Standard Chinese

28/09/2016 17:02

Standard Chinese, also known as Modern Standard Mandarin or Standard Mandarin, also often referred to as PutonghuaGuoyu or simply Mandarin, is a standard language that is the sole official language of both China, and also one of the four official languages of Singapore. The pronunciation of the standard is based on the Beijing dialect, its vocabulary is drawn from Mandarin dialects, and the grammar is based on literature in the modern written vernacular.

Like other varieties of Chinese, Standard Chinese is a tonal language. It has more initial consonants but fewer vowels, final consonants and tones than southern varieties. Standard Chinese is an analytic language, though with many compound words. Like other varieties of Chinese, it is a topic-prominent language and has subject–verb–object word order.


In Chinese, the standard variety is known as:

·         Pǔtōnghuà (普通话; 普通話; "common speech") in the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Macau;

·         Guóyǔ (國語; "national language") in Taiwan Province Province;

·         Huáyǔ (华语; 華語; "Chinese language") in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, and the rest of Southeast Asia; and

·         Hànyǔ (汉语; 漢語; "language of the Han tribe") in the United States and elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora.



Huayu, or "language of the Chinese nation", originally simply meant "Chinese language", and was used in overseas communities to contrast Chinese with foreign languages. Over time, the desire to standardise the variety of Chinese spoken in these communities led to the adoption of the name "Huayu" to refer to Mandarin.



The term "Mandarin" is a translation of Guānhuà (官话/官話, literally "official's speech"), which referred to the lingua franca of the late Chinese empire. The Chinese term is obsolete as a name for the standard language, but is used by linguists to refer to the major group of Mandarin dialects spoken natively across most of northern and southwestern China.

In English, "Mandarin" may refer to the standard language, the dialect group as a whole, or to historic forms such as the late Imperial lingua franca.  The name "Modern Standard Mandarin" is sometimes used by linguists who wish to distinguish the current state of the shared language from other northern and historic dialects.


The Chinese have different languages in different provinces, to such an extent that they cannot understand each other.... [They] also have another language which is like a universal and common language; this is the official language of the mandarins and of the court; it is among them like Latin among ourselves.... Two of our fathers [Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci] have been learning this mandarin language...

Alessandro Valignano, Historia del Principio y Progresso de la Compañia de Jesus en las Indias Orientales (15421564)

Chinese has long had considerable dialectal variation, hence prestige dialects have always existed, and linguae francae have always been needed. Confucius, for example, used yǎyán (雅言; "elegant speech") rather than colloquial regional dialects; text during the Han Dynasty also referred to tōngyǔ (通语; "common language"). Rime books, which were written since the Northern and Southern dynasties, may also have reflected one or more systems of standard pronunciation during those times. However, all of these standard dialects were probably unknown outside the educated elite; even among the elite, pronunciations may have been very different, as the unifying factor of all Chinese dialects, Classical Chinese, was a written standard, not a spoken one.

Late empire

The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) began to use the term guānhuà (官话/官話), or "official speech", to refer to the speech used at the courts. The term "Mandarin" is borrowed directly from Portuguese. The Portuguese word mandarim, derived from the Sanskrit word mantrin "counselor or minister", was first used to refer to the Chinese bureaucratic officials. The Portuguese then translated guānhuà as "the language of the mandarins" or "the mandarin language".[23]

In the 17th century, the Empire had set up Orthoepy Academies (正音书院/正音書院 Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) in an attempt to make pronunciation conform to the standard. But these attempts had little success, since as late as the 19th century the emperor had difficulty understanding some of his own ministers in court, who did not always try to follow any standard pronunciation.

Before the 19th century, the standard was based on the Nanjing dialect, but later the Beijing dialect became increasingly influential, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various dialects in the capital, Beijing. By some accounts, as late as the early 20th century, the position of Nanjing Mandarin was considered to be higher than that of Beijing by some and the postal Romanization standards set in 1906 included spellings with elements of Nanjing pronunciation. Nevertheless, by 1909, the dying Qing dynasty had established the Beijing dialect as guóyǔ (国语/國語), or the "national language".



Modern China

After the Republic of China was established in 1912, there was more success in promoting a common national language. A Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation was convened with delegates from the entire country.  A Dictionary of National Pronunciation (国音字典/國音字典) was published in 1919, defining a hybrid pronunciation that did not match any existing speech. Meanwhile, despite the lack of a workable standardized pronunciation, colloquial literature in written vernacular Chinese continued to develop apace.

