest evidence of writing that reflects the spoken Chinese language dates back over three thousand years to the lower Yellow River Valley. Ancient Chinese seems to have been part of the same linguistic lineage that produced the languages of Tibet and Burma, and it is generally considered part of the “Sino-Tibetan” language group. The earliest Chinese states were formed from a coalescence of many different peoples, speaking many different languages, but because among them only Chinese could be written, it came in time to be the universal language of the Chinese state. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

“Even those who love ancient Chinese admit that the language is bizarre and that it creates unusual difficulties for the study of China in Western languages...We have little insight into the spoken language of ancient China. The texts we possess now are, being texts, all examples of the written language, and there is much evidence to support the view that spoken and written languages were very different in antiquity. In fact, as the Chinese cultural sphere expanded during the ancient period, it appears that many of the ethnic groups it absorbed maintained their native spoken language for many generations, and employed the Chinese written language for textual communication simply because it was the only written language available. /+/

“We are able to say that spoken ancient Chinese was largely a monosyllabic language: that is, the semantic (meaning) units of the language were almost always expressed by a single syllable. Each of these semantically significant syllables constituted a word. Words were uninflected: they did not take variable endings that indicated features such as tense, number, gender, or case. All these features, which make many Indo-European languages tedious to learn, are entirely absent from Chinese. No tense, no plurals, no subject-object markers. But it is disappointing to learn that a language stripped of all this complex features becomes not easier to master but harder. In ancient Chinese, which relies almost wholly on word order and a limited set of function words to provide grammatical clues to meaning, The level of ambiguity is spectacularly high. This is one of the reasons why many of the most revered ancient texts remain imperfectly understood.” /+/

Genetic and Linguistic Affinity in Sino-Tibetan Populations

Chinese researchers Feng Zhang, Bing Su, Ya-ping Zhang and Li Jin wrote in an article published by the Royal Society: “Sino-Tibetan languages include Chinese and Tibetan (TB), and the linguistic connection between these two subfamilies is well established (Martisoff 1991). Based on the archaeological findings, the ancestors who spoke Proto-Sino-Tibetan were estimated to live over 6000 years ago (Matisoff 1991; Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994). In the genetic studies using classical autosomal markers (Du et al. 1997) and microsatellite markers (Chu et al. 1998), it has been confirmed that Tibetans diverged from the NEAS. [Source: “Genetic studies of human diversity in East Asia” by 1) Feng Zhang, Institute of Genetics, School of Life Sciences, Fudan University, 2) Bing Su, Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Evolution, Kunming Institute of Zoology, 3) Ya-ping Zhang, Laboratory for Conservation and Utilization of Bio-resource, Yunnan University and 4) Li Jin, Institute of Genetics, School of Life Sciences, Fudan University. Author for correspondence (, 2007 The Royal Society ***]

“By analysing 19 Y-SNPs and 3 Y-STR markers in 607 individuals from 31 Sino-Tibetan-speaking populations residing in East, Southeast and South Asia, Su and other colleagues (Qian et al. 2000; Su et al. 2000a,b) showed that a T to C mutation at the M122 locus is highly prevalent in almost all of the Sino-Tibetan populations, which implied a strong genetic affinity among populations in the same language family. In addition, Su et al. (2000a,b) also suggested that the ancient people living in the upper–middle Yellow River basin ca 10 000 years ago were the ancestors of modern Sino-Tibetan populations. ***

“TB is one of the two subfamilies of the Sino-Tibetan language family. There are 351 living languages in this subfamily, primarily distributing in East, South and Southeast Asia. In China, TB-speaking populations mainly reside in Qinghai, Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan and Hunan. According to historical records, the TB populations were derived from the ancient Di-Qiang tribes in Northwest China. About 2600 BP, the TB populations embarked on a large-scale southward migration by the Tibetan–Burman Corridor (Wang 1994). This is consistent with genetic evidence based on Y chromosome markers that almost all the TB populations share a high frequency of M122-C and M134-deletion (Su et al. 2000a,b). ***

“Wen et al. (2004a,b) analysed 10 Y-SNPs in 965 individuals from 23 TB populations, and HVS-1 sequence and a few coding region variants of mtDNA in 756 individuals from 21 TB populations. Principal components analysis showed that the northern TB populations and the southern native groups played a significant role in shaping the gene pool of the southern TB populations with an unequal contribution of male and female lineages from the parental populations. ***

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History and Evolution of Chinese Written Language

