Chinese language

For the official language of China, Taiwan, and Singapore, also known as Mandarin, see Standard Chinese. For other languages spoken in China, see Languages of China.
Unless otherwise specified, Chinese texts in this article are written in ( Simplified Chinese/ Traditional Chinese; Pinyin) format. In cases where Simplified and Traditional Chinese scripts are identical, the Chinese term is written once.
汉语; 漢語 or 中文
Hànyǔ or Zhōngwén
Hànyǔ (Chinese) written in traditional (top), simplified (middle) characters and alternative name (bottom)
Native to China, Taiwan, Singapore
Ethnicity Han Chinese
Native speakers
(1.2 billion cited 1984–2001) [1]
Standard forms
Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese

Chinese Braille
Official status
Official language in
Regulated by National Commission on Language and Script Work (China) [2]
National Languages Committee (Taiwan)
Civil Service Bureau (Hong Kong)
Promote Mandarin Council (Singapore)
Chinese Language Standardisation Council (Malaysia)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 zh
ISO 639-2 chi (B)
zho (T)
ISO 639-3 zhoinclusive code
Individual codes:
cdo –  Min Dong
cjy –  Jinyu
cmn –  Mandarin
cpx –  Pu Xian
czh –  Huizhou
czo –  Min Zhong
gan –  Gan
hak –  Hakka
hsn –  Xiang
mnp –  Min Bei
nan –  Min Nan
wuu –  Wu
yue –  Yue
och –  Old Chinese
ltc –  Late Middle Chinese
lzh –  Classical Chinese
Glottolog sini1245
Linguasphere 79-AAA
New-Map-Sinophone World.PNG
Map of the Sinophone world


  Countries identified Chinese as a primary, administrative, or native language
  Countries with more than 5,000,000 Chinese speakers
  Countries with more than 1,000,000 Chinese speakers
  Countries with more than 500,000 Chinese speakers
  Countries with more than 100,000 Chinese speakers
  Major Chinese-speaking settlements
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.
Chinese languages (Spoken)
Traditional Chinese 漢語
Simplified Chinese 汉语
Literal meaning Han language
Chinese language (Written)
Chinese 中文
Literal meaning Chinese text

Chinese (汉语/漢語; Hànyǔ or 中文; Zhōngwén) is a group of related, but in many cases mutually unintelligible, language varieties, forming a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Chinese is spoken by the Han majority and many other ethnic groups in China. Nearly 1.2 billion people (around 16% of the world's population) speak some form of Chinese as their first language.

The varieties of Chinese are usually described by native speakers as dialects of a single Chinese language, but linguists note that they are as diverse as a language family. [a] The internal diversity of Chinese has been likened to that of the Romance languages, but may be even more varied. There are between 7 and 13 main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most spoken by far is Mandarin (about 960 million), followed by Wu (80 million), Yue (60 million) and Min (70 million). Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible, although some, like Xiang[ which?] and certain Southwest Mandarin dialects, may share common terms and some degree of intelligibility. All varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic.

Standard Chinese (Putonghua/Guoyu/Huayu) is a standardized form of spoken Chinese based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin. It is the official language of China and Taiwan, as well as one of four official languages of Singapore. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. The written form of the standard language (中文; Zhōngwén), based on the logograms known as Chinese characters (汉字/漢字; Hànzì), is shared by literate speakers of otherwise unintelligible dialects.

Of the other varieties of Chinese, Cantonese (the prestige variety of Yue) is the principal spoken language and official in Hong Kong and Macau, making it the only other variety of Chinese to be used in administration purposes. It is also influential in Guangdong province and much of Guangxi, and is widely spoken among overseas communities. Dialects of Southern Min, part of the Min group, are widely spoken in southern Fujian, with notable variants also spoken in neighboring Taiwan ( Taiwanese) and in Southeast Asia ( Hokkien). Hakka also has a sizeable diaspora in Taiwan and southeast Asia. Shanghainese and other Wu varieties are prominent in the lower Yangtze region of eastern China.


