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History of Modern Standard Chinese

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History of Modern Standard Chinese

Mandarin, officially Modern Standard Chinese, is the official language used by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Singapore.


  • Before Mandarin 1
  • Adoption of Mandarin 2
  • Modern Mandarin vs. historical Mandarin 3
    • Dialogue #1 3.1
    • Dialogue #2 3.2
    • Dialogue #3 3.3
    • Dialogue #4 3.4
  • Notes 4

Before Mandarin

Since ancient history, the Chinese language has always consisted of a wide variety of dialects; hence prestige dialects and linguae francae have always been needed. Confucius, for example, used yǎyán (雅言), or "elegant speech", rather than colloquial regional dialects; text during the Han dynasty also referred to tōngyǔ (通語), or "common language". Rime dictionaries, which were written since the Southern and Northern Dynasties, may also have reflected one or more systems of standard pronunciation during those times. However, all of these standard dialects were probably unknown outside the educated elite; even among the elite, pronunciations may have been very different, as the unifying factor of all Chinese dialects, Classical Chinese, was a written standard, not a spoken one.

Adoption of Mandarin

The Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasties (1644–1912) began to use the term guānhuà (官話), or "official speech", to refer to the speech used at the courts. It seems that during the early part of this period, the standard was based on the Nanjing dialect, but later the Beijing dialect became increasingly influential, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various dialects in the capital, Beijing.

The existence of Guanhua became known to Europeans already by the time of Matteo Ricci (who worked in China in 1582-1610), who wrote of "a spoken language common to the whole Empire, known as the Quonhua,[1] an official language for civil and forensic use".[2]

In the 17th century, the Empire had set up Orthoepy Academies (正音書院, Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) in an attempt to make pronunciation conform to the Beijing standard. But these attempts had little success. As late as the 19th century the emperor had difficulty understanding some of his own ministers in court, who did not always try to follow any standard pronunciation. As late as the early 20th century, the position of Nanjing Mandarin was considered higher than that of Beijing by some and the postal romanization standard set in 1906 included spellings with elements of Nanjing pronunciation.[3] Nevertheless, by 1909, the dying Qing dynasty had established the Beijing dialect as guóyǔ (国语/國語), or the "national language".

After the Republic of China was established in 1912, there was more success in promoting a common national language. A Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation was convened with delegates from the entire country, who were chosen based as often on political considerations as often as on linguistic expertise. The conference deadlocked between promoters of northern and southern pronunciation standards and as a result, a compromise was produced. The Dictionary of National Pronunciation (國音詞典) was published, which was based on the Beijing dialect, but with added features, such as a fifth tone, believed to be more faithful to historical Chinese pronunciation. Meanwhile, colloquial literature continued to develop apace vernacular Chinese, despite the lack of a standardized pronunciation. Gradually, the members of the National Language Commission came to settle upon the Beijing dialect which became the major source of standard national pronunciation, due to the status of that dialect as a prestigious dialect. In 1932, the commission published the Vocabulary of National Pronunciation for Everyday Use (國音常用. 字彙), with little fanfare or official pronunciation. This dictionary was similar to the previous published one, now known as the Old National Pronunciation (老國音), except that it normalized the pronunciations for all characters into the pronunciation of the Beijing dialect. Despite efforts by some factions to recognize and promote southern Chinese varieties as well, the Kuomintang strongly promoted Guoyu as the one national language and censored and arrested opponents of this movement, continuing this through the wartime years. Elements from other dialects continue to exist in the standard language, but as exceptions rather than the rule.[4]

The government of the People's Republic of China, established in 1949, continued the effort. In 1955, guóyǔ was renamed pǔtōnghuà (普通話), or "common speech". (The name change was not recognized by the Republic of China, which has governed only Taiwan and some surrounding islands since 1949.) Since then, the standards used in mainland China and Taiwan have diverged somewhat, though they continue to remain essentially identical.

After the handovers of Hong Kong and Macau, the term "Putonghua" is used in those special administrative regions of China and pinyin is widely used for teaching of Putonghua.

