We in the West mistakenly refer to the language spoken by the majority of people in China as “Chinese.” But in truth, the main language of mainland China is called Mandarin Chinese.
It is a mistake to think of China as a great homogeneous place with a common language. In fact, while the Han Chinese are the majority, there are officially 56 ethnic groups recognized by the People’s Republic of China. But what’s interesting is that the number of ethnicities pales in comparison to the number of dialects spoken in China. Therefore, language is quite a complex subject in China and one that requires some understanding.
So what is Mandarin?
Mandarin is the Western name that the Portuguese historically gave to Imperial Court officials. The name referred not only to the people but also to the language they spoke. But Mandarin is actually the Beijing dialect of the general group of languages spoken in many parts of China. The Beijing dialect was used in the Imperial Court and later adopted as the official language of China.
In mainland China, Mandarin is known as Putonghua (普通话), literally “the common language.”
For a really in-depth discussion of Mandarin Chinese and its history, ask our Mandarin expert and read the Introduction to Mandarin Chinese article «.
What about Cantonese?
You’ve heard of Cantonese, right? It’s the language you listen to if you’re watching Chinese martial arts movies coming out of Hong Kong.
Cantonese is actually the language spoken by people in southern China, Guangdong province (formerly known as Canton), and Hong Kong. Orally, it is completely different from Mandarin, but it shares a common writing system.
So, that martial arts movie you’re watching? It will have subtitles using the Chinese character-based writing system so that even though the people of Beijing cannot understand most of what is being said, they can read.
To learn more about the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese, visit our Hong Kong expert article on the topic.
A footnote on the topic of Mandarin use in Hong Kong: I traveled from mainland China to Hong Kong for the first time in 2005. At that time, not many vendors or service personnel we interacted with were able to speak Mandarin. These days, with the influx of mainland tourists, Hong Kong people speak Mandarin widely. So if you are looking for a language to study, I personally think Mandarin is the one to choose.
Other Chinese dialects
There are many other important dialects in China. People from different cities and provinces can immediately know who is local and who is not, just by hearing their accent in Mandarin. The places have their own distinct dialects and even in Shanghai, where the locals speak a Wu dialect called Shanghaihua , there are even nuances between the two sides of the Huang Pu River within the same city.
What does this mean for the traveler trying to use Mandarin?
Actually, it means a lot. I have studied other ‘difficult’ languages, namely Japanese (it was my main language at university!) And German, and I have lived or traveled a lot in those countries and finding communication with locals in the local language is much easier in China. Why? I compare it to the fact that Japanese and German people and languages are more homogeneous. Variables are small between geographic locations. However, in China, people are used to trying to understand each other through Mandarin.
Pronunciations in Mandarin can be a bit different depending on where you come from, so there is a level of effort in communication in China that simply isn’t there elsewhere.
This is my guess. But I find trying to communicate in Mandarin to be a much more enjoyable prospect than you might think. If you plan to visit China, I recommend that you study the language at least for a moment. It will make your visit infinitely more pleasant.