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What is Mandarin? -Blog

Chinese language

What is the Chinese language?

Introduction to the Chinese language

The Chinese language is the most widely spoken in the world.

The Chinese language is unique and fascinating. Unlike many other languages, Chinese has one written and several spoken forms. The main form spoken and used officially in China is Mandarin. And there is no Chinese alphabet, but the Yin Pin to know the pronunciation of the characters.

Knowing Mandarin, you are able to communicate with almost anyone in China, Taiwan, and other Asian countries.

Chinese writing

Chinese is the oldest written language in the world, dating back about 4000 years.

The traces of writing in Chinese were found in the time of the Shang dynasty (1600-1066 BC). But we owe the use of the Chinese language today to the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) by the Qin emperor, who unified China in language, culture, and the nation itself.

Instead, the Chinese language uses so-called "Characters", which are known as 汉字 (hanzi). The first characters were drawn to look like objects (pictogram). Chinese characters later evolved to represent ideas rather than syllables. Chinese characters have meaning regardless of the sounds that can be made to describe them.

Chinese spoken

Is Chinese the same as Mandarin?

The Chinese language is in fact a family of languages. In the Chinese language, in addition to the official language that is Mandarin, there are many variants of spoken Chinese. These different Chinese languages are sometimes known as dialects.

It is considered that in China, there are more than 200 dialects. These dialects come from the 56 ethnic minorities, which China is home to _________. Speakers of the Chinese language usually use one of the dialects from these 7 language groups: Mandarin, Yue (Cantonese), Xiang (Hunense), Min, Gan, Wu and Kejia or Hakka.

How similar are these Chinese languages?

All spoken versions of Chinese are part of the same family, which are part of the Chinese-Tibetan language group. Therefore they are closely related. These Chinese languages share a system of tones, which are used to differentiate homonyms.

Mandarin Chinese has five tones, and other Chinese languages may have more.粤 Yuè (Cantonese) for example has 9 tones. All Chinese languages use the same written language: Chinese Characters.

However, despite being closely related, these different languages are mutually incomprehensible. This is because all Chinese citizens are taught one official and common language: Mandarin.

The official language in China

Mandarin is taught in schools across the country. The media, officials, and the government use Mandarin as their primary language. When it is written in Chinese, a phonetic system is used, called pinyin, which corresponds to the pronunciation in Mandarin. In addition to China, Mandarin is the official language in several other countries in Asia. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

More than 70% of the Chinese population speak Mandarin as their first language. The remaining 30% often learn their local dialect and Mandarin so they can communicate with anyone. Learn Mandarin, you will be fine anywhere.

The many names of the Chinese language

In English, Mandarin is a term that you will hear the most to refer to the official Chinese language. There are many other names used to describe the Chinese language: 普通话 (Pu Tong Hua), 汉语 (Han yu), 中文 (Zhong Wen) , Standard Chinese, and more.


Mandarin is one of the two names given by Westerners to refer to the official Chinese language. In schools, when you study Chinese, in most cases what you are learning is Mandarin.

普通话 Pǔtōnghuà

普通话 literally means the “common language”. The term Chinese uses the 普通话 to refer to its common and official language.普通话 is taught in school. The media, the government, and officials all speak 普通话.

汉语 Hànyǔ

汉语 refers to the “language of the Han tribe”. The Han dynasty contributed a lot to the construction of the national language. This term is used in China to refer to the Chinese language in general. It is a bit more formal to say 汉语 than 中文 Zhōng wén which means the same thing. Chinese living in the United States and abroad may sometimes say 汉语 to refer to the Chinese national language.

国语 Guóyǔ

国语 Guóyǔ is another term that refers to the Chinese language.国语 literally means the “language of the country”. You might hear this term mostly in Taiwan and sometimes Hong Kong to refer to Mandarin, in the same way in China they use 普通话 to refer to Mandarin.

华语 Huāyǔ

Overseas Chinese communities mostly use 华语 to refer to their national and official Chinese language.华语 literally means “Language of China”. It is possible to hear Chinese communities in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines use this term.华语 is used to differentiate Chinese from other languages spoken in these countries.

Where can you listen to spoken Chinese?

In Asia

You can find many Chinese speakers: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam (Saigon) and Malaysia (especially in Kuala Lumpur)

With the Chinese colonization, the Chinese language spread to South Asia. The Chinese wanted a strategic control of the ports in order to control trade with Europe and thus conquer the cities in the area that have large and interesting ports. Today, Mandarin Chinese is the official language in China and Taiwan, and one of the official languages in Macau, and Singapore.

In North America

You can find many Chinese speakers, who speak some form of Chinese (either Mandarin or a Chinese dialect): in the United States, particularly in California and New York.

You can find many Chinese and Asian communities in North America. Ancient colonization is the main reason behind many factors why many Chinese live in North America. Immigration is another factor, especially during the Gold Rush, which made it possible for you today to listen to and practice spoken Chinese in other places outside of China. Many ethnic groups such as the Miao and many Cantonese people immigrated to Canada and the United States so you can also practice spoken Chinese with them.

The largest families of Chinese dialects


It is the one spoken mostly in China. Initially, people mainly spoke Mandarin, as well as its regional variations such as Mandarin in and around Beijing. As well as in northern China. Mandarin is today the official language of China and a key to most of Asia.

Wu and Shanghainese

One of the most used dialects in China is 五 华 Wǔ huá, or Wu. This group of Wu dialects includes the Shanghaines, which is mainly heard in Shanghai. About 8.5% of Chinese speak Wu, mostly in Zhejiang province, near Shanghai and in neighboring coastal areas.

Chinese Min

Near Fujian province and the coastal area in the South, but also in Taiwan and Singapore, you can hear many dialects corresponding to the 闽语 mǐn yǔ group of dialects. The best known groups of this type of dialect are probably Fuzhounese and Hokkien. You may have heard of Hainanese and Taiwanese. About 4% of the Chinese speak at least one of the Min dialects.

Chinese Hakka

People who speak dialects of the 客家 话 kèjiāhuà Hakka group are found scattered throughout southern China, from Sichuan to Taiwan, particularly in parts of the Guandong and Fujian provinces. About 4% of the population can speak a dialect belonging to the Hakka group.

Chinese Gan

You probably haven't heard of 赣 语 Gàn yǔ, Gan dialect.

Of all the major groups of dialects that make up the Chinese language, this dialect is the one that people usually know the least. Only about 2.5% of the population speaks it. The Gan dialect can be heard mainly in Jiangxi province and in some parts of Hubei, Fujian and Hunan provinces.


Also known as Hunanense, it is possible to find groups of 湘 语 xiāngyǔ dialects in Hunan and in some parts of Sichuan province. About 5% of Chinese living in China speak some form of Xiang.

And what Chinese language should I learn?

If your goal is to have the ability to communicate with as many Chinese-speaking people, without a doubt, you must learn Mandarin. Mandarin is the gateway to all of China, Taiwan, Singapore, and many countries in Asia.

Source: Ninchanese.
Translation: Andrés Rojas Chinchilla / Kung Tse Oriental Confucius Institute