What is Mandarin?

Often China has been shrouded in mystery to others, even its language has a complex history. So If someone wants to learn the Chinese language, what exactly are they learning? Well, they are learning Mandarin. Mandarin, also known as Pǔtōnghuà and Guóyǔ, is the official language of the People’s Republic of China, it is the standard form of the Chinese language. It is the most widely spoken language on the planet with 1.2 billion speakers, being the official language of Taiwan, one of the official languages of Singapore, and it has been recognised as one of the key six world languages by the United Nations. It is a language now used in many Chinese diasporas across the world.

The word ‘Mandarin’ comes from Portuguese, historically meaning imperial court officials and the language they spoke. Beijing dialect was the formal language (Guānhuà) of the Chinese imperial court. Beijing dialect and many Northern Mandarin dialects were then chosen as basis of the official language of China, hence why it is called ‘Mandarin’.

The Emergence of a Common Language

Although China has existed for centuries throughout ancient history, Mandarin only cemented itself in the twentieth century. Ever since China was united as a nation for the first time under the great emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, in 221.BC till the fall of the last dynasty in 1911, China did not have a national language. Through its vast history, several distinct languages and dialects specific to regions and states had naturally developed, e.g. Mandarin, Wu, Yue (Cantonese), Min, Xiang, Hakka and Gan. Chinese natives from the north and south were unable to communicate and mutually comprehend one another. However across the vast expanse of the country they used one Chinese character set to write. No matter which region you were from you could be reading the same book.

After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, China became a Republican state, the Republic of China, and adopted a ‘one nation, one language’ policy in order to make it easier for the whole nation to communicate with each other and also to solve the problem of illiteracy. It was an opportunity to unify the country through language. So the search for a national language (Guóyǔ) began. In 1912, the founding fathers of the Republic setup the ‘Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation’, featuring linguists, educators and experts from all over China, including from Tibet, Mongolia and Chinese communities overseas. They all gathered to iron out a standard form of Chinese. Years of meticulous research and arduous debate passed, in 1932 it was settled that Mandarin (Guóyǔ) would be based on the phonology of the Beijing dialect and the grammar and vocabulary of the northern Mandarin dialects.

With a national language now in place, when the newly formed ‘People’s Republic of China’ came to power in 1949 they continued to use Mandarin as their official national language and started promoting it as Putonghua, ‘the common language’ (Pǔtōnghuà). They began pushing it into schools across the country.

The formation of a common language was not just a search for national identity but a solution for illiteracy across the country. However the problem did not just lay in the fact that Chinese from different regions could not speak to each other, it was also that many could not read or write too. And Chinese is a rare language in that, unlike western languages, there is no correlation between how the speech sounds and the characters. This is also substantiated by the fact that classical Chinese characters which were used throughout Imperial China were very difficult to learn and write. So during the early part of the Republican era, intellectuals created a more normalized way of writing, one that closely matched the way people spoke rather than the literary nature of the classical script. This was called ‘Báihuà’, a new written vernacular Chinese. This new system of writing has been used ever since in textbooks, newspapers and public documents. ‘Báihuà’ was also used to form some of the grammatical features of Mandarin.

Under the new ‘People’s Republic of China’, Putonghua was being standardized, polished, and ushered into more and more schools. It’s reach spreading across the nation. The written language went under more simplification – Chinese characters were simplified, creating what we know now as two sets, traditional characters which are still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and simplified characters which is used in mainland China. The 50s also saw the romanization of Mandarin initiated, the western alphabet was used to create the Pinyin system, letters used to represent the sounds of spoken Mandarin. All this made Mandarin more accessible for the people of China. Despite many obstacles, Mandarin has gone from strength to strength. Now in different regions and provinces in China, people can choose to speak their region’s specific dialect but they should all be able to speak Mandarin. You can go anywhere in China and be understood. This is the brief story of how Mandarin came to be.

The adult literacy of China in 1982 was at 65% and now it is just over 96%.

If you are interested in reading more, then check out David Moser’s excellent book on this subject, ‘A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language’.


Pǔtōnghuà (普通话) – The common language

Guóyǔ (国语) – The national language

Guānhuà (官话) – Official language of the Chinese Imperial Court

Báihuà (白话) – A new written vernacular Chinese resembling the way people spoke

*Pǔtōnghuà, Guóyǔ, Guānhuà have been and can be all referred to as Mandarin.

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  • “Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language on the planet with 1.2 billion speakers”

    “Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language on the planet with 1.2 billion speakers”

  • “The adult literacy in China in 1982 was at 65% now it is just over 96%”

    “The adult literacy in China in 1982 was at 65% now it is just over 96%”