When Westerners look to China, they tend to think about a single culture. Far from reality. This is not so in the majority of countries. Here’s 5 facts about the Chinese language will help you understand you face a very rich culture.

1. Chinese is the oldest written language in the world.

People in the West do not tend to know much about the history of Mandarin Chinese. The exotic calligraphy makes them feel illiterate and they never attempt to learn even one character. However, with likely six thousand years of history, imagine that Europeans, North Africans and Arabic speakers had taken ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs for their alphabet and they could still trace back some meanings. That’s how old Chinese writing is.

Chinese character inscriptions have been found in turtle shells dating back to the Shang dynasty, which dates from 1766-1123 BC. proving the written language has existed for more than 3,000 years. The Chinese written language uses single distinctive symbols, or characters, to represent each word of the vocabulary, a trait shared by early written systems like Egyptian hieroglyphs. The vast majority of characters began as symbolic representations of spoken sounds and they had a meaning. However, traces on the paper have been simplified and hardly ever can be related to the original picture.

terracotta army soldiers horses
Chinese characters related to non-physical concepts tend to be a combination of characters. A large Chinese dictionary tends to contain around 40,000 characters. An ordinary person must be able to recognize at least 2,000 – 3,000 characters to read a newspaper. The written system has evolved over time due to social changes, revolutions and politics, the principles of the Chinese language and its characters have remained basically the same.

Although many Chinese dialects exist, the written language is a common form of communication. Even though people from different provinces (particularly from the North and the South) are not able to understand each other verbally, they can understand each other in writing.

Chinese characters prove it is the oldest writing system in the world still in use.

2. Chinese has three writing systems

The written language can be subdivided into three forms: Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, and informal slang or phonetic Chinese. There is also a growing form of Chinese called “pin-yin” that is widely used among young people – this is the Chinese language transcribed using a roman spelling, very fashionable in mobile devices.

3. Chinese is a family of languages, not just one

In China, we find about eight different linguistic groups that together represent hundreds of dialects and their variants, which in most cases are not mutually comprehensible. Scholars speak of Chinese as a family of languages, equating it to what happens to the Romance family of languages rather a single language (French and A Spanish are not fully mutually understandable although many words are similar).

Even so, with over 900 million native speakers, the standard Chinese recognized as Mandarin Chinese, is the most widespread Sino-Tibetan language among the languages of Asia, which became popular during the Manchu dynasty in Beijing (more details below).

In terms of speaker populations, Chinese is a language of the Sino-Tibetan family spoken in China, Taiwan, Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia, as well as by lots of Chinese communities present worldwide.

4. Chinese and Japanese ARE NOT related

Westerners tend to view Chinese and Japanese as similar or related languages. In fact, Chinese and Japanese are different languages. True, Japanese has borrowed many characters from old Chinese as the writing system was introduced from developed China to rural Japan many centuries ago. Pronunciation is radically different, but it is possible for speakers of both languages to exchange some information and have a certain level of understanding if they write common characters.

5. Why do they call it “Mandarin” when they mean Chinese?

A largely diffused adaptation as to the origin of the term “Mandarin” originates from the Hindi word “mantri” which means “counselor” or “minister of state”, which was then passed to the Malaysian word “mantri”. This, or a similar word, was the word finally found by the Portuguese when they came in contact with China, adapted as “mandarim”. From Portuguese, it was quickly assimilated into other European languages.

This word made its way to the Portuguese vocabulary due to the Chinese- Portuguese trade relations in the early 17th century. Portuguese traders could only deal with Chinese officials from the Chinese imperial government. Like this, the Chinese population was kept protected from the diffusion of foreign customs. It was thus that the language used by the officials who ruled was known as “Mandarin” in the West.

