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A brief history of the Chinese language

Updated on October 9, 2013
"Guanhua" or "Language of the Officials" written in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese
"Guanhua" or "Language of the Officials" written in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese | Source

The Chinese language is revered as one of the oldest and most profound surviving languages in the world. Nonetheless, the Mandarin Chinese spoken today is very different from the Chinese spoken in ancient China, and it is mutually unintelligible with many other Chinese dialects spoken in the vast territories of the People’s Republic of China. Notwithstanding that, Mandarin Chinese is undoubtedly one of the most vital languages in today’s world, what with China’s increasing importance as a global superpower politically and economically.

Interesting facts about the Mandarin Chinese language:

  • By common estimates, Mandarin Chinese is the language with the most number of native speakers in the world, although exact numbers tend to differ between estimates
  • Mandarin Chinese is accorded official language status in the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Singapore and the United Nations
  • Mandarin Chinese is widely spoken in countries with significant Chinese minorities such as Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Brunei, as well as many other overseas Chinese communities worldwide
  • In the truest sense, Mandarin Chinese is largely the mother tongue of only the Han Chinese in northern China, as the southern Han Chinese tend to have their respective dialects as their mother tongues. Nonetheless, official policies over the years have transformed Mandarin Chinese into the universal language and lingual identity for all Han Chinese people
  • To many native English speakers, Mandarin Chinese is often perceived as the second most difficult language to learn, if not the most difficult itself
  • The Chinese language and writing system historically have strong influences on the Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese languages and writing systems

Regions and territories traditionally influenced by the Chinese language and culture
Regions and territories traditionally influenced by the Chinese language and culture | Source

Brief introduction to the Mandarin Chinese language

The reason why many native English speakers often declare Mandarin Chinese one of the hardest languages to learn and master is primarily due to two reasons: its tonal pronunciations and complex writing system. Mandarin Chinese is an entirely tonal language; words can be expressed in single syllables, and modifying the tones of these single syllables can entirely change their meanings. To illustrate this, let’s look at a simple example:

  • (妈) (flat tone) means “mother”
  • (麻) (rising tone) means “sesame”
  • (马) (low/dipping tone) means “horse”
  • (骂) (falling tone) means “to scold”

Mandarin Chinese is characterized by these four tones in general i.e. flat, rising, low and falling tones. Sometimes, even the same syllable with the same tone can have multiple meanings, for example , which according to the character used and its context, can mean either “mother” (妈) or “to wipe” (抹). Many of these monosyllabic words can be conjugated together with other monosyllabic words to form new words. Taking the second bullet point above as an example, the word (麻) can be combined with the word zuì (醉) (lit. “to be drunk”) to form a new word, mázuì (麻醉), which means “anaesthesia.”

Unlike many languages in the world, the Chinese language is peculiar because it does not utilize an alphabet system in its writing, but rather a logographic system. The Chinese language is written using drawing-like ideograms or characters, with each character representing a single syllable. The Chinese language is estimated to have over 50,000 characters, some of which are now obsolete and some of which are variants of existing characters. Nonetheless, most native speakers are able to recognize an estimated 5,000 characters, of which probably only slightly more than half of these are in common daily usage.

Oracle bone dating back to the reign of King Wu Ding (reigned 1250 BC - 1192 BC) of the Shang Dynasty
Oracle bone dating back to the reign of King Wu Ding (reigned 1250 BC - 1192 BC) of the Shang Dynasty | Source
Qin Shi Huang, emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BC)
Qin Shi Huang, emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BC) | Source

Early history of the Chinese writing

The earliest evidence of Chinese writing comes from Anyang in Henan Province, believed to be the last capital of the Shang Dynasty that ruled from 1600-1046 BC. These were in the form of oracle bones, which are animal bones or turtle shells used in ancient Chinese divination. The oracle bone served two main purposes: it was used as a material on which one could write on by carving, as well as a tool of divination in which one would heat the bone up until cracks formed on its surface, after which these crack patterns were interpreted as divine messages.

Ancient Chinese writing was thus derived from two main sources: the first being the crack patterns on oracle bones, and the second being direct depictions of natural elements in drawings. In the latter case, a common example to illustrate this would be the character for “rain,” which is written as 雨 (), in which this character somewhat resembles raindrops falling from above. Subsequent Chinese characters were created throughout the centuries by conjugating more than one character or parts of characters together to form new ones.