Stevan Harrell wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”:“This regional linguistic diversity has been countered over the course of history by the unity of the written language. Chinese writing extends back at least to the fourteenth century B.C., when pictographic and ideographic signs were used to represent syllables of a spoken language. The specific forms of these signs or characters have changed since then and many have been added, but the basic principles of the writing system have persisted. Each character represents both a concept and a sound, so that, for example, ming meaning "bright" and ming meaning "name," though pronounced identically in Standard Mandarin, are written with different characters. The characters themselves can be pronounced in any Chinese language, however, making written communication feasible between speakers of related but different spoken languages. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

“Throughout the imperial period, the standard written language was what is now known as Classical Chinese, evolved over the centuries from what was presumably a representation of the speech of around the fourth to second centuries B.C. By late imperial times (1368-1911), the Standard written language was far different from any spoken vernacular; in fact, literacy was largely, though not entirely, confined to the ruling scholar-elite. |~|

“In the twentieth century, a fundamental transformation of the nature and purpose of literacy has led to the elimination of the classical written language and its replacement by baihua or "plain speech," a written approximation of the Mandarin spoken in and around the capital city of Beijing. In addition, both the Republican and People's Republic governments have made Beijing Mandarin into a standard spoken language, called guoyu or "national language" by the Republic and putonghua or "ordinary speech" by the People's Republic. All schools in both the mainland and Taiwan use written baihua and spoken Mandarin as the medium of instruction. Thus, most younger speakers in the non-Mandarin regions of the mainland, as well as nearly everyone under about age 60 in Taiwan, can use Mandarin as a second language, and literacy in baihua is over 80 percent in the mainland and nearly universal in Taiwan.

Chinese: the World’s Most Widely Spoken Language

Mandarin Chinese is world's most widely spoken language. There is so some debate on how many Mandarin and Chinese speakers there truly are. Figures vary widely on the total number of people who speak Chinese and Mandarin. The Chinese government says only 53 percent speak Mandarin. So 1.4 billion X .53 = 742 million. But 53 percent probably refers to those who speak it as the first language. If you include those that speak it as a second language or who speak some the figures are higher. Ethnologue puts the number of Chinese native speakers at 1.3 billion, of whom about 917 million speak Mandarin. In any case there’s no doubt it’s the most spoken language in the world.

The world’s most widely spoken languages based on the number of native speakers: 1) Chinese — 1.3 billion native speakers; 2) Spanish — 460 million native speakers; 3) English — 379 million native speakers; 4) Hindi — 341 million native speakers; 5) Arabic — 315 million native speakers; 6) Bengali — 228 million native speakers; 7) Portuguese — 220 million native speakers; 8) Russian — 153 million native speakers; 9) Japanese — 128 million native speakers; 10) Lahnda (Western Punjabi) — 118 million native speakers. [Source:]

World’s most widely spoken languages based on the number of total speakers — 1) English — 1.132 billion total speakers; 2) Mandarin Chinese — 1.117 billion total speakers; 3) Hindi — 615 million total speakers; 4) Spanish — 534 million total speakers; 5) French — 280 million total speakers; 6) Standard Arabic — 274 million total speakers; 7) Bengali — 265 million total speakers; 8) Russian — 258 million total speakers; 9) Portuguese — 234 million total speakers; 10) Indonesian — 199 million total speakers,

According to The above numbers are total number of people who speak the languages with some speaking it as their mother tongue and others speaking it as lingua franca, and others simply speaking it, perhaps to get ahead in business. Eight of the 10 languages are also most widely spoken languages based on the number of native speakers. But there are some key differences. English narrowly beats out Chinese for the top spot; Japanese and Punjabi drop out while French and Indonesian move up due to the fact that that more people speak them as a second language than as a native language.

First language speakers in 2009: 1) Chinese , 1.213 billion; 2) Spanish, 329 million; 3) English, 328 million; 4) Arabic, 221 million; 5) Hindi, 182 million; 6) Bengali, 181 million; 7) Portuguese, 178 million; 8) Russian, 144 million; 9) Japanese, 122 million; 10) German, 90 million. [Source: National Geographic]

Top first languages in 1999 (number of speakers):1) Mandarin Chinese (885 million); 2) English (322 million); 3) Spanish (266 million); 4) Bengali (189 million); 5) Hindi (182 million); 6) Portuguese (170 million); 7) Russian (170 million); 8) Japanese (125 million); 9) German (98 million); 10) Wu Chinese (77 million). [Source: National Geographic]

The number of people who speak Chinese as their first language rose from 500 million in 1950 to 1 billion in 2000 and is expected to rise to 1.4 billion in 2050. By contrast number of people who speak English as their first language rose from 220 million in 1950 to 375 million in 2000 and is expected to rise to 508 million in 2050.

