What exactly is “Mandarin” Chinese?

School kids in Kunming

School kids in Kunming

Mandarin Chinese actually can be defined in two ways. One, in a broad sense, it is the dialect of Chinese spoken in Northern China and is often referred to as 北方话 běifānghuà in Chinese, which literally means, “northern speech.” Two, Mandarin is used to refer to the National language that is taught and promoted by the governments of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. On the Mainland, this is referred to as 普通话 pǔtōnghuà (“common speech”), and in Taiwan is referred to as 国语 guóyǔ, (“national language”).

Would it then surprise you to know that technically there are no true native speakers of Mandarin Chinese, that is 普通话 pǔtōnghuà? From here on when I refer to “Mandarin” I will be speaking about the National language of China, and not the northern Chinese dialect. First, a little history.

The idea of a national language as the modern standard Chinese in China was promoted as early as 1906, based on Japanese models of a national language there. After the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, these efforts were intensified with the organization of an eighty member commission tasked to decide on a standard pronunciation and basic sounds of the standard language. They came up with a National Language 国语 guóyǔ but with all the political turmoil during those years, not a great deal was done to promote it. After the founding of the PRC in 1949 efforts were again intensified to come up with a standard national language and simplified script. In 1955 a resolution was passed and 普通话 pǔtōnghuà was defined as being based on Northern dialects (Mandarin from our first definition above), with the Beijing dialect as the standard pronunciation. It was further articulated as follows:

1. Phonology or pronunciation was based on the Beijing dialect

2. Vocabulary was based on northern dialects (Mandarin)

3. Grammar was based on modern written Chinese (literature)

So as you see then, there are no truly native speakers of this fabricated National language. What then is the role of Mandarin Chinese in China today?

• It is the language that everyone learns in school. In other words, when kids go to school and have their language arts class, they are taught standard Mandarin Chinese, or 普通话 pǔtōnghuà. For example, when they are learning to read, they learn to pronounce characters in Mandarin regardless of their dialect background. All those people in China that speak a non-Mandarin dialect growing up are essentially learning another language (or dialect if you prefer) in school. What this means then is that educated individuals in China can speak and understand Mandarin. It also means that many people in China are bilingual, knowing Mandarin and their home dialect. This does not mean that they all have wonderful pronunciation. Generally speaking, the farther you go from large urban areas   and get into rural areas, the less standard Mandarin people tend to have. Of course there are always exceptions to this.

• Mandarin is the language used in government. All meetings and official communication is conducted in Mandarin.

• Mandarin is the language of business. This is especially true when speakers from different areas of China are communicating with each other.

• Mandarin is the language of the media. The vast majority of television and radio broadcasts are in Mandarin. There is some programming in the local dialects (at the regional level), but most is in Mandarin. So everyone who watches TV can at least understand Mandarin pretty well. One thing you will notice when you watch Chinese TV is that there is almost always subtitles in Chinese characters on the screen, regardless of the type of program. Why? So those not as familiar with spoken Mandarin can still follow along.
• Mandarin is the prestige dialect in Mainland China. Using Mandarin is a way to show that you are educated, sophisticated, and in the know.
Mandarin is also the Chinese that is taught to foreigners, in China, and abroad. It is the most useful language for anyone traveling to China or Taiwan. I tell my students that with Mandarin language skills you can communicate with just about any educated person in China. I have found this to be true in my travels in China. Again, that doesn’t mean everyone will have great Mandarin language skills though. I remember a time in the far Northwestern corner of Yunnan Province talking with a small group of Tibetans and a Han Chinese guy. The Tibetans had much better Mandarin that he did. His Mandarin was heavily accented by his local dialect. As such, it was easier to communicate with the Tibetans than with him.
In addition to the terms discussed above, there are various other terms that are used to refer to the Chinese language. They are:
1. 普通话 pǔtōnghuà          “the common language”; this refers to the national language
                                            promoted by the government in the PRC; this term is only used
                                            in the PRC
2. 国语 guóyǔ                     the “National language”; this term used in Taiwan, and in Hong
                                           Kong when referring to Mandarin
3. 中国话 zhōngguóhuà     literally the “language of China;” this is a generic term used to
                                          refer to spoken Chinese
4. 汉语 hànyǔ                    “language of the Han’s;” this refers to spoken Chinese and is
                                           used in the PRC
5. 中文 zhōngwén              this is a general term that means simply “Chinese” and can
                                           refer to the spoken or the written language. It is used in China,
                                           the PRC, Hong Kong, and elsewhere