Due to geographical variations, a wide variety of Chinese writings existed in the different early states of China, all of which were mutually unintelligible with each other. It was not until the time of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Shi Huang-di) of the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BC) when all these different forms of writings were unified under a single system, which gave the basis for standardized Chinese writing in the subsequent centuries until today. Even so, during the reign of Qin Shi Huang, unification of these different writings was not complete, as alternative forms of writings were still being widely used in many aspects of governance and life. It took many decades in the course of subsequent dynasties for this universal writing system to be accepted and used widely.

From Qin Shi Huang’s universal Chinese script, several scripts subsequently developed and became widely used in official, literary and common matters. Among all these scripts, however, the regular script became the most widely accepted, developing extensively and maturing stylistically during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) to become most of the Chinese characters that we know today.

Brief introduction to the origin of Chinese characters

Old Chinese writing on bamboo strips dating back to the Warring States Period (475 - 221 BC)
Old Chinese writing on bamboo strips dating back to the Warring States Period (475 - 221 BC) | Source
A "rhyme table" (Yunjing) i.e. rhyme dictionary from the Song Dynasty
A "rhyme table" (Yunjing) i.e. rhyme dictionary from the Song Dynasty | Source
Artist's impression of life in the Ming Dynasty imperial court
Artist's impression of life in the Ming Dynasty imperial court | Source
Artist's impression of a Ming Dynasty mandarin (official/scholar), from which the term "Mandarin Chinese" was coined to name the language used by the mandarins
Artist's impression of a Ming Dynasty mandarin (official/scholar), from which the term "Mandarin Chinese" was coined to name the language used by the mandarins | Source

Chinese language during dynastic rule

Spoken Chinese in ancient and imperial China is much more complex, as China’s vast geography and immensely large population have contributed to the birth of hundreds of different languages and dialects, many of which when spoken are mutually unintelligible. Qin Shi Huang’s attempt to unify the Chinese writing system, however, helped bridge this gap to a certain degree. By the time of the Tang Dynasty, most of these dialects have adopted the Chinese regular script as their universal writing system, thus promoting inter-communicability between people from the different parts of China.

To put it simply, the Chinese language can historically be divided into three broad classifications, namely Old Chinese, Middle Chinese and Modern Chinese. Old Chinese was primarily spoken during the Zhou Dynasty (1122 – 256 BC), whereas Middle Chinese was generally the lingua franca during the Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties (581 – 1279). Pronunciations in Old and Middle Chinese vary markedly from the Mandarin Chinese that we know today, and efforts to reconstruct these pronunciations and intonations have proven to be extremely challenging. Nonetheless, it is said that these archaic pronunciations may closely resemble some of the dialects spoken in China’s southern provinces today, as well as modern Korean and Japanese words derived from Chinese.

After the fall of the Song Dynasty and during the reign of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368), a common dialect started to take form amongst the people living in the northern plains of China. This dialect, largely based on the dialect used around Beijing, developed to become what historians call Old Mandarin. The vast plains of northern China that provide ease of migration and travel, coupled with the presence of a “common enemy” of the Han Chinese (i.e. the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty), may be factors that contributed to the unification of a common speech between the communities of northern China.

With the fall of the Yuan Dynasty and the establishment of the Ming Dynasty in 1368, Old Mandarin gained recognition as an official lingua franca of the new empire, subsequently developing into Modern Chinese. Modern Chinese or Mandarin Chinese, which closely resembles today’s Mandarin Chinese, gained prestige as the language of governance, literature and trade during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1912). Then known as Guanhua or “Language of the Officials,” Mandarin Chinese became the common language used by officials and scholars in the imperial court, and command of the language became somewhat an unofficial prerequisite for those aspiring for positions in government institutions.

Regions in Mainland China where Mandarin Chinese is the native language/dialect (dark green)
Regions in Mainland China where Mandarin Chinese is the native language/dialect (dark green) | Source
Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty
Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty | Source
The Xinhai Revolution that led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912
The Xinhai Revolution that led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 | Source
Illustration depicting the establishment of the Republic of China and its flags
Illustration depicting the establishment of the Republic of China and its flags | Source

Mandarin Chinese as the universal Chinese language

Although Mandarin Chinese became widely spoken by the time of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it should be noted that this applied mainly to the northern, northwestern and southwestern regions of China only. The Chinese of southern China spoke a larger range of dialects mutually unintelligible to each other and to Mandarin Chinese speakers. Efforts to unify the whole of China under a sole functional language were initiated by several Qing emperors, most notably Emperor Yongzheng, all of which failed miserably.