Communication and Non-Verbal Cues in China

On communication in a small industrial town, Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “The flow of information was a mystery to me. Few people had much formal education and assembly line workers rarely had time to use the Internet. They didn’t follow the news...They depended strictly on themselves, and their range of contacts seemed narrow, but somehow it wasn’t a closed world. Ideas arrived from the outside, and people acted decisively on what seemed to be the vaguest rumor or the most trivial story.”That was key: information might be limited, but people were mobile, and they had confidence that their choices mattered. It gave them a kind of agency, although from a foreigners’ perspective it contributed to the strangeness of the place. I was accustomed to the opposite — a world where people preferred to be stable, and where they felt most comfortable if they had large amounts of data at their disposal, as well a the luxury of time to make a decision.” [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, October 26, 2009]

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: “Non-verbal cues in China are often more subtle than in the West. While individuals of course vary, Chinese on the whole are less comfortable with ‘wearing emotions on their sleeves’ than are Westerners. The smiles and frowns, surprise or anger, joy or incomprehension, will be there on their faces, but you may need to watch closely to catch it. This is particularly important for expatriates to be aware of in the case of frowns or incomprehension. [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

The basic idea is that if you are the new Western boss, and you say things that your new team-mates are upset by or simply don’t understand, it may very well be that no one will go out of their way to tell you. This may be part of the Chinese reputation for being inscrutable, but the truth is, no one is trying to hide anything; there is simply a cultural tendency in China toward measured response, at least in public. It is up to you to watch for those measured responses, and adjust your style as needed.

Chinese people on the whole are significantly more comfortable with silence than are Westerners, and tend to leave longer pauses in their conversations, often deliberately delaying responses to show respect to the speaker The Chinese may the silence. have been merely considering From the Chinese perspective their response, but Westerners, meantime, the Western tendency taking silence to mean anger, may jump in offering immediately to interrupt, talk all the time and to amend their own offer, never stop for a moment to effectively negotiating against think about what to say or what themselves.

Linguistic Diversity in China

Han Chinese (who make up 91 percent of the population of China) are distinguished by the linguistic diversity. The spoken forms of their different dialects vary as widely as the languages of Europe. Han Chinese speak seven or eight mutually unintelligible dialects, each of which has many local subdialects. Even so all Han use a common written form of Chinese and share common social organization, values, and cultural characteristics that are recognized as Chinese. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “The Han Chinese are linguistically homogeneous in the north, where they speak Mandarin (the basis of the national language, known as putonghua, of China), while in the south Cantonese, Wu, Hakka, and many other dialects are spoken (some 108 dialects are spoken in Fujian prov. alone). Putonghua is spoken as a first or second language by roughly half of the population. The written language is universal; Chinese ideographs are common to all the dialects. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

Dru C. Gladney wrote in the Wall Street Journal,The supposedly homogenous Han speak eight mutually unintelligible languages (Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Southern Min and Northern Min). Even these subgroups show marked linguistic and cultural diversity. In the Yue language family, for example, Cantonese speakers are barely intelligible to Taishan speakers, and the Southern Min dialects of Quanzhou, Changzhou and Xiamen are equally difficult to communicate across. The Chinese linguist Y. R. Chao has shown that the mutual unintelligibility of, say, Cantonese and Mandarin is as great as that of Dutch and English or French and Italian. Mandarin was imposed as the national language early in the 20th century and has become the lingua franca, but, like Swahili in Africa, it must often be learned in school and is rarely used in everyday life across much of China. [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009, Dru Gladney is president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College]

Creation of the Modern Chinese Language

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times’ Sinosphere: “At a chaotic conference in Beijing in 1913 led by the Chinese linguist and political anarchist Wu Zhihui, the teacups flew, as well as the words, as participants tried to work out: What was the Chinese language? It was an urgent task. Two years before, the last imperial dynasty had fallen in a republican revolution led by Sun Yat-sen. Reformers like Mr. Wu knew that China had to become a modern nation if it was to survive. But China was home to hundreds of spoken languages and dialects and a “fantastically hard” writing system that only a few highly educated people and officials were familiar with, according to David Moser, the author of “A Billion Voices,” a new book recounting the creation of modern Chinese. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Sinosphere, New York Times, May 27, 2016]

“Standard Chinese — referred to in China as “Putonghua,” or “common language” — is, Mr. Moser said in an interview, a “Frankensteinian” amalgamation of several northern dialects that was finally adopted as the national language by the government in 1955, six years after the Communist revolution. But in some ways, he said, little has changed since that 1913 conference. “Yes, you have a language, but if you want mass literacy, this thing is a disaster,” said Mr. Moser, who is the academic director at CET, a Chinese language program in Beijing, has a Ph.D. in psycholinguistics and Chinese, and has lived in China for more than 30 years. “The written symbols are fantastically hard to master.”

