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Chinese Language — History, Development, Dialects, Characteristics, and Fun Facts

Chinese Characters or Han Zi in Calligraphy of Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322)

Chinese Characters or Han Zi in Calligraphy of Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Chinese Language, Mandarin, and Putonghua


The Chinese Language includes all spoken systems used in China, from the Neolithic Era to modern times, as well as countless regional dialects throughout history. 


Mandarin, in Chinese Putonghua, is the national language of China. 


Mandarin or Putonghua, also named Standard Chinese or Standard Northern Mandarin, is the language that most Chinese learn at schools, use in workplaces, and communicate with people outside their hometowns.


The reason to set and popularize a national language, most importantly, is the complicated regional dialect systems in China, which have the same grammar and writing system (Chinese Characters or Hanzi) but very different pronunciations that make people from different places difficult, even impossible to understand each other. 

Unearthed Jade Seal of Prime Minister Wang Xijue (1534 — 1611) of the Ming Dynasty

Chinese on Jade Seal of Prime Minister Wang Xijue (1534 — 1611) of the Ming Dynasty — Suzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Brief Introduction to Chinese Dialects


Due to the long history and difficulty in recording spoken languages, it is unclear exactly how many varieties were used throughout history.

Today, however, there are ten main Dialects in China, each with several sub-dialects. 


  • Mandarin Dialect, or Putonghua, is the spoken dialect of most of north and southwest China. 


  • Jin, the dialect of Shanxi Province and nearby regions.


  • Wu, the dialect of Zhejiang Province, Shanghai City, and adjacent areas. 


  • Min, the dialect of Fujian, Hainan, Taiwan, and some nearby areas. 


  • Yue, or Cantonese, is the main dialect of Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macao, and some places of Hainan. 


  • Kejia, or Hakka, is the dialect of some parts of Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Taiwan, and Guangxi. 


  • Xiang, the dialect of Hunan Province.


  • Gan, the dialect of Jiangxi Province.


  • Hui, the dialect of Huizhou culture area, today some parts of Anhui, Zhengjiang, and Jiangxi.


  • Ping is the dialect of part of Guangxi Province. 

The Scenery of Guilin in Guangxi Province

The Scenery of Guilin in Guangxi Province, Photo by Teng Bin.

Besides, among 55 minority groups in China, many ethnicities have their own language systems. 


To sum up, over 80 existing spoken languages and over 30 written language systems exist in China. 


Many Chinese can speak their local dialect and Mandarin (or Putonghua). They would talk to their families and fellow townspeople using dialects and speak Mandarin at school, work, and outside of their hometowns.

History and Evolution of Chinese Languages


Throughout history, there have been four stages regarding the history and development of the languages of China. 


Old Chinese, Archaic Chinese, or Shanggu Hanyu


Old Chinese or Archaic Chinese includes languages from the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) to the Jin Dynasty (266 — 420). 


From the earliest existing oracle inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty to bronze inscriptions of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), then the unification of language in the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), and further development of the unified Han Empire (202 BC — 220 AD), Old Chinese or Archaic Chinese consistently inherited as the ancestor and the origin of all varieties of Chinese. 


During the Jin Dynasty, many separatist regimes rose and fell, and those endless wars caused large-scale deaths and immigration, which formed the Middle Chinese. 

Chinese Characters "Le Wei Yang" (Eternal Happiness) on Unearthed Eaves Tile of the Han Dynasty

Chinese Words "Le Wei Yang" (Eternal Happiness) on Unearthed Eaves Tile of the Han Dynasty — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Middle Chinese or Zhonggu Hanyu


Middle Chinese, or Zhonggu Hanyu, is the language from the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 — 580) to the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279). 


It is represented by the Qieyun System, an ancient rhyme dictionary published during this period. 


During the Song Dynasty, the economic and political center moved southward.


At the same time, nomadic Liao (907 — 1125), Jurchen Jin (1115 — 1234), and Mongols ruled the northern parts of China, which experienced long-time communications and fusions among different ethnic groups and formed the Old Mandarin. 

"Shou Jin Ti" Calligraphy (Mudan Shi) of Emperor Huizong

Calligraphy Work (Mudan Shi) of Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135) — Taipei Palace Museum

Old Mandarin or Jindai Hanyu


With the fall of Song and the establishment of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368), the northern dialects based on Old Mandarin were widespread nationwide.


The Yuan Empire and the successive Ming (1368 — 1644) and Qing (1636 — 1912) Dynasties all chose Beijing as their capital city (except the early Ming Dynasty), where they originated and gradually developed today's Standard Mandarin. 

