What is China?
For a long time, sinologists seemed to agree that the name “China” derives from Qin - the dynasty led by the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who was the fist to united China back in 221 B.C. Nowadays, it is thought that the original pronunciation of Qin was quite different from today’s, making this unlikely source. Instead, “China” is sourced back to Persia, where first the porcelain and only later the country got its present day name.
Chinese people themselves call China 中国 (Zhōngguó) or “Middle Kingdom”, which originally described the central, or royal states that occupied the region prior to Qin unification. Another name is 华 (Huá) which comes from 华夏 (HuáXià) the first dynasty in Chinese history.
To the outside world, China is known as The People’s Republic of China. It has been established a little over 60 years ago by the Communist leader Mao Zedong, on October 1, 1949, to be precise. Before that, the country was known as the Republic of China (1911-1946), ruled by the nationalist party, who overthrew the last emperor of Qing dynasty in 1911.
Administratively, China is divided into 22 provinces, and considers Taiwan its 23 province (although Taiwan is being independently governed). Besides that, there are five autonomous regions (each with their minority), four municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing) and two special administrative zones, namely Hong Kong and Macao. The term, Mainland China, is a geographic term used to refer to the 22 provinces and the 5 autonomous regions and the 4 municipalities. China is a single-party state, government by the communist party and the present leader Xi Jinping.
What is Chinese?
The first written Chinese language 中文 (ZhōngWén) can be traced to around 2000 BC when, for the purpose of fortune telling and divination, characters were written in the oracle bones. Today, 汉语 (HànYǔ), or the language of Han, is also known as 中国话 (ZhōngGuóHuà) “Chinese speech” (spoken Chinese). In overseas Chinese communities, especially those of Southeast Asia Chinese language is known as 华语 HúaYǔ, while in Taiwan it’s called “the National language” or 国语 (GuóYǔ)
What is Mandarin?
China is extremely large and, of course, populous, and for people to be able to communicate all over the country, using just one language, a standard variant of Chinese was established. So, today, when we talk about Chinese, we usually mean standard Chinese also called Mandarin 普通话 (PǔTōngHuà) or “common speech”. Mandarin is the official language of China and is based on the pronunciation of Beijing and surrounding areas. The name “Mandarin” comes from the Sankrist term “mantrin” which means “minister”.
Mandarin is spoken primarily by the ethnic group called Han 汉族 (HànZú) which makes up around 92% of China’s 1.35 billion people. The other 8% of the population are represented by the remaining 55 minorities which speak a variety of languages such as Uyghur, Tibetan, Dai, Mongolian and Korean.
Chinese is also spoken by the overseas Chinese - around 30 million people - spread throughout the world. This makes Chinese, or rather, Mandarin, the language with most native language speakers, which is also the reason for making it one of the six official languages of the UN.
Mandarin is the native dialect of about 71% of its people and is also spoken by educated speakers of other dialects. In Shanghai, for example, people speak the local language Shanghainese, but since schools are taught in Chinese, most of the population is bilingual - speaking both the local dialect and Mandarin.
Apart from Mandarin, there are several important dialect groups, such as as: Wu (including Shanghainese) that is spoken in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, Min (Fukienese) spoken in Fujian Province, Taiwan and Southeast Asia, Yue (Cantonese) spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Kejia (Hakka), spoken in Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces. All the dialects read and write the same characters for the same meaning, while their pronunciation differs greatly. All of them have tones that signal different pitches for each syllable.
The four tones
Chinese is a tonal language. In Chinese, each syllable (or character) has a tone, and in Mandarin there are four tones (plus the fifth, unaccented one). In the Pinyin Romanisation, the mark above the syllable indicates its tone. Some of the words are unstressed, or toneless, with no mark.
