Chinese Languages

Chinese is often considered one of the world’s oldest living languages. While this may or may not be true, given the fact that written characters have changed dramatically over time, and there are hundreds of dialects and accents that that make up Chinese, it is a fact that the Chinese Language first came into existence nearly 4,000 years ago. To put this in perspective, Chinese predates most European languages: the seeds of English were planted in the 5th century CE, and Modern English didn’t hit the scene until the late 1500s – around the time Shakespeare started writing plays.
 
The first records of Old Chinese (or Archaic Chinese) has its roots in the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE), proven with the discovery of Chinese characters inscribed on tortoise shells (i.e. oracle bones). The oracle bones are believed to have been used to make wishes to the heavens for victory in battle and beg for agreeable weather conditions for crops. By the time of the ensuing Zhou Dynasty (1122 – 256 BCE), writings on bronze artifacts, poetry, and the fundamental book of Taoism and one of the oldest classical Chinese texts, the I Ching (Yì Jīng; 易经), proved Chinese to be an intelligent and complex language.

The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, united rivaling kingdoms during his reign of the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE) and implemented a series of assimilation reforms to unify the peoples of the land. Qin forcefully, and at times brutally, standardized institutions such as units of measurements, currency, roads, law and even written characters. Before this time, different regions used different Chinese characters, but understanding that the power of written language would help seal his power in distant realms of the empire, Qin Shihuang created what are known today as traditional Chinese characters. Traditional characters surpassed the test of time and were the norm in every major ensuing empire. In fact, these traditional characters are still used today in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Chinese communities abroad.

Middle Chinese arose during the Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties (6th century – 10th century CE), but the language evolved not only from dynasty to dynasty, but also from city to city and region to region as the population expanded. Despite the difference in accents and dialects, the characters based off Qin’s reforms stuck, leaving diverse groups across the country to use the same written characters but have different spoken pronunciations for them. During that time, if a southerner spoke to a northerner, they wouldn’t have been able to communicate with each other verbally, but they could have through writing. With such diversity throughout the massive territories of empires, many scholars attribute standard Chinese characters as one of the greatest unifying forces of China and the Chinese people.
 
Up until the early 1900s, the situation remained the same and most Chinese only spoke their unique local dialect that differed greatly from neighboring towns. It wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912 CE) that emperors realized there had to be a common language that matched the standard written language, so they pressed for the dialect of the city of Nanjing to become the official state language of the empire. However, the Nanjing dialect didn’t stick, and the Beijing dialect (which is known as Mandarin today) replaced it in the imperial court. Despite having reached imperial status, Beijing dialect was still fairly limited amongst officials and commoners, especially in the southern Cantonese regions.
 
After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the KMT Nationalists took power and decreed that Modern Standard Chinese (aka Mandarin, the dialect based off of the Beijing dialect) be the official language in schools and government. Mao Zedong’s victory in 1949 brought the communists to power, and they continued the movement to make Mandarin the official language of the country, especially since Beijing became the capital for the CCP.
 
To help cement the drive for a national language and simultaneously increase illiteracy in the countryside, Mao decided to take more than 500 traditional characters and simplify them to make them easier for peasants to read and write. (For example, Han, the word for the predominate race of people in China, is spelt 漢 using traditional characters, but the simplified version is汉). After the 1950s, simplified characters became standard in Mainland China, but places outside of the CCP’s reach, like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and overseas Chinese communities, are still using traditional characters.
 
Today, Mandarin is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan, but in Hong Kong, the situation is a bit more vague. While the official stance of the government is that both Chinese and English are official languages, this does not specify whether “Chinese” refers to Mandarin or Cantonese (which are both Chinese languages). During British rule – which ended in 1997 with the handover to China – Cantonese was the adopted standard of Chinese, but today, Mandarin is making more and more of a presence, both via a newly enforced curriculum and the increasing influx of Mainland immigrants.

Other Chinese Dialects

Even though Mandarin and Chinese are often used interchangeably in colloquial speech, technically there’s a big difference. As you’ve already learned, Mandarin is the local dialect of Beijing. Chinese, on the other hand, refers to all the Chinese languages and dialects spoken throughout the country. 
 
To keep a very complicated matter relatively simple, there are ten dialects of Chinese: Mandarin, Jin, Wu, Hui, Gan, Xiang, Min, Hakka, Yue (or Cantonese) and Ping. By looking at the map, you can see that most of these dialects are local to specific regions, but it’s important to note that while regions may share the same dialect, accents and sub-dialects differ immensely from village to village, town to town, and city to city.

For example, if a person from Fuzhou (with a typical Fuzhou city accent of the Min dialect) traveled to Changsha where the majority speak the Changsha city accent of the Xiang dialect, no one would be able to understand the native from Fuzhou. The same is true if a native Cantonese speaker traveled to Shanghai and tried speaking his or her local language - the Shanghainese would probably laugh at the strange tongue! For this reason, both parties from distant regions have to use Mandarin to communicate.
 
But wait, there’s more… Even native speakers from the same dialect would have problems communicating with another person of the same dialect if they lived in the next city over. If a Chengdu native (from the province of Sichuan) spoke with archetype Chengdu-accented Mandarin, they would struggle in communicating with a villager from the same province of Sichuan who spoke with regional lingo. Now you see why it was vital for the government to implement a universal language.