“In Mr. Moser’s book, the efforts to define a national language run parallel with the decades-long fighting among warlords; the Kuomintang, or Nationalists; and the eventually victorious Communists to control and redefine the Chinese nation. As he described it: “The first part is a historical documentation of the struggle for a unified language of some kind. That’s why I structured is as a battle to win China, since the warlords and Nationalists were also fighting linguistic battles. The second part is after Mao Zedong came to power, how they came to enact this policy under a unified government. That’s an ongoing story, the end of which is not seen. There are still 300 to 400 million people who cannot speak or read Putonghua easily. And the third part is the messy linguistic explanations I have to throw in, because I can’t assume the reader knows anything about Chinese.”

“A major question he addressed is why the creation of a national language in China was so much more difficult than in, say, European nations. “The literary tradition began very much as an elite activity that only scholars could take part in. Very quickly in Greece and Rome there was a democratizing effort and the Greeks tried to publish their work in an oral language. That never happened in China. China has always had this problem with getting its language from basically a written form, a dead written form, to a living speech.”

Mao on Language

In his 1942 Yan’an speech, Mao exhorted writers and artists to “serve the people,” Mao demanded the use language people could be easily understand by everyone. In essays he wrote before the Communist Party took power in 1949, Mao criticized the use of “shady” words that “the masses” couldn't fathom. In direct response to Mao’s wishes, the party promoted “the people’s language” — made of plain and simple words and characters that were easy to understand. [Source: Murong Xuecun, New York Times, May 26, 2015

According to the China Media Project: ““In the Mao era, the language that prevailed on the Chinese mainland was not only “false, exaggerated and empty,” or jia da kong — meaning that it was dominated by high-minded and formalized nonsense — but it was also nearly identical wherever one found it. Hundreds of newspaper articles, in other words, could essentially say the same tedious version of nothing. [Source: China Media Project, November 1, 2018]

“The language of Mao Zedong, however, was markedly different. In the Mao era, it was as though hundreds of millions of people had their personal power of expression completely throttled by a single man who was free in his own language and writing to be as distinct and individualistic as he pleased. Consider that at one point Mao Zedong even managed to work into his poetry the undeniably colorful line: “No more flatulence!”

Mao Zedong detested the so-called “eight-legged” essay, or bagu wen that had been demanded for imperial examinations during the Ming and Qing dynasties. He dismissed rigid and formalistic styles within the Chinese Communist Party as “Party eight-leggedness,” or dang bagu — what is often translated as “stereotyped Party writing.” In “Opposing Stereotyped Party Writing”, Mao Zedong listed out the eight sins of the eight-legged style. There were, for example, “pages of empty verbiage, devoid of substance”. There was “pretentiousness for the sake of intimidating others. There was “aimlessness [in expression], done without consideration of one’s audience”. There was “language of a tasteless sort, like that of a beggar”. And there was also what we might translate “the exhaustive use of the medicine cabinet”.

“Describing what he called the “fifth sin,” Mao Zedong wrote: The fifth sin of stereotyped Party writing is the exhaustive use of the medicine cabinet. This is like going to see the [traditional Chinese] pharmacist, where the many compartments of the medicine cabinet list out the names of medicinal herbs - angelica sinensis, rehmannia glutinosa, rhubarb, mirabilite — anything you could possibly need, and you take a bit of everything. This method has been followed by our comrades. In writing essays, in making speeches, in writing books, in composing reports, first you have ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR; then you have one, two, three, four; after that you have I, II, III, IV; next you bring up the earthly branches; then you move on to A, B, C, D; and from there to a, b, c, d; and finally on to Arabic numerals. There’s not end to it!”

Our poor translation aside, the idea here is essentially that Party officials compile their speeches and writing by tossing in every established phrase they can, as though taking a bit of medicinal herb from every compartment of the medicine cabinet. This is precisely the sort of thing Mao Zedong loathed.

