The national language

The need to establish an official national language was felt as early as the 17th century when the Ch'ing dynasty established a number of "correct pronunciation institutes" to teach standard Peking pronunciation, particularly in the Cantonese and Fukienese-speaking southern provinces. The success of these schools, however, was extremely limited.

The concept of a national language coalesced around 1910. In 1913, the Ministry of Education convened a Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation to establish a standard national tongue. Wu Ching-heng (also known as Wu Chih-hui 吳稚暉, a philosopher and one of the founders of the Republic of China, was chosen to direct the task of creating a truly national language that would transcend locality and dialect. Due to the domination of the numerically superior Mandarin-speaking delegates, the Peking dialect was voted for the general foundation of the new national language 'guoyu' (national speech). It embodies the pronunciation of Peking, the grammar of the Mandarin dialects, and the vocabulary of modern vernacular Chinese literature, but features of various local dialects were also incorporated. Guoyu is now the official language of mainland China, Taiwan and one of the official languages of Singapore. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 it was renamed to putonghua (common language) . In 1956, it became the medium of instruction in all schools nationwide and a policy of promoting its use began. It is now the most widely used form of spoken Chinese. In Taiwan, it still goes under the name of guoyu, or 'national speech'. In the West it is generally referred to Mandarin.

Wu Chih-hui
Wu Chih-hui (吳稚暉)

Obviously, there are some slight deviations between the Mandarin variants spoken in Beijing (putonghua), Taiwan (guoyu), Singapore. These include deviations in grammar, vocabulary, stylistic aspects, and loan words. For example, there is a 23% discrepancy in standard pronunciation between the 3,500 most commonly used characters in the 'Xinhua zidian' of the mainland and 'Guoyu cidian' of Taiwan. There are ample differences in vocabulary between Putunghua and Guoyu. Classical examples are 'bike' 自行車 and 單車, and 'computer' 計算機 and 電腦, used in mainland and Taiwan, respectively.

All radio and television broadcast announcers in Beijing, both men and women, broadcast in a pitch range notic.eably higher than that of their normal speaking voices. Each sentence begins high and shrill. Then pitch falls gradually, reaching a lower key by the end of the sentence. Pauses are exaggerated and more drawn out. This special type of intonation seems intended to arouse in the audience an impression of struggle and determination. In Taiwan, by contrast, announcers broadcast in a more conversational speaking voice.

Language versus dialect

Spoken Chinese comprises many regional variants, generally referred to as dialects. However, the mutual unintelligibility of the varieties is the main ground for classifying them as separate languages or dialect groups. Each dialect group consists of a large number of dialects or topolects. The boundaries between one so-called language and the next are not always easy to define and the notion of a single Chinese language is mainly determined politically and by the use of a unified written language. Because each dialect group preserves different features of Middle Chinese (dating back to early or even pre-T'ang times), they have proven to be valuable research tools in the phonological reconstruction of Middle Chinese (5th-10th centuries AD) and even to some extent its ancestor, Old Chinese (11th to 7th centuries B.C.).

CharacterMandarin (pinyin)Cantonese (jyutping)Hakka (pinjim)Min (pe̍h-ōe-jī)Middle Chinese
ji1 (yī)jat7a (jat1)jit7 (jit7)ʦit7 (chi̍t)jit
ɚ5 (èr)ji6 (ji6)nji5 (ngi5)ʣi6 (jī)nji
san1 (sān)ʃa:m1; (saam1)sam1 (sam1)sa1 (saⁿ)sam
sɿ2 (sì)ʃei2 (sei3)si5 (si5)si2 (sì)si
u3 (wǔ)ng4 (ng5)ŋ̩3 (ng3)3 (gō͘)ngu
liou5(liù)lʊk8 (luk6)liuk7 (liuk7)lak8 (la̍k)ljuk
tɕʰi1(qī)tʃʰɐt7a (cat1)tsʰit7 (tshit7)tsʰit7 (chhit)tshit
pa1 (bā)pat7b (baat3)pat7 (pat7)pueʔ7 (peh)pat
tɕiou3 (jiǔ)kɐu3 (gau2)kiu3 (kiu3)kau3 (káu)kju
ʂʅ2 (shí)sɐp8 (sap6)səp8 (sip8)tsap8 (cha̍p)dzip

Group members

Chinese has seven major language groups of which the Mandarin language group forms the largest group. The Mandarin group consists of a wide range of dialects in the northern, central, and western regions. The Cantonese dialects are spoken in Hong Kong, Guangdong, Southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, parts of Hainan, Macau, and in many overseas settlements. The Hakka (Kejia) languages are spoken in Guangdong, southwestern Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan, Hainan, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, many overseas Chinese communities, and in pockets throughout Southeast Asia. Most of the inhabitants of the south central region, in Hunan use the Xiang dialects, also known as Hunanese. The Min dialects are spoken in most of Fujian, large areas of Taiwan and Hainan, parts of Eastern Guangdong and the Leizhou Bandao Peninsula, and in areas of Southeast Asia. Most of the people living in Jiangxi, eastern part of Hunan, and the southeastern corner of Hubei use the Gan dialects. The majority of the inhabitants of Zhejiang, as well as people living in southern areas of Jiangsu and Anhui, speak the Wu dialects. The Wu dialects share marginal mutual intelligibility with the Mandarin and Gan dialects.

Bilingual education

Bilingual education is now common in Taiwan as a way of reversing the previous neglect of Chinese dialects other than the national language. Although the mainland central government acknowledges the importance of local dialects they are several steps behind bilingual education due to the continuing efforts to establish putonghua as the national language. Many of the Chinese languages are therefore disappearing at an alarming rate although small-scale efforts are done to prevent them from being lost.