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's Self Description, Wrote on the Painting "Lin Weiyan Fang Mu Tu" of Artist Li Gongling (1049 — 1106)

Ming's Founding Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's Self Description, Written on the Painting "Lin Weiyan Fang Mu Tu" of Artist Li Gongling (1049 — 1106) — Palace Museum

Morden Chinese, Standard Chinese, or Xiandai Hanyu


Modern Chinese, or Standard Chinese, has been the language of China since the early 20th century and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.


It includes all existing dialects, the writing system (Chinese Characters or Hanzi), and the romanization system of Standard Chinese Mandarin, the Hanyu Pinyin or Pinyin. 

Pinyin and Hanzi of A Poem of Wang Wei (701 — 761).

Pinyin and Hanzi of A Poem of Wang Wei (701 — 761)

Recording Pronunciation of Languages of China — From Ancient Methods to Pinyin

Recording Pronunciations in Old Times


In ancient times, there were two main ways to record the pronunciation of Chinese Characters:


  • Zhiyin — To use Chinese words with similar pronunciation.


  • Fanqie — To use two characters, one with the same initial consonant and one with the identical rest of the syllable, to indicate the pronunciation of a new Hanzi. 


Fanqie was the most influential method in history, widely used from the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) to the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912). 

Fanqie of Characters "Spring" and "Autumn"

Fanqie of Characters "Spring" and "Autumn"

Pinyin the Modernized Phonetic Symbols


The fall of the Qing Empire after a series of considerable failures in wars made people search for ways to strengthen the country, including Romanization. 


People believe the old methods were too complicated to increase literacy, universalize education, and better communicate with other countries. 


After decades of intense discussion, the Pinyin system was officially set and published in 1958 to record Chinese Characters' pronunciations and universalize Mandarin.

Pinyin Cards

Pinyin Cards, Picture from Xie Lingling.

Pinyin, the short name for Hanyu Pinyin or Chinese Phonetic Alphabets, is the romanization of Chinese Characters or Hanzi, based on the pronunciation of Standard Chinese Mandarin.


The Pinyin system has 23 initials (Shengmu), 39 finals (Yunmu), and five tones (Shengdiao). 


Generally, each Chinese Character or Hanzi has an initial, a final, and a tone to form the pronunciation. 


Besides recording pronunciation, today, the Pinyin system is also used to type Chinese words. 

Simplicity of Chinese Language Grammar


  • No verb conjugations following the changing of personal pronouns and tenses.


  • Only using simple adverbial time words to show tenses.


  • No plurals of nouns. 


  • No masculine or feminine forms.


  • No accusative cases for personal pronouns. 


  • No comparative changes for adjectives and adverbs.

Challenges of Chinese Language Learning


  • Tones: One Pinyin syllable usually has four tones, each with different Chinese characters and meanings.


  • Pronunciations: Some initials and finals in Pinyin are not easy to pronounce, even for some people from southern China, let alone non-native speakers. 


  • The Polyphonic Characters or Duoyin Zi: Some Chinese characters have more than one pronunciation, and each has a different meaning. 


  • Classifiers or Liangci: 


Nouns usually are used together with classifiers, generally as: 


demonstrative/number + classifier + noun.


Among hundreds of classifiers, each noun has one or a few fixed ones to collocate; some classifiers also have positive or negative meanings. 

Classifiers for Different Nouns in the Chinese Language.

Classifiers for Different Nouns in the Chinese Language

  • Ancient Culture and Tradition: 


Today's language system still includes wide use of culture and tradition inherited from ancient history, including proverbs, idioms, poems, historical events, legends, and folklore stories. 


Understanding all of the background knowledge requires a certain amount of reading. 


  • Chinese Writing System:


Strokes and structures of Chinese Characters or Hanzi could be tricky for non-native speakers. 

Cyan Glaze Porcelain Bottle with Love Poem of the Tang Dynasty — Changsha Museum

Cyan Glaze Porcelain Bottle with Love Poem of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Changsha Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Fun Facts About the Language of China


  • Every Chinese Character or Hanzi is a morpheme, most of which have independent meanings.


  • Chinese Characters are monosyllabic. 


  • Disyllable words, usually formed by two morphemes, are the most frequently used words in Modern Chinese. 


  • It is the most ancient language that is still in use today.


  • Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world and is an official UN language. 


  • The use of homophonic characters is a fun part of Chinese culture.


Characters with the same or similar pronunciations with Ominous words would be avoided in certain situations, especially at festivals or people's birthdays or weddings, such as Pear for "Separation", and Four for "Death".


Characters with the same or similar pronunciations with auspicious words are widely used as lucky patterns or symbols, such as Apple for "Safe and Sound" and Eight for "Wealth and Fortune".


Click to Read Chinese Writing System — Chinese Characters or Hanzi

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