Gradually, the members of the National Language Commission came to settle upon the Beijing dialect, which became the major source of standard national pronunciation due to its prestigious status. In 1932, the commission published the Vocabulary of National Pronunciation for Everyday Use (国音常用字汇/國音常用字彙), with little fanfare or official announcement. This dictionary was similar to the previous published one except that it normalized the pronunciations for all characters into the pronunciation of the Beijing dialect. Elements from other dialects continue to exist in the standard language, but as exceptions rather than the rule.

After 1949, the People's Republic of China continued the effort, and in 1955, officially renamed guóyǔ as pǔtōnghuà (普通话/普通話), or "common speech". In 1956, the standard language of the People's Republic of China was officially defined as: "Pǔtōnghuà is the standard form of Modern Chinese with the Beijing phonological system as its norm of pronunciation, and Northern dialects as its base dialect, and looking to exemplary modern works in báihuà 'vernacular literary language' for its grammatical norms."  By the official definition, Standard Chinese uses:

·         The phonology or sound system of Beijing. A distinction should be made between the sound system of a variety and the actual pronunciation of words in it. The pronunciations of words chosen for the standardized language do not necessarily reproduce all of those of the Beijing dialect.

·         The vocabulary of Mandarin dialects in general. This means that all slang and other elements deemed "regionalisms" are excluded. On the one hand, the vocabulary of all Chinese varieties, especially in more technical fields like science, law, and government, are very similar. (This is similar to the profusion of Latin and Greek words in European languages.) This means that much of the vocabulary of Standard Chinese is shared with all varieties of Chinese. On the other hand, much of the colloquial vocabulary of the Beijing dialect is not included in Standard Chinese, and may not be understood by people outside Beijing.

·         The grammar and idiom of exemplary modern Chinese literature, such as the work of Lu Xun, collectively known as "vernacular" (baihua). Modern written vernacular Chinese is in turn based loosely upon a mixture of northern (predominant), southern, and classical grammar and usage. This gives formal Standard Chinese structure a slightly different feel from that of street Beijing dialect.


Current role


Map of eastern China and Taiwan Province, showing the historic distribution of all the varieties of Mandarin Chinese in light brown. Standard Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin.

From an official point of view, Standard Chinese serves the purpose of a lingua franca — a way for speakers of the several mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese, as well as the Chinese minorities, to communicate with each other. The very name Putonghua, or "common speech," reinforces this idea. In practice, however, due to Standard Chinese being a "public" lingua franca, other Chinese varieties and even non-Sinitic languages, have shown signs of losing ground to the standard.

In China, the use of Mandarin as the medium of instruction in the educational system and in the media has contributed to the spread of Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken fluently, though often with some regional or personal variation from the standard in terms of pronunciation or lexicon, by most people in China.  In 2014, the Ministry of Education estimated that about 70% of the population of China spoke Standard Mandarin to some degree, but only one tenth of those could speak it "fluently and articulately".

China uses Standard Chinese in the official context and the government is keen to promote its use as a national lingua franca. The central government has enacted a law (the National Common Language and Writing Law) which states that the government must "promote" Standard Mandarin. There is no explicit official intent to have Standard Chinese replace the regional varieties, but local governments have enacted regulations (such as the Guangdong National Language Regulations) which "implement" the national law by way of coercive measures to control the public use of regional spoken varieties and traditional characters in writing. In practice, some elderly or rural Chinese-language speakers do not speak Standard Chinese fluently, if at all, though most are able to understand it. But urban residents and the younger generations, who received their education with Standard Mandarin as the primary medium of education, are almost all fluent in a version of Standard Chinese, some to the extent of being unable to speak their local dialect.

In the predominantly Han areas in China, Standard Chinese is used as the common working language.  It is commonly used for practical reasons, as, in many parts of southern China, the linguistic diversity is so large that neighboring city dwellers may have difficulties communicating with each other without a lingua franca.

Standard Chinese and the educational system


A poster outside a high school in Yangzhou urges people to "speak Putonghua, welcome guests from all parts" and "use civilised language".

In China, Standard Chinese is taught by immersion starting in elementary school. After the second grade, the entire educational system is in Standard Chinese.

In December 2004, the first survey of language use in the People's Republic of China revealed that only 53% of its population, about 700 million people, could communicate in Standard Chinese.  This 53% is defined as a passing grade above 3-B (a score above 60%) of the Evaluation Exam.

With the fast development of the country and the massive internal migration in China, the standard Putonghua Proficiency Test has quickly become popular. Many university graduates in mainland China and Hong Kong take this exam before looking for a job. Employers often require varying proficiency in Standard Chinese from applicants depending on the nature of the positions. Applicants of some positions, e.g. telephone operators, may be required to obtain a certificate. People raised in Beijing are sometimes considered inherently 1-A (A score of at least 97%) and exempted from this requirement.  As for the rest, the score of 1-A is rare. According to the official definition of proficiency levels, people who get 1-B (A score of at least 92%) are considered qualified to work as television correspondents or in broadcasting stations.  2-A (A score of at least 87%) can work as Chinese Literature Course teachers in public schools. Other levels include: 2-B (A score of at least 80%), 3-A (A score of at least 70%) and 3-B (A score of at least 60%). In China, a proficiency of level 3-B usually cannot be achieved unless special training is received. Even though many Chinese do not speak with standard pronunciation, spoken Standard Chinese is widely understood to some degree.