China’s Linguistic Diversity


The linguistic situation in China is very complex. There are literally hundreds of different Chinese dialects spoken across China. Linguists have long debated what we call these linguistic variations, dialects or languages. In the West, we typically use this definition for dialects—

mutually intelligible varieties of the same language

This definition works nicely for most Western languages. For example, British English and American English are largely mutually intelligible. But this definition doesn’t work for China because many of the dialects are mutually unintelligible. And using the term languages as in different languages doesn’t work that well either because there is a standard written form, and there is cultural unity that usually does not exist across languages, such as Spanish and English in the United States. The Chinese term is 方言 fāngyán literally meaning “region language” or as one linguist called them “regionalects.” That English term didn’t really take. Those who argue for calling them different languages (i.e. Mandarin and Cantonese) use the intelligibility test. Those who argue for using the term dialect fall back on the cultural unity and literacy issue. We often use the term dialect simply because it is convenient, even if it doesn’t completely align with the Western definition of the term. I’ll use dialect in this post to refer to the different varieties of Chinese. In China there are 7 main dialect groups. They are:

Dialect                    % of speakers                    Region spoken

Mandarin                   71.5%                                  Northern & Southwestern China

Wu                             8.5%                                    Shanghai, central coastal areas

Gan                            2.4%                                    Jiangxi Province

Xiang                         4.8%                                    Hunan Province

Kejia (Hakka)           3.7%                                   Scattered throughout the South and Taiwan

Yue (Cantonese)      5.0%                                    Guangdong, Hong Kong, overseas

Min                           4.1%                                     Fujian, SE coastal areas, Taiwan


Mandarin dialects are the most widely spoken by a large margin. But what makes the linguistic situation more complicated is that there are sub-dialects within these groups that are not mutually intelligible. When I was in graduate school taking a seminar in Chinese sociolinguistics, we listened to tapes of speakers of a Mandarin dialect just 150 km north of Beijing, and we could understand very little. There are Cantonese dialects that vary from village to village, some so much so that they are not comprehensible to each other. One more thing to keep in mind. Perhaps you’re thinking, “well only 5% of the population speak Cantonese.” Do the math. 5% of 1.3 billion is a staggering amount. In fact, there are as many Cantonese speakers in Southern China as French speakers in France. To help my students understand what I’m talking about I like to play them some audio samples of people speaking different Chinese dialects. In each of the audio files below, the speaker will say the following, at least how they would say the same thing in their dialect.

1. Shéi a? Wǒ shì Lǎo Sān

(Who is it? I’m Lao San)

2. Lǎo Sì ne? Tā Zhèng gēn yígè péngyǒu shuō zhe huà ne.

(What about Lao Si? He’s talking with a friend right now).

3. Tā hái méi shuō wán ma?

(Has he finished speaking?)

4. Hái méi ne. Dàyuè zài yǒu yì huǎr jiù shuō wán le.

(Not yet. (He’ll) probably be done talking in a moment).

1. Běijīng Dialect (Northern Mandarin)

2. Xī’ān Dialect (Central Mandarin Sub-group; Shaanxi Province)

3. Hángzhōu Dialect (Wu Group; Zhejiang Province)

4. Chángshā Dialect (Xiang Group; Hunan Province)

5. Méixiàn Dialect (Hakka Group; Guangdong Province)

6. Cantonese—guǎngdōnghuà (Yue Group; Guangdong Province)

A final note: In China there are 55 Nationally recognized minority groups that speak non-Chinese languages. These groups include, Tibetans, Mongolians, Uigurs, Kazaks, Miao (Hmong), Zhuang, Yi, Bai, Koreans, and many others. In most cases their languages are not even linguistically related to Chinese. These ethnic minority groups make about 7% of China’s population.