Influence of the Communist Party on the Chinese Language

Murong Xuecun wrote in the New York Times: “On a recent walk along a street in the southern Chinese city of Sanya, I heard a shop pumping out a rock version of the famous Communist Party anthem “Socialism Is Good.” Although I loathe this song, as the music became louder, I still found myself singing along under my breath. “The reactionaries toppled / Imperialists flee with their tails between their legs. ... The Communist Party is good / The Communist Party is good / The Communist Party is a good leader of the people.” [Source: Murong Xuecun, New York Times, May 26, 2015; “Murong Xuecun is a novelist and blogger and the author of “Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu.” This article was translated by The New York Times from the Chinese]

“For decades, Communist Party songs like this one have been ringing in Chinese people’s ears. For many people, myself included, these songs formed the soundtrack to our youth. Even today, though the party has become Communist in name only, they still flood the airwaves. It’s difficult to overestimate the extent of their influence not only on the Chinese spirit, but on the Chinese language itself.

“Revolutionary language is ubiquitous among normal Chinese people. We commonly refer to economic sectors like industry and agriculture as “battle fronts.” (Most workplaces, in fact, are called “fronts.”) Continuing to work while sick is likened to “the wounded not leaving the front line.” Many big enterprises talk about their marketing teams as “armies” or “troops,” and their sales territories as “battle zones.”

“The literary scholar Perry Link and others have called this “Mao language.” In a 2012 essay on ChinaFile, the Asia Society’s website, Mr. Link wrote that such talk is “much more freighted with military metaphors and political biases than most.” In that same article, he gave some pointed examples of how Mao language has seeped into everyday usage: “At the ends of banquets, even today, mainland Chinese sometimes urge their friends to xiaomie [annihilate] the leftovers; a mother on a bus, the last time I was in Beijing, answered her little boy, who said, “Ma, I really need to pee!” by saying, “Jianchi! [Be resolute!] Uncle bus driver can’t stop here.” The roots of this New Chinese Language naturally go back to Mao.

Communist Party’s Corruption of the Chinese Language

Murong Xuecun wrote in the New York Times: “More than 60 years of Communist hate education, inane propaganda and the comprehensive destruction of classical civilization have spawned a new style of speaking and writing. The Chinese language has become brutalized — and the Communist Party is largely to blame. [Source: Murong Xuecun, New York Times, May 26, 2015]

“It’s not only government proclamations that clank with harsh cadences and revolutionary fervor, but also literary and scholarly works, and most disturbing, private speech. The default lingo of high party officials, even on the most solemn occasions, includes banal aphorisms like, “to be turned into iron, the metal must be strong.” Official proclamations and the nightly newscasts speak of “social harmony” and the “Chinese spirit.” In addition to promoting the “China Dream” and a strong work ethic, President Xi Jinping is known for uttering lines like, “Never allow eating the Communist Party’s food and then smashing the Communist Party’s cooking pots.” The government’s propaganda and education machinery moved past the revolutionary bloodthirsty bitterness. Our textbooks are litanies of brutal heroic deeds: “Stop a gun with your chest, hold a bomb in your hands, lie on a fire without moving, until you burn to death.” Nearly every Chinese child still wears a red scarf, “dyed with martyr's blood,” and many grow up singing the young pioneers’ songs: “Always prepared, to perform noble feats, to wipe out our enemy.”

“Decades of this party blather have washed through a mighty propaganda machine straight into people’s minds and into the Chinese vernacular. In recent years, I have even heard many friends, some dissidents, using the language of our propagandists, and not ironically. Two years ago, in a small town in central Shanxi Province, I overheard two old farmers debating whether a bowl of rice or a steamed bun was more satisfying. As the argument became more heated, one farmer accused the other, without irony, of being a “metaphysicist.”

“Mao was skeptical of metaphysics and thus, over the years, it became a dubious concept, used in Chinese propaganda as a pejorative term. It’s fair to assume these two farmers didn’t know much about metaphysics, yet they were using the term as an insult, straight out of the party lexicon. Other phrases like “idealist” and “petit bourgeois sentimentalist” have become everyday terms of abuse, even when those who use them clearly have no real idea what they mean.

“The Communist Party’s dumbing down of our language was a deliberate effort to debase public discourse. The Cultural Revolution took this to an extreme: Intellectual discussion, along with reason, were thrown out the window. In this atmosphere, words lose real meaning. The party can then use words to obfuscate and lie. For example, high party officials talk about building a socialist state under the “rule of law,” but when they use the phrase, they mean that the party uses the law to rule the people.