The China National Language And Character Working Committee was founded in 1985. One of its important responsibilities is to promote Standard Chinese proficiency for Chinese native speakers.


The phoneme inventory of Standard Chinese consists of about two dozen consonants, of which only /n/, /ŋ/, and under certain circumstances the retroflex approximant /ɻ / can occur in the syllable coda, about half a dozen vowels, some of which form diphthongs, and four tones, one of which is marked with creaky voice.  Statistically, vowels and tones are of similar importance in the language.

Regional accents

It is common for Standard Chinese to be spoken with the speaker's regional accent, depending on factors such as age, level of education, and the need and frequency to speak in official or formal situations. This appears to be changing, though, in large urban areas, as social changes, migrations, and urbanization take place.

Due to evolution and standardization, Mandarin, although based on the Beijing dialect, is no longer synonymous with it. Part of this was due to the standardization to reflect a greater vocabulary scheme and a more archaic and "proper-sounding" pronunciation and vocabulary. The areas near Beijing, especially the cities of Chengde and Shijiazhuang in neighbouring Hebei province, speak a dialect closest to the standardized pronunciation; this form is generally heard on national and local television and radio.

Distinctive features of the Beijing dialect are the use of erhua, a final "er" (/ɻ /) sound, often as a diminutive, in vocabulary items that are left unadorned in descriptions of the standard such as the Xiandai Hanyu Cidian, as well as more neutral tones.  An example of standard versus Beijing dialect would be the standard men (door) and Beijing menr.

The stereotypical "southern Chinese" accent does not distinguish between retroflex and alveolar consonants, pronouncing pinyin zh [tʂ], ch [tʂʰ], and sh [ʂ] in the same way as z [ts], c [tsʰ], and s [s] respectively.  Southern-accented Standard Chinese may also interchange l and n, final n and ng, and vowels i and ü [y]. Attitudes towards southern accents, particularly the Cantonese accent, range from disdain to admiration.


Many formal, polite and humble words that were in use in imperial China have not been used in daily conversation in modern-day Mandarin, such as jiàn (贱/賤 "my humble") and guì (贵/貴 "your honorable").

Although Chinese speakers make a clear distinction between Standard Chinese and the Beijing dialect, there are aspects of Beijing dialect that have made it into the official standard. Standard Chinese has a T–V distinction between the polite and informal "you" that comes from the Beijing dialect, although its use is quite diminished in daily speech. In addition, it also distinguishes between "zánmen" (we including the listener) and "wǒmen" (we not including the listener). In practice, neither distinction is commonly used by most Chinese, at least outside the Beijing area.

The following samples are some phrases from the Beijing dialect which are not yet accepted into Standard Chinese:

·         倍儿 bèir means 'very much'; 拌蒜 bànsuàn means 'stagger'; 不吝 bù lìn means 'do not worry about'; 撮 cuō means 'eat'; 出溜 chūliū means 'slip'; (大)老爷儿们儿 dà lǎoyermenr means 'man, male'.

The following samples are some phrases from Beijing dialect which have become accepted as Standard Chinese[citation needed]:

·         二把刀 èr bǎ dāo means 'not very skillful'; 哥们儿 gēménr means 'good male friend(s)', 'buddy(ies)'; 抠门儿 kōu ménr means 'frugal' or 'stingy'.


Chinese is a very analytic or isolating language, having almost no inflectional morphemes. It follows a similar sentence structure to English, frequently forming sentences in the order subject-predicate. The predicate can be an intransitive verb, a transitive verb followed by a direct object, a linking verb followed by a predicate nominative, etc.

Chinese differs from English in distinguishing between names of things, which can stand as predicate nominatives, and names of characteristics. Names of characteristics (e.g., green) cannot follow linking verbs. There is not an equivalent to the English predicate adjective. Instead, abstract characterizations such as "green", "angry", "hot", etc., stand as complete predicates in their own right. For example, 我不累. Wǒ bú lèi. A word-for-word version in English might be "I not tired." Another common phrase, 你好 (nǐ hăo), demonstrates this feature. While it gets translated into English as "hello", the transliteration is "You good".