Other Languages in China

Apart from various Chinese dialects, there are even languages from different language families within China. Chinese languages such as Wu, Cantonese and Mandarin are Sino-Tibetan languages, a linguistic family that also includes Tibetan and Burmese. Tibetan is spoken by the Tibetan people, and they use an alphabet based of the Indic script instead of Chinese characters. Currently, roughly five million people speak Tibetan.
 
In the northwestern territory of Xinjiang, many of the indigenous Uighur population speak their own language called Uighur. Uighur is a Turkic language which is more similar to Kazakh, Turkish and Kyrgyz than it is to Mandarin, and they use the Arabic script written in cursive from right to left. Today about 12 million people speak Uighur.
 
For Inner Mongolia, the local Mongolian people speak Mongolian, which is an Altaic language distantly related to Turkic, Koreanic and Japonic languages. Traditional Mongolian uses a distinct alphabet that is written in horizontal columns, and this script is still found all over Inner Mongolia. In the country of Mongolia, however, the government dropped their traditional alphabet and now uses the Cyrillic alphabet.
 
Apart from these aforementioned major languages, there are many other found across the vast Middle Kingdom. Pockets of the Indo-European language of Tajik is spoken in the far northwest, while Korean is common near the Korean border in the northeast. There is also an array of other various distinct languages that differ from villages to village in southern Yunnan Province – most being similar to some of the languages of Southeast Asia like Thai, Lao and Burmese.

Grammar

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Mandarin grammar is actually surprisingly simple. Unlike many Indo-European languages, there are no verb conjugations, no masculine, feminine or neutral forms, and no cases. In its most basic forms, Mandarin’s past tense simply requires that you add le (了) to a verb or to the end of the sentence. To speak in the future, simply add huì (会) before the verb. Apart from a few other words like “already” (yǐjīng; 已经), the past participle “have” (guò; 过), or “going to” (jiāng;将), there’s not much else needed for basic communication.
 
Notice from the example in the orange box below that the character去 (to go) stays the same, unlike English where the verb “to go” changes to “went,” “gone” and “going to go.” With these few simple words, you can easily inflect your sentence for past, present and future with ease! But don’t get too confident; if the entire language was so easy, everyone and y

Tones

Tones are the aspect of Mandarin that is particularly difficult for foreigners because they don’t exist in English. Actually, the majority of the world’s languages – including English – uses tones, but few use them to distinguish different words and meanings. Whereas English uses tones to show things like questions (Him? vs Him!) or emotions like anger, urgency, worry and others, Chinese uses tone for all of the above and word-level meanings.
 
In Mandarin, there are four tones and one neutral tone that distinguish meanings among the language’s endless homophones (words that are spelled the exact same way but have two different meanings, like “bow” as in ribbon and “bow” as in a bow and arrow) and homonyms (words that are pronounced the same way but have different meanings, like “scents” and “sense.”)
 
In Mandarin, there are many more homophones and homonyms than in English or other Indo-European languages, and tones are the only ways to differentiate their meanings. For example, yanjiu is the phonetic pronunciation for the Mandarin word “to study” (yánjiū; 研究). However, this homophone sounds almost exactly the same as the word “smoking and drinking” (yānjiǔ; 烟酒). The only difference between these two very different words are their tones. For studying, yanjiu has yan in the second tone and jiu in the first tone. For drinking and smoking, yan is in the first tone and jiu is in the third tone.
 
These goofy homophones and homonyms make it easy for a student to nonchalantly tell his or her parents about college life. Instead of downplaying the boredom of diligent student life by saying, “eh, studying is studying,” with the nimble shift of a tone, the student is actually telling his folks that “studying is drinking and smoking!”

Characters

If the tones, homonyms and homophones weren’t brain-busters, then characters – those 4,000-year-old logograms that were written on tortoise shells back in the day – most certainly are. There are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, but luckily most of them are not used in common written language. Today, you need to memorize around 3,000 characters to be truly literate, but the average educated Chinese person knows more than 5,000. With so many characters, compound words, and some characters that have more than one pronunciation - it’s no wonder Chinese students cannot fully read a newspaper until their early teens. 
 
Apart from reading, writing is perhaps the most difficult attribute of all. The mere fact that you need to memorize thousands of characters is daunting, but what makes them even harder is that these characters are comprised of multiple strokes. For example, the character for “person” is rén (人) and only takes two stokes. However, the common word for “to wipe” or “to clean” (cā; 擦) has 17 strokes! And if you mess up, it’s wrong, plain and simple. Unlike baseball, where it’s “three strikes and you’re out,” in Mandarin it’s one stroke and you’re out!

And last but not least, stroke order also complicates written characters. In English, it really doesn’t matter how you write E. You can start from the top, bottom, middle, whatever, as long as the E looks like an E, you’re fine. But all characters in Mandarin follow a specific order one stroke after another, which is drilled in to their minds from early childhood. If your stroke order is out of whack, a Chinese person will most certainly be able to tell that your character looks funky. Ask any foreign student of Mandarin how many times their teacher has red marked their test papers just because their characters didn’t follow the formula.