In both mainland China and Taiwan, the use of Mandarin as the medium of instruction in the educational system and in the media has contributed to the spread of Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken fluently by most people in mainland China and in Taiwan. However, in Hong Kong and Macau, due to historical and linguistic reasons, the language of education and both formal and informal speech remains Cantonese but Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential.

Modern Mandarin vs. historical Mandarin

Historically, and properly speaking, the word "Mandarin" (官話) refers to the language spoken in the 19th century by the upper classes of Beijing as well as by the higher civil servants and military officers of the imperial regime serving in Beijing or in the provinces.

This Mandarin language is quite close to modern-day Mandarin (普通话 / 普通話/ 國語), but there exist some differences. The Mandarin language used many polite and humble words which have almost entirely disappeared in daily conversation in modern-day Mandarin, such as jiàn (賤 "my humble"), guì (貴 "your honorable"), bì (敝 "my humble"), etc.

The grammar of the Mandarin language was almost identical to the grammar of modern-day Mandarin, with sometimes very slight differences in the choice of grammatical words or the positioning of words in the sentence. The vocabulary of the Mandarin language was also largely the same as the vocabulary of modern-day Mandarin, although some vocabulary items have now disappeared.

In order to allow comparisons, here are four dialogues in the Mandarin language with their equivalent below in modern-day Mandarin. These are authentic dialogues extracted from the Compass of the Mandarin language (官話指南), a phrasebook published by the Japanese legation in Beijing in the 1880s and translated into several western languages.

Please note: the dialogues are written in simplified Chinese characters, followed by traditional characters.

Dialogue #1

Historical Mandarin (官话 / 官話) version
A- 您贵姓? / 您貴姓? (What is your family name?)
B- 鄙姓吴。 /鄙姓吳。 (My family name is Wu)

A- 请教台甫? / 請教台甫? (Please tell me your courtesy name)
B- 草字资静。 / 草字資靜。 (My courtesy name is Zijing)

A- 贵昆仲几位? / 貴昆仲幾位? (How many brothers do you have?)
B- 我们弟兄三个。 / 我們弟兄三。 (We are three brothers)

A- 贵处是哪一省? / 貴處是那一省? (Which province are you from?)
B- 敝处河南省城。 / 敝處河南省城。 (I am from the capital city of Henan province)

A- 府上在城里住吗? / 府上在城裏住嗎? (Is your abode inside town?)
B- 是,在城里住 / 是,在城裏住。 (Yes, I live inside town)

Modern Mandarin (普通话) version
A- 您贵姓? / 您貴姓?
B- 我姓吴 / 我姓吳。

A- 请问您的字号是什么? / 請問您的字號是什麼? (Not a valid question because courtesy names are no longer used)
B- 我字资静。 / 我字資靜。

A- 你有几个兄弟 / 你有幾個兄弟
B- 我有两个兄弟 / 我有兩個兄弟

A- 你家在哪个省? / 你家在哪個省?
B- 我家在河南省的省会。/ 我家在河南省的省會。

A- 你家在城里吗?/ 你家在城裡嗎?
B- 是的,我家在城里。/ 是的,我家在城裡。

Dialogue #2

Dialogue between a Chinese personinese?)
B- 略会一点儿。那厦门的话别处不甚懂。/略會一點兒。那廈門的話別處不甚懂。(I understand it a little bit. But the Amoy dialect is hardly understood anywhere else.)
A- 中国话本难懂,各处有各处的乡谈,就是官话通行。 / 中國話本難懂,各處有各處的鄉談,就是官話通行。 (Chinese is naturally difficult to understand, each region has its own dialect. However, Mandarin is found everywhere.)
B- 我听见人说官话还分南北音哪。/ 我聽見人說官話還分南北音哪。 (I heard that the pronunciation of Mandarin is not the same in the north and in the south.)
A- 官话南北腔调儿不同, 字音也差不多。/ 官話南北腔調兒不同, 字音也差不多。 (The accent of Mandarin is different from north to south, but the pronunciation of characters is approximately the same.)