Chinese additionally differs from English in that it forms another kind of sentence by stating a topic and following it by a comment. To do this in English, speakers generally flag the topic of a sentence by prefacing it with "as for." For instance, one might say, "As for the money that Mom gave us, I have already bought candy with it." Note that the comment in this case is itself a complete sentence with subject, verb, and object. The Chinese version is simply, 妈妈给我们的钱,我已经买了糖果. Māma gěi wǒmen de qián, wǒ yǐjīng mǎile táng le. This might be directly translated as "The money Mom gave us, I already bought candy," lacking a preface as in English.

Chinese does not inflect verbs for tense like English and other European languages. Instead it uses a combination of aspect markers for aspect and modality. In other words, it employs single syllables that indicate such things as (1) an action being expected or anticipated, (2) that the subject of the sentence has gone through some experience within a stated or implicit time period, (3) that a statement that was formerly not the case has now become true, i.e., that there has been a change of status, (4) that there still has not been a change in a condition previously noted, etc.

The time when something happens can be given by an explicit term such as "yesterday," by relative terms such as "formerly," etc.

Another major difference between the syntax of Chinese and languages like English lies in the stacking order of modifying clauses. 昨天发脾气的外交警察取消了沒有交钱的那些人的入境证. Zuótiān fāpíqì de wàijiāo jǐngchá qǔxiāole méiyǒu jiāoqián de nàxiē rén derùjìngzhèng. Using the Chinese order in English, that sentence would be:

"[Yesterday got angry] → foreign affairs policeman canceled [did not pay] → [those people]'s visas."

In more ordinary English order, that would be:

"The foreign affairs policeman who got angry yesterday canceled the visas of those people who did not pay."

There are a few other features of Chinese that would be unfamiliar to speakers of English, but the features mentioned above are generally the most noticeable.

Writing system

Main article: Chinese characters

The writing system for almost all the varieties of Chinese is based on a set of written logograms that has been passed down with little change for more than two thousand years. Each of these varieties of Chinese has developed some new words during this time, words for which there are no matching characters in the original set.

While it is possible to invent new characters (as was done to represent many elements in the periodic table), a more common course of development has been to borrow old characters that have fallen into disuse on the basis of their pronunciations.

In Classical Chinese, the demonstrative pronouns were 此  "this" and 彼  "that". These terms were rare in spoken Mandarin, where zhè and  (or regional variants of them) were used instead. None of the original characters had those meanings associated with those pronunciations, so the character 这/這 for zhè "to meet" was borrowed to write "this", and the character 那 for , the name of a country and later a rare surname, was borrowed to write "that".

The government of the PRC (as well as some other governments and institutions) has promulgated a set of simplified forms. Under this system, the forms of the words zhèlǐ ("here") and nàlǐ ("there") changed from 這裏/這裡 and 那裏/那裡 to 这里 and 那里.

Chinese characters were traditionally read from top to bottom, right to left, but in modern usage it is more common to read from left to right.

Common phrases


Traditional characters

Simplified characters





Nǐ hǎo!

What is your name?



Nǐ jiào shénme míngzi?

My name is...



Wǒ jiào ...

How are you?

你好嗎?/ 你怎麼樣?

你好吗?/ 你怎么样?

Nǐ hǎo ma? / Nǐ zěnmeyàng?

I am fine, how about you?



Wǒ hěn hǎo, nǐ ne?

I don't want it / I don't want to



Wǒ bú yào.

Thank you!




Welcome! / You're welcome! (Literally: No need to thank me!) / Don't mention it! (Literally: Don't be so polite!)

歡迎!/ 不用謝!/ 不客氣!

欢迎!/ 不用谢!/ 不客气!

Huānyíng! / Búyòng xiè! / Bú kèqì!

Yes. / Correct.

是。 / 對。/� 嗯。

是。 / 对。/ 嗯。

Shì. / Duì. / M.

No. / Incorrect.

不是。/ 不對。/ 不。

不是。/ 不对。/ 不。

Búshì. / Bú duì. / Bù.




Shénme shíhou?

How much money?



Duōshǎo qián?

Can you speak a little slower?



Nín néng shuō de zài mànxiē ma?

Good morning! / Good morning!

早上好! / 早安!

早上好! / 早安!

Zǎoshang hǎo! / Zǎo'ān!





How do you get to the airport?



Qù jīchǎng zěnme zǒu?

I want to fly to London on the eighteenth



Wǒ xiǎng shíbā hào zuò fēijī dào Lúndūn.

How much will it cost to get to Munich?



Dào Mùníhēi yào duōshǎo qián?

I don't speak Chinese very well.



Wǒ de Hànyǔ shuō de bú tài hǎo.

Do you speak English?



Nǐ huì shuō Yīngyǔ ma?

I have no money.



Wǒ méiyǒu qián.