The Chinese Written Language

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.

Romanization Systems:

Using Roman (Latin) characters to express the sound of Chinese words is a helpful tool in learning the language. There are several basic systems in current use within the United States.

  • Pinyin: Pinyin (meaning "spell-sound") was compiled in 1958 and is now the most recognized and popular method of romanization. The Pinyin system is the romanization of the Zhu Yin system of pronounciation commonly called "bo-po-mo-fo" that was a phonetic tool used by young children. Pinyin became a United Nations standard in 1977 and an International Standard Organization (ISO) standard in 1982. It is the exclusive system of international media outlets and recently adopted by the U.S. Library of Congress.
  • Wade-Giles: Officially published in 1959 by Thomas Francis Wade. Developed from R. Morrison's 1815 romanization system, then later modified by Allen Giles in 1912. It was very popular in English-speaking countries and remains the preferred system in many countries for expressing personal names.
  • Yale: Created in 1948 for teaching American military personnel the Chinese language. It then spread through the U.S. and became popular in Taiwan as a method of teaching Chinese to foreigners.
  • Chinese Post Office: While not an officially recognized romanization system, this was an old system used to express place-names. Usually used in combination with Wade-Giles for non-place names. Examples are Peking, Tsingtao, and Chungking. These spellings are still common in English-speaking countries.
  • Zu Yin: A system used by Chinese speaking children to learn Chinese phonetics. Sometimes referred to as the "bo-po-mo-fo" method, it uses non-latin characters to represent the various phonetics. This is a useful system for teaching Mandarin to students who speak other Chinese dialetics or Asian languages.

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.