Modern Mandarin (普通话) version
A- 你懂中国话吗? / 你懂中國話嗎?
B- 我懂一点,但是厦门的话对外地人来说很难懂。 / 我懂一點,但是廈門的話對外地人來說很難懂。
A- 中国话本来就很难懂,每个地方都有自己的方言,不过普通话到处都可以用。 / 中國話本來就很難懂,每個地方都有自己的方言,不過普通話到處都可以用。
B- 我听说北方和南方的普通话发音不一样。 / 我聽說北方和南方的普通話發音不一樣。
A- 北方和南方的口音不同,不过汉字的发音还是差不多。 / 北方和南方的口音不同,不過漢字的發音還是差不多。

Dialogue #3

Historical Mandarin (官話) version
A- 这个猫怎么总不管闲事?!! (Why is this cat not doing its job?!!)
B- 满地的耗子它也不拿! (There are rats everywhere, and it doesn't catch them!)
A- 明儿个不用喂它就好了。 (Tomorrow we mustn’t feed it, that'll be better.)
B- 这耗子真闹得凶,吵得睡不着觉。 (These rats make so much noise. It's impossible to sleep.)
A- 东西也咬了个稀烂。这可怎么好?! (And they also gnaw objects to pieces. How can we be happy with that?!)

Modern Mandarin (普通话) version
A- 这个猫怎么吃饱不做事?
B- 到处都是老鼠,它也不抓。
A- 明天我们不给它吃的。
B- 那些老鼠吵得好厉害,连觉都睡不好。
A- 它们把东西都咬碎了,这可怎么办?

Dialogue #4

Historical Mandarin (官話) version
A- 老弟是解家里来吗? (Young man, are you coming from home?)
B- 喳,是解家里来。 (Yes sir. I am coming from home.)
A- 怎么这几天我没见你呀?是干什么来着? (Why! These past days I haven't seen you. What were you doing?)
B- 我是出外打围去了。 (I went out of town hunting.)
A- 是同谁去的? (Whom did you go with?)
B- 是同着我们一个街坊去的。 (I went with one of our neighbors.)
A- 是上哪儿打围去了? (Where did you go hunting?)
B- 上东山打围去了。 (To the Eastern Mountain.)
A- 多咱回来的? (When did you come back?)
B- 昨儿晚上回来的。 (Yesterday evening.)
A- 打了些个什么野牲口来? (What sort of game did you shoot?)
B- 打了些个野鸡、野猫,还打了个野猪。 (We shot pheasants, wild cats, and also one wild boar.)

Modern Mandarin (普通话) version
A- 年轻人,你从家里出来的?(young person,you came out of your home?)
B- 是的,我从家里来。(Yes,I came out of my home)
A- 好些天没见到你了,你干什么去了?(Many days, I haven't seen you. Where did you go?)
B- 我出城打猎去了。(I went outside the city, to hunt for pigs.)
A- 和谁去的?(With who?)
B- 我和一个邻居一起去的。(Me and my neighbour)
A- 你们到哪里去打猎了?(Where did you go to hunt)
B- 到东山去了。(To the east mountains.)
A- 你们什么时候回来的?(When did you come back)
B- 昨天傍晚。(Yesterday night)
A- 打到了些什么?(Catch anything)
B- 打了些野鸡,野猫,还有一个野猪。Caught some ducks,wild cats and one wild pig)


  1. ^ Guanhua is transcribed by Ricci and other early European writers as Quonhua, in accordance with Ricci's transcription system that remained in use by Jesuits for a long time after his death.
  2. ^ Pages 28-29 in the English translation, "China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matteo Ricci", Random House, New York, 1953. In the original Latin, De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu (1617), vol. 1, p. 31: "Præter hunc tamen cuique Provinciæ vernaculum sermonem, alius est universo regno communis, quem ipsi Quonhua vocant, quod curialem vel forensem sonat."
  3. ^ From Louis Richard. L. Richard's comprehensive geography of the Chinese empire and dependencies. Translated into English, revised and enlarged by M. Kennelly, S.J. [Translation of "Geographie de l'empire de Chine," Shanghai, 1905.] Shanghai: T'usewei Press, 1908. p. iv.
  4. ^ Title:The languages of China, Author:S. Robert Ramsey, Publisher:Princeton University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-691-06694-9, ISBN 978-0-691-06694-3, chapter 1.
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