In a country so densely populated and with many regional dialects it’s actually fairly amazing that the vast majority, estimates of around 70%, speaks and understands one language, Mandarin Chinese or “Putonghua”, meaning “the common tongue”. I guess this could be considered a small amount when you think of it as one country but when you think of it as 960 million people in one place speaking one language it certainly seems a large figure! The next highest spoken language is Wu which includes the traditional spoken language of Shanghaiand is spoken by around 80 million people with Yue coming third and it is this branch that includes Cantonese and is spoken by approximately 60 million people.
The advent of Simplified Chinese in the modern era
The written language has changed much less over time with the spoken languages all developing at differing rates. They were traditionally read from top to bottom and from right to left. The modern written language that unifies all forms of spoken Chinese despite the completely different pronunciations is split into Traditional and Simplified formats. The Traditional script is still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau and takes its form from late Han dynasty characters. Simplified Chinese was developed under Chairman Mao and the Communist party in order to improve literacy rates and removes many of the strokes that appear in Traditional characters. Simplified Chinese is used across Mainland China and also in places such as Singapore and Malaysia.
Chinese is a tonal language and Standard Chinese uses 4 tones as well as a neutral although there is some variety with this amongst dialects. These can be easily represented in the romanised version of Standard Chinese known as Pinyin. The tones will completely change the meaning of a word so are extremely important to recognise when listening to the language and equally important to pronounce correctly when speaking. This, for many western people can be the toughest part of learning to speak Chinese.
Pinyin as a tool for learning Chinese at school
Pinyin is now the way that all Chinese learn their language at school with its rigid rules allowing a reasonably simple way to learn phonetic Chinese. It was again brought in for this reason under Chairman Mao in the 1950’s and replaced the various attempts foreigners had undertook to write down Chinese in a phonetic manner. Most famous of these was the Wade-Giles method that brought us the spelling “Mao Tse-Tung” rather than the modern Pinyin “Mao Zedong” or Wade-Giles’ “Pei-ching” to modern Pinyin’s “Beijing”
With China becoming part of the modern internet age that we live in many English words now find themselves being absorbed into the language. This actually first started in Shanghai in the early 20th Century with Shanghaiese absorbing words such as “golf” which becomes “gaoerfu” and “sofa” becoming “shafa”. With mobile phone text becoming popular words such as TV can be seen written as Roman letters in newspapers, magazines and websites throughout China.
It is always appreciated by Chinese people if those on Chinese tours learn a few words of the language - it goes down very well!