“This deliberate use of language to obscure and confuse serves a clear objective: to conceal the reality of China’s lack of democracy and indeed to pretend that democracy exists. I can’t claim to have the answer for how to resist the party’s use of language. Nor do I know how to stop it from seeping into our vernacular. Even someone like me, a writer who is acutely aware of how the party tries to manipulate us, can’t avoid humming party songs from time to time. My big fear is best summed up by George Orwell, who wrote, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Non-Chinese Languages in China

Some 250 million people in China speak seven major languages and dialects other than Mandarin. Millions more speak 160 smaller languages, some of which have only a few thousand speakers.

There are 50 million speakers of Tai-Kadai languages in the world today. Most of the speakers live in southern China, Burma, Thailand and Laos. Thai and Laotian are Ta-Kadai languages. Like Sino-Tibetan languages, Tai-Kadai languages are tonal, which means that the meaning of the word can change with the tone or pitch in which it is spoken. For example the Thai word maa means "horse" when pronounced with a high pitch, "come" with a medium pitch, and "dog with a rising pitch.

The majority of the 6 million speakers of Miao-Yao languages belong to hill tribes and ethnic groups that live in isolated areas scattered across southern China, Laos and Thailand. This family of languages consists of five languages associated the speakers clothing: Red Miao, White Miao (Striped Miao), Black Miao, Green Miao (Blue Miao) and Yao.


Nushu, a written script created in southwestern Hunan Province, is perhaps the only written language in the world created just for women. A delicate, graceful script, it was created to help women communicate at a time when they were not allowed to learn to write and has been kept alive handed down from mother to daughter. Nushu is a written form of the local Cheng Guan Tuhua dialect and is associated with the Yao people. It looks like Chinese in many ways but is different in that many characters represent only sounds, as is the case with Roman letters, and not ideas like Chinese ideograms. Nushu is often written on silk screens.

Homa Khaleel wrote in The Guardian, “After having their feet bound at around the age of seven, girls in Jiangyong County in Hunan province would live indoor — first in the "women's chamber" of their own homes, and later in the homes of their husband's family. To ease their isolation and offer support in their pain, girls from the same village were brought together as "sworn sisters" until their weddings. But a more serious relationship, almost akin to marriage and expected to last for life, could be arranged between two girls by a matchmaker, with a formal contract, if the pair shared enough of the same "characters" (being born on the same day, for example). In See's book she writes: "A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose — to have sons." [Source: Homa Khaleel, The Guardian, November 3, 2011]

leftWomen used Nushu to write to their laotongs after they "married out" into different villages. Yet until the 1960s few outside the province knew about it, and no men could read it, says See. "In the mid-60s an old woman fainted in a station," she says. "The police went through her things to see who she was and found a piece of paper with what looked like a code, so she was arrested on suspicion of being a spy." In the midst of the cultural revolution, the experts who finally identified the script were sent to labour camps, not emerging to study the writing until the 80s.

The origin of Nushu is not known but may date back to the A.D. 3rd century and is believed to have developed to facilitate the local custom of ‘sworn sisterhood” in which friends promised to be loyal to one another forever and wrote their sorrows for their missed friends after the friends got married and were forced to move away. One popular sayings goes: “Beside a well one does not thirst. beside a sister, one does not despair.” Nushu was often used to keep a diary of private thoughts that husbands could not read.

Nushu was not discovered by outsiders until the 1980s. A decade ago Chinese-American author Lisa See was researching an article on footbinding when she found a reference to Nushu, the world's only "women's writing". Though the origins were murky, the script revealed a culture of women's relationships and sparked the idea for her novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the film of which, co-produced by Rupert Murdoch's wife Wendi Deng, was released in November 2011. [Source: Homa Khaleel, The Guardian, November 3, 2011]

Today, because girls learn Chinese like boys, Nushu has lost its special value and is dying out. Maybe only 10 elder women can read and write it fluently. An effort is being made to keep it alive and preserve it. The Italian scholar Ilaria Maria Sala wrote that we should ‘stop calling it a “language”! As you know for sure, the language that nu shu transcribes is the Jiangyong dialect — and of course it was never ‘secret,” as the dialect was the same for everybody, and women would use the script in plain view of all.”

Book: “ We Two Know the Script: We Have Become Good Friends “ by William Chiang, University Press of America, 1995.

Image Sources: Maps, Dartmouth College; Language charts, Wikipedia

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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