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 than 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

26 thoughts on “What exactly is “Mandarin” Chinese?

  1. Pingback: More than 400 million Chinese cannot speak the national language… | huttriverofnz

  2. Friends of mine have mentioned this national language existing over a number of regional dialects. I’ve heard that a number of these regional dialects are mutually unintelligible so that mutual national language of Mandarin seems to be apparently needed for consistent communication.

  3. It’s interesting to think about how within one national language, there is so much variability in understanding and pronunciation. I would imagine that this would be similar to Korea, or even parts of the West, where more rural areas have accents and ways of speaking that differ (sometimes greatly) with “correct” grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

  4. I was surprised at the fact that how Chinese people speak completely two different languages like mandarine and their own village dialect!

  5. I find it interesting and believable that putonghua came from many diverse regions in China due to the vastness of the country itself. However it makes me wonder what were the distinct differences amongst northern dialects and Beijing dialects and if the language did not turn out to be hybrid of those two, if it would be easier or harder to learn/communicate with.

  6. I think it is a wise choice to choose a standard language fro such a huge country. I was always under the impression everyone spoke Mandarin, that it wasn’t just a Northern dialect. But coming from San Francisco, my friends who have native Chinese parents do not speak Mandarin. I have met more people who speak Cantonese. I guess Mandarin is still making its way to be the dominant language spoken around.

  7. Although it might be controversial for culture retention, I do think a national language is a good idea.It is kind of like with Spain’s national language of Castellano and then there are varying dialects throughout Spain which can retain cultural meaning, but this way everyone is able to communicate and trade very efficiently!

  8. I find it very interesting that not many people can understand each other when speaking Mandarin, even if the other person is fluent. I also didn’t know that the Mandarin language has different dialects, I have barely found this out from serval of my Chinese. When they speak I just listen well translating at the same time. I notice that certain people from the big cities speak a lot clearer than ones from the country side. Maybe this is just how each city is different. But I do find it very interesting, I would surely like to learn more and to get more fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
    The Chinese government is good to think that everybody should learn Standard Mandarin Chinese to converse a lot more well with one another.

  9. I found it interesting that “Mandarin” is considered a fabricated language and that no one is actually a native speaker of such. While I understand the use of a national language in order to make government business easier and to unify the country, the creation of such also lays waste to the cultural aspect of many dialects. Also, the creation of such a national language could lead to the division of the class structure within China as those who have the education can learn Mandarin yet those who cannot will be unable to learn Mandarin. All in all, Mandarin is extremely useful and has made numerous advances in China and for China but at the same time it has created some of its own cultural issues.

  10. I would’ve never guessed that to speak Mandarin and the local dialect would result in a bilingual status. Coming from 2 different countries that have their own language changed it should seem no surprise that the language is adapted to each area (North, South, Mainland). Mexico has its dialect divided into North, South, Central, Rural and City. Spanish spoken in each area sounds different and one can easily tell who was educated in the proper language by the specificity to objects and not reliance on context. For example, calling a spoon, “a soup spoon” instead of the smaller spoon or the little shiny one. Brazil has its language divided into the Spanish influenced coast, and the central. The Portuguese spoken on the states neighboring Spanish speaking countries has a dialect heavily influenced with Spanish versus the central of Brazil has a stronger base in Portugal Portuguese. However, one is still considered a Spanish speaker and not bilingual, so in the end I guess if one learns multiple dialects then they are multilingual. As for me Ill learn Mandarin and the northern accent.

  11. Growing up and learning Mandarin, I didn’t necessarily recognize the difference or the importance of specifying that I was learning Mandarin Chinese as opposed to varying local dialects. This post highlighted many of the differences I wasn’t aware of. I find it interesting that such a point was made to make Mandarin the official dialect.

  12. I didn’t know before reading this that Mandarin as a whole was sort of stitched together, or “fabricated” to this degree. I especially find it interesting that the pronunciation is disconnected from the vocabulary, which is based on the northern dialects. Additionally, the way that the media still accommodates people who are less familiar with mandarin is unique, compared to the media in the United States.

  13. Mandarin chinese can be defined in two ways. Essentially it’s the dialect of chinese spoken in Northern china, and is known as northern language. Another way that mandarin is known is it’s a national language that is taught and promoted by the government. There are phonology, vocabulary, grammar etc. Although there are many different types of dialect that course through all of china but all goverment, and school are taught in mandarin.

  14. The Mandarin dialect of Chinese has two meanings, one being the dialect spoken in Northern China, and another is that is it just known as northern speech. Mandarin is the national language that is spoken in China. There are actually no more native speakers left for the Mandarin dialect, it is just now the national language of China. The formation of the national language happened after China learned about the national language models in Japan. It was extremely difficult for the national language to be implemented because of political turmoil in China. with the founding of the PRC, more efforts were made to create the national language and script. Eventually in 1955, the national language based on Northern dialects (Mandarin) was passed with the Beijing dialect as the standard.

  15. That is so interesting that no one is a native speaker of Mandarin, but yet most educated individuals can speak it, for the most part. It is so interesting that eighty people build Mandarin Chinese off of like 50,000 characters. It is also interesting that people in China are impressed when someone can speak Mandarin, and that it is a way to show you are educated.

  16. This article was interesting because it traced back the roots of Mandarin and explored what its definition truly is. I was especially surprised to find out by technical terms, there really are no native speakers of Mandarin. The main reason behind this is the political ups and downs which China faced. Despite this, Mandarin continues to be the language that all students learn in school and many Chinese people are automatically bilingual due to the dialect they learn at home as well as the standardized Mandarin they know in school.

  17. It is so interesting to me that so many diverse dialects are scattered all around China, but it also makes perfect sense. The country is so large with such a huge population that I couldn’t imagine it any other way, especially given that there are many rural and diverse people. This was a very interesting history lesson on Mandarin!

  18. It is interesting to hear that there is no true Native Mandarin speaker as it is a fabricated language. While I see the importance of having a unified language, I also think there should be steps taken to ensure that other dialects don’t die out. It is very sad to see entire languages disappear, as it feels like they take a little bit of history and culture with them when they die. Different dialects are hard to work with, but they diversify the country so much that they are worth keeping around.

  19. I found this article to be extremely interesting and very informative. It was beneficial to learn the history and foundation of Mandarin. I appreciate this blog because I have learned things about the Chinese language, government, and country that I do not learn in class.

  20. It makes sense that Mandarin is one of the most commonly learned languages by non-native speakers. Because it is used in the media and government, it becomes a more useful dialect to learn to understand a vast majority of things. I always questioned why Mandarin was more commonly than Cantonese, but reading more information about Mandarin helped me to understand why.

  21. It makes sense that Mandarin is one of the most commonly learned languages by non-native speakers. Because it is used in the media and government, it becomes a more useful dialect to learn to understand a vast majority of things. I always questioned why Mandarin was more commonly than Cantonese, but reading more information about Mandarin helped me to understand why.

  22. I did not realize there are no true native speakers of Mandarin Chinese (普通话 pǔtōnghuà). As a Cantonese speaker learning Mandarin, I can appreciate the difficulties in the tonal inflections and a missed pitch can change the entire meaning of a word. It would make sense that because China is such a large country that it would want unification by having one main language. Because Mandarin only has four tones, it is easier to learn. Moreover, Mandarin uses simplified characters and romanization system called pinyin.

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