When it comes to learning the Chinese language, there are always two different terms mentioned and used, which are Mandarin and Chinese. Why are there two words for the Chinese language? Is Mandarin the same as the Chinese language? Which one should be studied by people who want to communicate fluently in China? Mandarin or Chinese? We will find this out together in this post.
What’s the Difference?
– What is Mandarin/Putonghua (普通话pǔ tōng huà)?
Mandarin is also known as Mandarin Chinese, the Standard Modern Chinese language that widely recognised and applied in China. It is called Putonghua (普通话pǔ tōng huà), which indicate the common practice of Mandarin across the country and among people from different regions of China.
China is a multiple-nation country. Besides the major population of Han people, there are still another 55 ethnic minority groups live in this vast land. Each of these minority groups has its own culture, language and customs as well. To make the communication among these 56 groups smoother and easier, Mandarin Chinese is practised as a common language.
It can be told from the definition of Mandarin.
Putonghua (普通话pǔ tōng huà) is a common language for communication among the Han and different ethnic groups. It uses Beijing phonetics as the basic sound, northern dialects as the basic dialects, and typical modern vernacular writings as the grammatical norms.
– Why the northern dialects were selected as the basic dialects of Mandarin? Why Beijing phonetics is the basic sound of Mandarin? Should I learn Mandarin in Beijing?
During most of the time, the ancient political and economic centre of ancient China was in the northern central plains, so the dialects of the northern central plains had become the basis of the common language since long ago. Since the 12th century, the Jin, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties had chosen Beijing as the capital city. For more than 800 years, Beijing has been the political and cultural centre of China. In this way, the previous “Official Chinese language” was formed based on Beijing phonetics. It had gradually spread to all regions of China and had become a common language used among different dialect areas.
With the previously formed foundation, it is easier to choose the northern dialects and Beijing phonetics as the basis of a new common language, which is Mandarin/Putonghua. But Beijing, the capital city of China is not the best place for learning Mandarin Chinese. Instead of learning Chinese in Beijing, you should learn Chinese in Kunming.
What’s more, even though Mandarin Chinese is applied nationwide, it is not cited as the “official/national language”. The reason why the term “official/national language” was not adopted is to show respect to the other 55 ethnic minority groups and so are their languages.
– What is the Chinese Language?
The concept of the Chinese language is more general and contains more elements.
The Chinese language refers to the written language and literature of China. It not only refers to the language and literature of the Han people but also the languages and literature of other ethnic minority groups. The Chinese language includes both the Mandarin and various regional dialects, such as Northern dialect, Wu dialect, Yue dialect, Hokkien, Hakka, Xiang dialect and Gan dialect.
When speaking about the Chinese language, it often includes both text and cultural environment. In the aspect of the text, there are traditional Chinese characters and simplified Chinese characters.
From the above content, we can have the conclusion that Mandarin is an essential component of the Chinese language. It is also a widely used and recognized language across China currently.
Technically, the term Chinese refers more to the written form of the Chinese language, while the term Mandarin is more about the spoken Chinese language.
Why is it called Mandarin?
The etymology of the word “Mandarin” comes from the Portuguese “mandarium”, which was created by the Portuguese. Portuguese borrowed the Sanskrit word “mantra” and change it into “mandarium”. The original meaning of the word is “counsellor”, which means the person who assists the leader and provides advice. In 1589, the Portuguese word “mandarium” was formally adopted by English and became the term “mandarin”, which was used to describe Chinese officials back to that time.
Later, the term “mandarin” was used to describe the language spoken by these Chinese officials, which was extended to the current concept of “Mandarin”. It is worth noting that the term “mandarin” in lowercase is a general noun, and the term “Mandarin” is a proper uppercase noun.
Do all Chinese speak Mandarin?
According to the latest statistics published by the Chinese government in 2020, the nationwide penetration rate of Mandarin/Putonghua in China is 80.72%.
Among the 55 ethnic minorities that account for 8.49% of the total population of China, most of the Hui, Manchu, and She ethnic groups have switched to speak Mandarin Chinese, while the other 52 ethnic groups still maintain and speak their own languages.
From the perspective of language family, the languages spoken by 56 groups in China belong to five major language families: Sino-Tibetan, Altaic, Austronesian, Austro-Asiatic, and Indo-European.
In the process of promoting Mandarin, all Chinese media broadcasting platforms and official conversations choose Mandarin as the medium of communication, which further promoted the common practice of Mandarin in China. It can be said that no matter which corner of China you go to, as long as you can speak Mandarin, you can communicate with locals.
Which one should you study?
You’re learning the Chinese language while learning Mandarin. The Chinese language and Mandarin Chinese are two interdependent concepts.
As we mentioned previously, Mandarin is an important component of the Chinese language. It is the most widely accepted and used spoken language in China. Being able to speak Mandarin, you would communicate fluently with 80% of Chinese people.
When learning Mandarin Chinese, you’re also learning the written form of the Chinese language, which is the Chinese character. To be more specific, it is simplified Chinese in most cases. Not to mention the learning of Chinese culture, works of literature and history. These contents are all part of your learning of the Chinese language.
Not only the Mandarin, Chinese character, Chinese history, Chinese culture and Chinese arts all belong to the concept of the Chinese language.
Embracing both of these two concepts gladly, Mandarin and the Chinese language, but focus on Mandarin when it relates to the spoken language learning.
It is worthy of further exploration on other regional dialects or other ethnic group’s language after you mastering Mandarin if you are interested in a wider range of learning.