Despite Mandarin Chinese being the de facto lingua franca in many parts of China, spoken dialects and pronunciations still varied according to geographical locations. In attempts to standardize the language, Qing Dynasty officials adopted a single dialect as a standard for proper Mandarin Chinese pronunciation. While the Nanjing dialect was initially adopted for this purpose, the Beijing dialect later acquired official recognition and became the functional standard pronunciation by the time the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1912.

The unification of China under a common spoken language gained remarkable success after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, when the Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation laid down a standardized form of both written and spoken Mandarin, in addition to implementing new education policies that rendered the learning, teaching and usage of Mandarin in schools mandatory. The Beijing dialect became the source of most of the standard pronunciations in Mandarin.

With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, Mandarin Chinese in mainland China became known as Putonghua (lit. “The Common Dialect”) and adhered closely to the Beijing standard of pronunciation. In contrast, the Republic of China (Taiwan) under the Kuomintang called Mandarin Chinese Guoyu (lit. “The National Language”). Although still mutually intelligible, both Putonghua and Guoyu have diverged slightly from each other in terms of vocabulary and colloquial expressions, and it is easy for a native Chinese speaker to tell if a person is from mainland China or Taiwan just by listening to his/her accent.

The prestige and position of Mandarin Chinese in Chinese education has also impacted significantly upon many overseas Chinese communities. Mandarin Chinese is now the most commonly used Chinese speech among Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia, despite not traditionally being a mother tongue for much of these communities. It is in fact a major language in the education system of both these countries. With China’s rise as a global economic powerhouse in the 21st century, even traditionally Cantonese-speaking communities in Hong Kong, Macao and some overseas Chinese communities in Western countries are increasingly adopting Mandarin Chinese as a strong second language.

A sample of cursive Chinese writing from the Ming Dynasty
A sample of cursive Chinese writing from the Ming Dynasty | Source
The Chinese name for China, "Zhongguo", written in both the traditional and simplified scripts
The Chinese name for China, "Zhongguo", written in both the traditional and simplified scripts | Source
Protests in Beijing during the May Fourth Movement
Protests in Beijing during the May Fourth Movement | Source

Modern Chinese writing

One unique aspect of the Chinese language is the fact that there are two distinct writing systems for the language, namely the Traditional Chinese script and the Simplified Chinese script. Much of the regular script standardized during the Tang Dynasty, as mentioned above, has stood the test of time and remains to this day as the Traditional script. Even though the usage of the Simplified script has existed since as early as the Qin Dynasty in the form of cursive writings, the absolute position of the Traditional script as the accepted standard of writing has never been challenged until the last century.

Following the May Fourth Movement in China in 1919, calls for modernizing China resounded from numerous intellectual quarters, some of whom suggested that the usage of the Traditional script was in itself an obstacle to modernization. There were those who called for the simplification of Chinese characters to boost literacy rates, and there were also those who supported the complete abolition of Chinese characters in favour of the Hanyu Pinyin romanization. The government of the People's Republic of China launched several rounds of simplification exercises over the last half of the century, giving rise to the present set of Simplified Chinese characters. In efforts to comply with these standardizations, Chinese educationists in Singapore and Malaysia have also adopted the Simplified characters as the official script for Chinese education and print.

Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao, however, never adopted the Simplified script. These countries continue to recognize the Traditional script as the sole official script in written Chinese/Cantonese, perceiving themselves as custodians of an unabridged Chinese script.

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    • Alphadogg16 profile image

      Kevin W 3 years ago from Texas

      A very informative hub JamesAng, I have always been interested in learning the Chinese language and have a collection of Chinese artifacts. Thumbs up on your hub.

    • Francesca27 profile image

      Francesca27 3 years ago from Hub Page

      I loved the picture of the modern Chinese writing. Very interesting people, I have some good Chinese Friends that have taught me wonderful things.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Jamesang,

      As a person who has been studying and working with Chinese Mandarin and other dialects since 1967, I find this to be an awesome article. It is well-researched and certainly will be interesting and useful for anyone studying about China and Chinese languages. Yes, tones and the written language were the hardest parts for me to learn. For the past few years I have been living in Thailand. Although Mandarin isn't spoken much in the areas where overseas Chinese live, a lot of Mandarin is being taught in schools. Voted up and sharing with followers.

    • JamesAng12 profile image
      Author

      James Ang 3 years ago

      Thanks for the good comments and your interest in the article, Alphadogg16, Francesca27 and Paul Kuehn. Really appreciate it.

    • Hezekiah profile image

      Hezekiah 3 years ago from Japan

      Interesting, I speak and read Japanese and I noticed how the Japanese characters (Kanji) are closer to traditional Chinese character. The simplified characters are actually harder to read for me.

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