1st tone: continuous (high pitch)
2nd tone: rising (starts at the middle pitch up to the high-pitch)
3rd tone: low, circular (mid-low pitch, then falls, then up to the mid-high pitch)
4th tone: falling (starts at the high-pitch, falls to the low-pitch)
Tāng (汤 soup) Táng (糖 sugar) Tǎng (躺 to lie down) Tàng, (烫 hot, scorching)
Dā (搭 to construct) Dá (答 to answer) Dǎ (打 to hit) Dà (大 big)
Mā (妈 mother) Má (麻 hemp) Mǎ (马 horse) Mà (骂 to scold) Ma (吗 question particle)
What Are Chinese Characters?
In Chinese, words are made up of one or more syllables, each of them represented by a character in the written form. Each character looks like a square-shaped box written in various strokes. The earliest characters were pictographic - simplified pictures of objects. Gradually ideographs symbols, were used to express more complex ideas and abstract ideas.
Most of the characters nowadays are made of two parts, of which one carries the meaning, the other carries the pronunciation. Each character contains a radical (or the character can be the radical itself). There are 214 basic radicals. For the basic literacy one should recognize somewhere between 2,500-5,000 characters (which is less than a tenth of existing characters - up to 80,000).
Traditional and Simplified Script
Simplification is a process where complex characters were simplified to make writing easier by reducing the number of strokes - thus increasing the literacy rate. They simplified script has been used since the 1950s and 1960, and is officially used in PRC and Singapore (but not in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao).
Several methods were used to simplify the characters, for example, one was to replace the original component of a character with a component of fewer strokes, but which had the same sound as the given character. For example, characters 认 (Rèn) and 识 (Shí) which, together mean “to recognize” 认识 (RènShi) have been simplified from their original 認識. The simplified component 人 Rén has the same pronunciation as the original 忍 Rěn (despite their different tones). The same goes for 识, where 只 Zhǐ has replaced 戠 Zhí.
Another method was to simplify one section of the character, for example: the simplified 亲 Qīn only used the left component of the original character 親 Qīn. Radicals underwent simplification too, like the radical 言 Yán which is simplified as讠Yán.
How Does Chinese Sound ?
Characters carry the meaning, but not necessary the sound, that is, the pronunciation of the character. This of course has its advantages, allowing for speakers of different languages like Japanese, Chinese, Korean, to still use the same characters, but pronouncing them in their own languages. For learners, of course, this does represent a difficulty, for they have to internalize the correct pronunciation of each character. To speed up the process of doing that, alphabetic systems have been invented that represent the sound (the syllables) behind each Chinese character. Most of these systems are made up of Roman letters, that’s why they are called Romanizations. We will talk about three most influential ones, mainly Pinyin, Zhuyin Fuhao and Wade-Giles systems.
拼音 (PīnYīn) or more officially: the Scheme for the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet, has been officially used in China since 1958 and is now the most widely used Romanization system used in classrooms, textbooks, computer input systems and dictionaries around the world. In Pinyin system, each syllable is composed of initial consonant sound and final vowel sound. Altogether, there are twenty-three initial sounds, followed by thirty-six different final sounds (these are either just vowels, or a combination of vowels and consonants). The syllables also come with the tone mark (as we’ve mentioned, one of the four, accented tones, or the fifth, unaccented one). Throughout this presentation, we’ve been using Pinyin alongside the characters.
注音符号 ZhùYīn FúHào, lit. “transcription of sounds” is also called the bopo mofo after its first four letters (b, p, m, f). Instead of basing on alphabet, this system was inspired by the Japanese “kana” which uses symbols (simplifications of simplified characters) instead. The advantage of this system is that it bases only on Chinese and doesn’t suggest any particular English (or other language’s) sound values. This system is still used in Taiwan where children, and foreign students, learn to read with Bopo mofo written vertically alongside the character to indicate its pronunciation.
As the name suggests, this was an invention made by two Cambridge scholars Thomas Wade and Herbert A. Giles at the turn of 19th century. For many years this system was the most commonly used Romanization in English language publications on China. Its main characteristic is that is It distinguishes the plain initial consonants from the aspirated (g from k, d from t, zh from ch etc. in the pinyin system) by placing an apostrophe after the latter: kuo versus k’uo, for example, or chung versus ch’ung.