All About Mandarin: Diversity, Culture, and History in a Language 

Featured image by Daniel Lal

April 20th celebrates UN Chinese Language Day: A day to celebrate the influence that Chinese languages, poetry, and literature have had on world culture throughout the years. Chinese was established as one of the six official languages of the United Nations in 1946. The Chinese language is celebrated on the 20th of April to “pay tribute to Cangjie, a mythical figure who is presumed to have invented Chinese characters about 5,000 years ago” (UN). As one of the oldest languages in the world, and with more than a billion people speaking various dialects, Chinese has had a profound influence on cultures around the globe. As the official language of China, Mandarin is spoken by the majority of people here in the Middle Kingdom.

By Daniel Lal 

You learn simple phrases for buying food at a local market. You practice with a Mandarin speaker to confirm you’re saying them right. You approach an older lady at the market selling vegetables. She yells “NI YA NAU YAAA”, which you mentally confirm has no resemblance to any sounds you practiced. You acknowledge that Chinese culture is much more diverse than you ever realized.   

The official language of the world’s most populous country, Mandarin in its present-day form is a language with hieroglyphic-like character sets and pronunciation tones spoken natively by almost one billion people. Languages affect thinking patterns, which is part of what makes a Roman so Roman. So, here’s some background on the diversity, culture, and history of China through the country’s most widely spoken language, Mandarin. 


How to Say “Mandarin” in Mandarin   

Mandarin is occasionally referred to as Hanyu, or the ‘language of the Han people.’ The Han Chinese, an ethnic group who now make up over 90% of China’s population, technically never had a common language. Even today, there are Han Chinese whose mother tongue is a local dialect. The dialect spoken by the northern Han people during the Qing dynasty was the forerunner for today’s Mandarin, so the Hanyu moniker has stuck. Mandarin is more commonly referred to as Putonghua (the common language), and is also called Zhongwen and Zhongguohua, the Zhong in both cases referring to China, since it is the national language. Makes sense. Interestingly thoughthe word “Mandarin” isn’t even Mandarin. 


Why Mandarin Has Simplified and Traditional Characters 

Written Chinese is believed to be over 3,000 years old. The earliest forms of writing are now called Oracle Script, which were discovered on animal bones. Since then, Chinese writing has evolved into different forms, some of which are now used for calligraphic art. Traditional characters were used through the end of the Imperial Age and into the politically unstable years of the Republic of China (1912-1949). Among other initiatives to unify the nation again was standardizing a common language. Simplified Chinese, which had already taken shape in the 1930s, would be promoted as part of language reform. 


Mandarin Calligraphy shop in China. By Dan Lal for WildChina

Calligraphy shop. Image by Daniel Lal

Since the start of the Communist era in 1949, written Chinese has officially had two sets of characters: simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese. The purpose of simplified Chinese was to encourage literacy throughout the nation, something that has been accomplished to a great extent. Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia all continue to use simplified Chinese, while Hong Kong and Taiwan use traditional Chinese. The two sets of characters are not different languages and do not have different pronunciations – a relative comparison would be print and cursive versions of the Roman alphabet. 


Mandarin’s Multi-Faceted Effects on Daily Chinese Culture 

The older lady at the market that yelled something you weren’t prepared for was speaking a local dialect, not standard Mandarin. Estimates say that there are close to 300 dialects spoken among the 56 recognized ethnic groups throughout China. The Han dialect that became Mandarin was brought to other parts of China over the centuries, mostly through military campaigns and migration. Because of this, some dialects – for example, many dialects of Southwest China – have similarities to standard Mandarin. Others, including some major dialects such as Cantonese, aren’t even close. 


Ethnic minority women. Photo by Daniel Lal for WildChina

Ethnic minority women in Southern China. Image by Joseph Lal

The volume, intensity, emotional tone, and facial expressions associated with a local dialect can affect the way some Chinese people speak Mandarin. Shanghainese is spoken very strongly and loudly, so if you see two people conversing in Shanghainese, you might worry about an argument coming to blows, only to find out they are best friends. The Naxi people – Naxi being the name of their ethnic minority and language – tend to speak in a lower, calmer voice. If the vocal manner of either of these native dialects shine (or blare) through when speaking Mandarin, it could leave even a native Mandarin speaker confused.

The limited communication with older generations and non-city dwellers is noticed by local Chinese, not just travelers. Two people from Harbin, a northern metropolis that predominantly speaks Mandarin and has no official local dialect, went to a convenience store while visiting the southwestern province of Yunnan. The store owner tried to converse with them, but they could only smile and nod as they didn’t understand a word. In some parts of China, such as in the province of Fujian, neighboring villages still can’t communicate with each other, and the differences in culture and language still vary greatly. 

Yiwen Hanzi English. Image by Daniel Lal for WildChina

Yizu writing. Image by Daniel Lal

The strong push for Mandarin education has created a separation in social levels, especially for those who live outside of the bigger cities. The older generations grew up speaking their local dialects and attended schools before Mandarin education was an initiative. A person’s level of standard Mandarin shows their educational background, so unless they know the other person is local, older ones will often default to standard Mandarin despite not being fluent. Some older ones still view Mandarin as a dialect as opposed to a major language. 

There continues to be a social divide over Chinese character simplification. Many who learned Chinese writing through traditional characters view it as a dumbing-down and de-culturalization of Chinese, while those who learned simplified characters appreciate its functionality. One Hong Kong columnist views learning simplified characters as a need for business with China while not affecting Hong Kong’s culture and use of traditional characters in education. “We may not be enamored of simplified Chinese characters, but know them we must,” he states, showing how deep the divide can run. 

Chinese culture places itself alongside Egypt, Babylon, and India as one of the four major civilizations that shaped the world. Parts of its thousands-of-years-long history trickle down to today, especially in Mandarin form. Whether you’re an avid traveler or an ambition-conquering polyglot, the diversity, culture, and history of the Middle Kingdom and its official language await you. 


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