Home > Focus On

Chinese Language

Chinese language (Hanyu), the language of Han nationality, belongs to the Sino-Tibetan Languages family. It's mostly used in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and among the overseas Chinese people, and it's also one of the major international languages. Chinese language is an analytical language with three to fifteen tones and it is divided into standard Chinese language, which is Mandarin, and the Chinese dialects. The modern mandarin is formed on the basis of the Beijing pronunciation, spoken language in northern China and the grammatical norms of typical modern vernacular writings. The writing system of the Chinese language is a kind of demographic characters, which has both ideographic and phonological functions. Chronologically speaking, Chinese language is divided into ancient Chinese, middle time Chinese and the modern Chinese. The Chinese language used by Chinese people today is modern Chinese. There are written form, which is the Chinese characters, and phonetic form, which is the Pinyin, two forms of Chinese language.

History of Chinese Language

Chinese language has a long history and it's divided into three phrases: Archaic Chinese in pre-Qin eras, medieval Chinese centered in Tang and Song Dynasties, and modern Chinese in Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Archaic Chinese used the archaic phonetic system and the characters were oracle bone script, gold script, and seal script based on the classic books of Book of Songs. The medieval Chinese used the medieval phonetic system and the characters were mostly regular script. While the modern Chinese applied the pronouncing system and writing script similar to today's.



The pronunciation of the Modern Chinese is Pinyin, which is the process of spelling. From 1956 to 1958, the Committee of Language Reform initiated the Pinyin Program and "Latinized" of Chinese language and this spelling system was used ever since. Pinyin is divided into three parts: 21 initials, 39 finals and 4 tones. The initials are the first syllable of a Chinese character and the finals are the rest of the spellings. The tones can be seen as a component of the syllable, but the different tone of a character can greatly affect the meaning of the character.

The 21 initials are b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, h, j, q, x, zh, ch, sh, r, z, c, s.

The 39 finals are: a, —o, —e, —e , —i, —u ,—v , —i(former), —i (latter), er; ai, ei, ao, ou, ia, ie, ua, uo, ve, iao, iou, uai, uei; an, en, in, un, ang, eng, ing, ong, ian, uan, uan, uen, iang, uang, ueng, iong.

The four tones: ā, á, ă, à

Grammar Characteristics

Most morphemes of Chinese characters are monosyllabic like 手 (shou), 洗(xi), 民(min), 失(shi). Combining those monosyllables together can form a compound word like 马(horse)+路(road)=马路(street), or 开(open)+关(close)=开关(switch). While some morphemes themselves are words like 手(hand), and 洗(wash). While some morphemes can only be words by forming other morphemes.

Chinese Characters

From the structure, Chinese characters are a writing system that composed of a radical (image radical or sound radical) telling either the meaning or the sound of the character and a symbol that doesn't have any meaning or sound suggestion.

Chinese characters originate from images. In the early stage of the Chinese language, the character patterns of the pictographs were closely related to the meaning of the character. Although each hieroglyphic character had its own fixed pronunciation, the character itself was not a symbol to tell the phonetic sound.

With the evolvement of the character patterns, the pictographs lost original functions of telling meaning. The characters became abstract symbols. There were only some characters that still carried the original function of ideographical expression.

Structurally speaking, mixed characters are more complicated than the single characters and a slight difference in the component of mixed characters would cause different meanings. There are three kinds of mixed characters.

1.Pictophonetic character: it refers to the characters that are composed of two radicals that express the meaning and the sound respectively. Those two radicals are often two single characters that have their own sound and meaning. When they are combined together, only their sound or their meaning are remained in the mixed characters. For example: pictophonetic character “鸠”” is pronounced as Jiu and it is a kind of bird. From the character, the radical “鸟(bird)” is the part that tells the meaning of the mixed character, and the radical “九” is the part that tells the sound of the mixed character, which is Jiu. However, with the development of Chinese characters, many pictophonetic characters lost their original characteristics. In modern Chinese characters, pictophonetic characters only account for less than 5 percent in 7,500 characters. Nevertheless, it’s still an important way to understand the Chinese characters.

2.Combined character: it refers to the characters that are formed by combining two or more single characters to express the same meaning. For example, 不(not) and 正 (right) are combined together, forming 歪 (not right). Such kind of characters are not many in Chinese characters, but it’s one of the methods Chinese characters were made.

3.Combined symbol character: it refers to the characters that are formed by two radicals that neither express the new character’s meaning nor its sound. These characters are most difficult to learn.

Is Chinese and Mandarin the Same Language?

Mandarin used to be the Beijing dialect, which means it is one kind of Chinese language. Chinese government set the Mandarin as the official language of China. Therefore, some people may confuse Chinese language as Mandarin. In fact, Chinese language includes both the Mandarin and other dialects like Cantonese, Jianghuai dialects, Shandong dialects, and more.

Chinese Dialects

Among the modern Chinese dialects in China, the northern dialects can be regarded as the languages that were developed in northern regions of China through the thousands years of history, while other dialects in southern China were gradually formed with the northern residents migrating to southern regions in history. The early southern areas were inhabited by ancient Yue people who spoke Yue language, which was very different from ancient Chinese language. Later, northern Han people migrated to southern areas and brought the Chinese language with them. There are three reasons why people from different regions can't understand each other nowadays in southern regions. The reason one is that before the Chinese language reached the southern world, there were already different dialects spoken among different groups. The second reason is that the northern Han people migrated to southern areas in different times and the Chinese language they brought to southern areas in later generations were slightly different from the previous one. The last reason is that the Chinese language brought to southern world were developed in different environment and some of them were changed by local people.

The Chinese linguists have always disputed over the division of the Chinese dialects. Some people believe there are five major dialects, while some believe there are six and other people even think there are eight or nine kinds of main dialects. No matter what kind of divisions the linguists use, they all agree that the people who have the same or similar dialects can't understand each other sometimes.

According to the dialect characteristics, the dialects can be roughly divided into seven branches: Beijing Mandarin, Northeast Mandarin, Hebei and Shandong Mandarin, Liaoning Mandarin, Central China Mandarin, Lanzhou and Yinchuan Mandarin, Jianghuai Mandarin and Southwest Mandarin.

Written Chinese and Spoken Chinese

There are four forms of Chinese languages: classical style of writing (the ancient written Chinese), vernacular language (ancient spoken language), modern written Chinese, and the modern spoken Chinese. The classical style of writing and vernacular language are used in imperial times of China (generally speaking). While the modern Chinese language is used from modern times to nowadays. The modern spoken Chinese are greatly influenced by both the vernacular language and the foreign languages. While the modern written Chinese is greatly influenced by the  vernacular writings and the classical style of writing. Therefore, the spoken Chinese are very simple and imprecise, while the written Chinese are very formal and often contain a lot of old sayings, historical allusions and idioms.

Why Chinese Language is Difficult to Learn?

1.There is not much logic in Chinese writing system.

2.There is no alphabet that can be used to understand the Chinese characters.

3.Looking up a Chinese character in dictionary is also complicated.

4.Long history and rich culture made the Chinese language more sophisticated and complex.

5.The Pinyin system that is supposed to help only confuse some westerners when they try to learn Chinese language.

6.Four different tones of Chinese language are quite hard to differentiate.

Chinese language is a expression of rich Chinese culture. To understand China and the Chinese culture, you have to understand the language. Next time you come to China, we invite you to join our calligraphy class and learn how to write your own name in Chinese language!