There are a dozen terms native Chinese speakers use to describe what English speakers refer to as the “Chinese language.” Each of those terms has its own cultural and sometimes political affiliation. In honor of The United Nation's official Chinese Language Day on April 20, it's worth unpacking what these terms are and how each is used.
First of all, Chinese is not one but many languages with radically different pronunciations, vocabulary, idioms, and written forms. Linguistically speaking, Chinese languages form the Sinitic branch of a larger Sino-Tibetan family. There are about a dozen Chinese languages. The largest ones in terms of native speakers include Mandarin or Putonghua, Cantonese or Yue, Hokkien or Min, Shanghainese or Wu, and Hakka. When spoken, they are distinct languages that require interpretation in mixed groups of speakers as they are not mutually understandable.
All of those languages contain multiple dialects that are spoken globally in East and Southeast Asia, as well as among diasporas on every continent.
Altogether, an estimated 1.3 billion people speak a Chinese language fluently or as their native tongue. Mainland Mandarin Chinese using simplified characters, is also one of the six official languages of the UN.
When written in Chinese characters, all Chinese languages become more or less mutually understandable as they share a pictographic writing system. Some exceptions occur in languages such as Cantonese and Hokkien, which use characters that are not included in ordinary Mandarin Chinese dictionaries.
There are two versions of written Chinese today: one that is called traditional (繁體字), used officially in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao, and that was predominant in Southeast Asian diasporas. The other is called simplified form (简体字) and was created after Communists took over China in 1949 with the aim of reducing the number of strokes for complicated characters — some can have as many as 30 strokes. This version is the official one in mainland China and is becoming more popular among younger generations of the global Chinese diaspora.
For more, read: A review on state violence and the standardization of Chinese on UN Chinese Language Day
Normally, an educated Chinese person has to learn about 3,500–4,800 Chinese characters to become a fluent writer and reader of news or literature.
Besides this distinction, certain Chinese languages have continued evolving among overseas Chinese communities like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, with newly invented words and expressions through the mixing of languages. For example, in Hong Kong, many local terms are nonsensical Chinese characters that mimic foreign language pronunciations and are based on Cantonese phonetics, such as 巴士(bus), 的士 (taxi), 符碌 (fluke), 老笠 (rob), 蛇𠺌 (scared), 麻甩 (malade in French).
The Chinese language has many names in Chinese
Even within the realm of Mandarin Chinese, there are about a dozen possible terms and variations that can be used to name the Mandarin Chinese language. This is due to different — and sometimes conflicting — historical, cultural, and even political narratives about what defines Chineseness. Here is a brief list of the main ones:
汉语 [hanyu] Literally the spoken language of the Hans, the dominant ethnic group in China, Taiwan, and Singapore. It is mostly used in mainland China and also in the context of Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language for students and in textbooks. Some consider it as having a strong ethnic, inward marker.
汉子/ 漢字 [hanzi] refers to the Chinese characters in both simplified and traditional forms. This term is also used to describe Kanji, which are the Chinese characters used in Japanese with a completely different pronunciation.
中文 [zhongwen] Literally the writing of the Middle Kingdom, as China [中国] is known historically. Here the second character 文 emphasizes the written aspect of the language and less so the spoken one.
普通话 [putonghua] Literally, the “common-use language” dates back to 1906 in writing by the scholar Zhu Wenxiong. This term is widely used in China.
北京话 [beijinghua] Literally the language of Beijing. It refers to a specific form of Mandarin-Chinese that includes the -er sound [儿化音] added at the end of many words and is easily spotted by other Mandarin-Chinese speakers.
國語 [guoyu] Literally, the “national language” first referred to Manchu, the official language of the last Qing dynasty that spoke a Tungusic language. Today it is mostly used in Taiwan to describe the local version of Mandarin Chinese.
華語 [huayu] The spoken language of the Hua where the character 華, or 华 in simplified Chinese, refers to all Chinese globally, regardless of their language, identity as diasporic or non-diasporic. Here one way to describe the term could be “global Chinese.” The term is now often used to describe overseas Chinese media and can sometimes include not just Mandarin Chinese but also other Chinese languages.
中国话 [zhongguohua] Literally meaning “the language of China,” this term is rarely used in China or Taiwan but more frequently among Chinese diasporas in Southeast Asia.
拼音 [pinyin] means “spelled sounds” and refers to the transcription of Mandarin Chinese pronunciation into the Latin alphabet for learning and international communication purposes. This system of Romanization was developed in China in the 1950s and is used in global media to describe names and locations related to China.
Bopofomo: this other system of phonetic transcription of Mandarin Chinese is letter-based and was developed around 1910 in Republican China by using 37 signs that combined cover the entire phonetics. Today it is widely used in Taiwan to teach the pronunciation of traditional characters to children and foreigners. The term Bopomofo is based on the first four letters of the system, namely: ㄅ, ㄆ, ㄇ, and ㄈ. This system is also called 注音符號 [Zhuyin fuhao or literally “marks to indicate sound”]
The importance of naming a language
All those terms have evolved in their use and connotations across Chinese-speaking societies and diaspora and might continue to do so as the internet allows for the consumption of media content across national borders.
As Niva Yau, a Hong Konger living abroad, and China scholar explains:
As a Hong Kong Chinese, I grew up in the 90s and 2000s referring to the Mandarin Chinese language as 普通话. We tend to use 中文when referring to the written Chinese text, which is readable no matter if you speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, or other Chinese languages. I know that young people in Hong Kong today refer to the Mandarin Chinese language as 國語now, as it was made a compulsory learning language in Hong Kong and it’s incorporated into the education system. When I lived in Malaysia, it was when I first heard the term 華語, and I got a sense that this is the term used by Chinese diaspora who left China way long before. Malaysian Chinese also refer to themselves as 華人 [Hua people].
For Yanne Chu, who is Taiwanese and a translation manager at Global Voices:
汉语 (Hanyu) is connected to the Han people so it adds to the marginalization of other ethnic groups who use it as their main language, such as the Hui. Chinese is not an alphabetic language so 中文 (zhongwen) which rigorously speaking should only apply to the written form, but is now used to describe spoken Chinese, is my preferred term, if compared to 漢語 (Hanyu).
Taiwan has more than one official recognized language, so 國語 (guoyu, or national language) needs to be nuanced. Taiwan's indigenous people prefer to use 華語 (huayu, language of the Hua people) in contrast to 原住民族語 (yuanzhuminzuyu, or ethnic languages of the indigenous, or first people).
As for the term 華語 (huayu), I personally find it less assuming, if compared to 國語 (guoyu) and 漢語 (hanyu), particularly when interacting with people of different ethnicity and nationality.