The written word:
As one of the oldest scripts known to humankind, Chinese written language boasts a history of several thousand years. Such a long period involves many changes and developments. The modern form of Chinese script can be traced back to around 100 AD, coinciding with Xu Shan's writing of the first complete collection and organization of the Chinese language. In 1958, China introduced a set of simplified characters that modified some of the complex characters, reducing their number of strokes as a method of raising literacy among the Chinese people.
Even in its simplified form, the Chinese written language can be quite difficult for Westerners to comprehend. While it can be argued that being able to read complex Chinese characters is critical to deep understanding of a character's meaning, it is a daunting task for most Westerners to learn more than just a handful unless they are exposed to them daily.
The Spoken Word:
Although Chinese has many (an estimated 205) dialects like Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese, the written characters are constant and well developed.
You may have heard the term "Mandarin", which is what Westerners call the standard dialect of People's Republic of China. In China, they refer to this as either Hanyu (Han words) or Putonghua (common speak). In several surrounding countries like Taiwan, they refer to this dialect as Guoyu (country or state speak). Mandarin is based on the dialect of the Han nationality and is now exclusively used on TV and radio broadcasts within China in an effort to standardize the dialects.
Dialects in China are not just local accents. Some Chinese dialects are so unique that they cannot be understood by other dialects, although the written words are identical. Even with standardization, there will remain accents and localizations of the mandarin language, much like those in other countries. When speaking in person, a Chinese person may offer to write across their palm a word that you do not understand, thinking that the problem is simply one of dialect.
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