Chinese can be traced back to a hypothetical Sino-Tibetan proto-language. The first written records appeared over 3,000 years ago during the Shang dynasty. As the language evolved over this period, the various local varieties became mutually unintelligible. In reaction, central governments have repeatedly sought to promulgate a unified standard. [4]


Most linguists classify all varieties of Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, together with Burmese, Tibetan and many other languages spoken in the Himalayas and the Southeast Asian Massif. [5] Although the relationship was first proposed in the early 19th century and is now broadly accepted, reconstruction of Sino-Tibetan is much less developed than for families such as Indo-European or Austroasiatic. Difficulties have included the great diversity of the languages, the lack of inflection in many of them, and the effects of language contact. In addition, many of the smaller languages are spoken in mountainous areas that are difficult to reach, and are often also sensitive border zones. [6] Without a secure reconstruction of proto-Sino-Tibetan, the higher-level structure of the family remains unclear. [7] A top-level branching into Chinese and Tibeto-Burman languages is often assumed, but has not been convincingly demonstrated. [8]

Old and Middle Chinese

The earliest examples of Chinese are divinatory inscriptions on oracle bones from around 1250 BCE in the late Shang dynasty. [9] Old Chinese was the language of the Western Zhou period (1046–771 BCE), recorded in inscriptions on bronze artifacts, the Classic of Poetry and portions of the Book of Documents and I Ching. [10] Scholars have attempted to reconstruct the phonology of Old Chinese by comparing later varieties of Chinese with the rhyming practice of the Classic of Poetry and the phonetic elements found in the majority of Chinese characters. [11] Although many of the finer details remain unclear, most scholars agree that Old Chinese differed from Middle Chinese in lacking retroflex and palatal obstruents but having initial consonant clusters of some sort, and in having voiceless nasals and liquids. [12] Most recent reconstructions also describe an atonal language with consonant clusters at the end of the syllable, developing into tone distinctions in Middle Chinese. [13] Several derivational affixes have also been identified, but the language lacked inflection, and indicated grammatical relationships using word order and grammatical particles. [14]

Middle Chinese was the language used during Northern and Southern dynasties and the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties (6th through 10th centuries CE). It can be divided into an early period, reflected by the Qieyun rime book (601 CE), and a late period in the 10th century, reflected by rhyme tables such as the Yunjing constructed by ancient Chinese philologists as a guide to the Qieyun system. [15] These works define phonological categories, but with little hint of what sounds they represent. [16] Linguists have identified these sounds by comparing the categories with pronunciations in modern varieties of Chinese, borrowed Chinese words in Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean, and transcription evidence. [17] The resulting system is very complex, with a large number of consonants and vowels, but they were probably not all distinguished in any single dialect. Most linguists now believe it represents a diasystem encompassing 6th-century northern and southern standards for reading the classics. [18]

Rise of northern dialects

After the fall of the Northern Song dynasty, and during the reign of the Jin (Jurchen) and Yuan (Mongol) dynasties in northern China, a common speech (now called Old Mandarin) developed based on the dialects of the North China Plain around the capital. [19] The Zhongyuan Yinyun (1324) was a dictionary that codified the rhyming conventions of new sanqu verse form in this language. [20] Together with the slightly later Menggu Ziyun, this dictionary describes a language with many of the features characteristic of modern Mandarin dialects. [21]

Up to the early 20th century, most of the people in China spoke only their local variety. [22] As a practical measure, officials of the Ming and Qing dynasties carried out the administration of the empire using a common language based on Mandarin varieties, known as Guānhuà (官话/官話, literally "language of officials"). [23] For most of this period, this language was a koiné based on dialects spoken in the Nanjing area, though not identical to any single dialect. [24] By the middle of the 19th century, the Beijing dialect had become dominant and was essential for any business with the imperial court. [25]

In the 1930s a standard national language Guóyǔ (国语/國語 "national language") was adopted. After much dispute between proponents of northern and southern dialects and an abortive attempt at an artificial pronunciation, the National Language Unification Commission finally settled on the Beijing dialect in 1932. The People's Republic founded in 1949 retained this standard, calling it pǔtōnghuà (普通话/普通話 "common speech"). [26] The national language is now used in education, the media, and formal situations in both Mainland China and Taiwan. [27] In Hong Kong and Macau, because of their colonial and linguistic history, the language of education, the media, formal speech, and everyday life remains the local Cantonese, although the standard language is now very influential and taught in schools. [28]