A short history

the great wall  a of china
Chinese is certainly a language with ancient origins. In fact, the history of the Chinese language can be classified into the following stages:

    • Archaic Chinese (14th to 11th centuries BC): the language of oracular inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells. The oldest inscriptions are from the Shang Dynasty (c. 1400-1100 a.), and have been discovered in the ancient capital, Anyang, and some other places. There are about 2,000 characters that have been identified, which represents a much higher figure of words. Keep in mind that the Shang Dynasty characters are polyvalent, depending the meaning on the place and function in pronunciation.
  • Classic Chinese (Wenli – 11th century BC to 8th cent A.D.): top stage in Chinese language and literature. Strictly speaking, the term Chinese refers to the Chinese language and literature from the 6th cent. B.C. to the 3rd cent. A.D., including the lives and works of Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, Han Fei, Mo Tzu and Chuan Tzu, to name just six sagas of philosophers who had a powerful Chinese afterthought. In a broader sense, the classic Chinese term begins with the Shih Ching (‘Book of Odes’), compiled between the 11th and 6th centuries B.C., and one of the ‘Five Classics’ (wu jing), being the other four as follows: I Jing, or ‘Book of Changes’, Shu Jing, or ‘Book of History’, Li Ji or ‘Property Book’; Chun-Chiu or ‘Book of the Spring and Autumn Annals’.After the Burning of Books by Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di (231 B.C.), the classic texts had to be painstakingly rebuilt in the early years of the Han Dynasty, whose alignment with Confucianism determined the direction of Chinese literature over the centuries. There were three crucial factors for Confucian hegemony: the sanctity of the classic texts, the research system based on these texts and their commentaries, and the supremacy of the writers who would explain the classics and determined the research. Besides this, especially in the Tang and Sung Dinasties, poets emerged that produced some of the most attractive works of art in the world.
  • Modern Chinese, which retains essentially the vocabulary and morphology of classical Chinese in its later stage, but was enriched and adapted for use in modern society. During the Sung-Yuan Dynasties (XII-XIV d. C.) the ‘speak easy’, Báihuà, which was a Chinese way closer to the spoken language than Wenli literary style, was first used for literary purposes, e.g. in the prose passage of the Yuan drama. Baihua was also the vehicle for narrative prose of the great Ming novels such as ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’.After the fall of the Manchu Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic in 1911, both the movement for standardization of the national language and the replacement of Chinese writing by another alphabetic character become extremely important. Both steps were regarded as indispensable for universal education in China; a key role in this was played by the cultural revolution known as the Movement May 4, 1919 and the implementation of proposals for a national language made first by Hu Shih in the pages of ‘New Youth’ Ching Xin-nian newspaper. Finally, in 1949, Baihua, now known as Putonghua or ‘common language’, was officially adopted as the national language of the Republic of China.
Further information: Chinese Translation Services

Further reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandarin_Chinese

4 thoughts on “5 Short Facts about the Chinese language (for foreigners)

  1. Aaron Gilkison

    It’s good to spread such knowledge, but how can one claim in one sentence that the written language has a history of 6,000 years and then in the next sentence state that we only have evidence for 3,000 years of existence? Also, the Chinese script is still being used today, but so are all of the alphabets of the world, which have as their origin the Proto-Sinaitic script of equal antiquity (3,000+ years).

    1. pangeanic Post author

      Dear Aaron, the sentence pointed to the country having a history of around 6000 years, not the language, of which there are oracle inscriptions of bones dating from 1250 BCE. Egyptian civilization began to coalesce around 3000 BCE, which a number agreed by archeologists pointing to some kind of agricultural civilization in China. The problem, as you well know, is that artifacts have not kept in China as well as in Egypt or Mesopotamia or Southern Turkey.

      If 1250 is the earliest we take, we can see that thousands of miles away Ramesses II was making war against the Hittites, and Egyptian civilization was at the helm of its powers. The point I am trying to make is that those records in Chinese point to an earlier culture and that development probably took place in parallel everywhere there was a great, fertile river.

      1. Aaron Gilkison

        I understand your point – certainly China had civilization before 1250. I think I’m just thrown off by the claim that “Chinese is the oldest written language in the world,” when there is no actual evidence that it is the oldest. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” – Carl Sagan.

  2. pangeanic Post author

    True, Aaron. It is the oldest written language because all the rest of written languages at the time have nor survived. So even if the kanjis are very different, both the writing system AND the language have survived. Greek has as well, and it has kept its own alphabet, but it cannot claim such an earlier origin. I know this can be disputed according to some scholars and Greek civilization could be as old as Chinese.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *