What is Chinese?

The term Chinese is applied to many different forms of communication.  In a broad sense, the word refers to an entire set of dialects spoken by inhabitants of China AND the written symbolic language shared by all Chinese.  In another sense, Chinese could mean specifically the written characters.   Many of the dialects could well be considered languages in their own right.

Mandarin Chinese

Many people refer to Mandarin when they say "Chinese".  Since the Chinese government declared Mandarin the national language, the majority of the Chinese population has learned this dialect.  Because Mandarin is the official language, it is referred to by many as Putonghua 普通話 ("the common speech").  In Taiwan, it is normally referred to as 國語.   (guoyu "national language"). Mandarin is spoken natively by more people than any other single language.

Cantonese Chinese

"How are you?"
hkmap1.jpg (9410 bytes)

This is the second most commonly recognized dialect of Chinese.  It is spoken in Canton (Guangzhou) and a large part of Southeast China.   In Hong Kong, Cantonese is the primary language.  The Mandarin dialect is not spoken by a majority of the people there.  Cantonese is also prevalent in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, among Chinese communities throughout the world.

 

Written Chinese

China is divided into dozens of ethnic communities and by scores of dialects.  Every province has its own local speech. Only this century has their been a common language imposed on the nation. Yet the common written language unifies the varied people and different dialects.  Although they would pronounce it differently, people from different provinces understand the same character to mean the same thing and use the same character combinations to form complex ideas.

Chinese is an idea based written system.  Each individual character is a separate morpheme (unit of meaning), rather than a sound.  Counting older forms there are over 100,000 Chinese characters. Over 10,000 of these are in modern use.  Compare that to from between 16 and 60 symbols to memorize in most phonetic alphabets.  While generally each  Chinese symbol has an individual meaning,  most characters must be paired with other characters to form "words." 

Simplified and Traditional Writing

There are two forms of Chinese writing:  Traditional and Simplified.  Because learning Chinese requires years of study, a large percentage of the Chinese population was illiterate.  After the Chinese Cultural Revolution, many of the new government leaders decided that the current writing system was too difficult.  To make learning easier, they created an alternate character set by modifying traditional characters to make them easier to write.

The new simplified characters have been gaining popularity, particularly in mainland China.  Traditional Chinese characters are still very wide-spread, until recently both Hong Kong and Taiwan used traditional characters almost exclusively.  More and more publications are using simplified characters, but there are many works available only in traditional.

Here is an example
of Traditional Chinese Characters

Here is an example
of Simplified Chinese Characters

 馬個學們興會

马个学们兴会

 
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