Chris Wen-Chao LI

Modern Standard Chinese, as the official language of the Chinese-speaking world, came to be equated with the term Mandarin in lay usage. In the Chinese capital Beijing, the city most influential in shaping Mandarin, a large crowd assembles to watch the sunrise events at Tiananmen Square. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

Mandarin is a linguistic term with four distinct senses: to early European missionaries Mandarin was the lingua franca of dynastic China; to the modern layman Mandarin refers to the standard language of present-day China; to the dialectologist Mandarin is the largest branch of Northern Chinese; whereas to the historical linguist Mandarin is synonymous with Premodern Chinese.

Study Questions and Vocabulary

The term Mandarin is generally believed to be a translation of Chinese guanhua—literally “official talk,” which originated as a common language between speakers of different Chinese dialects. Out of this sense, the term grew to mean also the historical period dominated by this common language and the dialects descended from it. Finally, in the twentieth century, the term came to be equated with Modern Standard Chinese, the official language of the Chinese-speaking world, where it is also known as putonghua 普通话 (commoner’s language) or guoyu 国语 (national language).

Thus linguists view Mandarin in four different ways: (1) as a Chinese lingua franca, (2) as a branch of the northern Chinese dialect family, (3) as Premodern Chinese, and (4) as Modern Standard Chinese, also known as putonghua in mainland China, guoyu in Taiwan, and huayu in Singapore.

Mandarin as a Chinese Lingua Franca

Mandarin is believed to have originated as a common language among speakers of different Chinese dialects, loosely based on some form of northern Chinese. European missionary records suggest this prestige speech variety to be the dialect of Nanjing (Coblin 2000), with the accent of Beijing exerting growing influence towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci wrote in his travel journals (1583–1610) of a spoken language known as Quonhoa, which was used throughout the empire for civil and forensic purposes. He further explained that the Quonhoa dialect was typically used between visitors and natives of the provinces they visited, serving a function similar to that of the modern standard language today.

Mandarin as Modern Standard Chinese

The second sense of Mandarin focuses on the vicinity of Beijing—the Chinese capital for the past five hundred years—whose local speech presumably had a prestige that conflicted with the prestige status of the guanhua. Eventually, the shared language grew more like the everyday speech of Beijing. By the end of the nineteenth century, the two languages were similar. The remnant of the old guanhua became known as the literary stratum of Beijing Mandarin, and the local vernacular as the colloquial stratum. There are minute pronunciation differences between the literary and colloquial strata. For example, the word to learn, which is pronounced xue in the literary stratum, is rendered xiao in colloquial Beijing. Similarly, the word for night watch, for example, is pronounced geng in literary Beijing, but jing in colloquial Beijing. Differences exist also in vocabulary, with guanhua leaning towards classical Chinese and colloquial Beijing being more abundant in localisms.

From the end of the Qing 清 dynasty (1644–1912) to the early days of the Republican era (1912–1949), the recognition of Beijing Mandarin as a national standard took a more complex route. The uncertainty surrounding the status of Beijing Mandarin at the time is highlighted by a meeting of linguists who gathered in 1913 to decide upon the new official language. The linguists settled on a standard that was not the speech of the capital but an artificial language incorporating elements from major dialects. This decision was seen as a compromise between north and south. But it soon became clear that no one, not even the linguists themselves, could speak this artificial language, and the movement failed miserably.

In 1920 Professor Zhang Shiyi called for replacing the artificial standard with the speech of Beijing locals educated to the level of secondary school. Zhang’s proposal initially met with resistance from the original committee, but as the pieced-together national language crumbled, Beijing Mandarin took over as the national standard. In 1926, when the national language was revised, pronunciations were largely based on the literary readings of Beijing. The new national language, up to this point, had been known as guoyu (national language), to borrow a Japanese usage, and still goes by this name in Taiwan.

On the mainland, however, the national language underwent a second revision in 1955 and switched to the name putonghua (commoners’ language), what is normally translated now as Modern Standard Chinese. Differences between putonghua and guoyu are few, mainly in the adoption of colloquial pronunciations in the case of putonghua, whereas guoyu retains the 1926 literary norms. The 1955 revision successfully defined the nature of the national language, which, according to the 1955 National Language Reform Committee, “bases its pronunciation on the speech of Beijing, its lexicon on the core vocabulary of Northern Chinese, and its syntax on the norms of exemplary vernacular literature” (Li 1999, 32). In many ways this was not a revision but a restatement of natural rules that have governed the language since its inception in 1926.

Tone aside, Modern Standard Chinese contains between 398 and 419 syllables, depending on whether we are to include certain Beijing colloquialisms as part of the educated vocabulary. The syllable is traditionally analyzed into an initial consonant and a final, as shown in the tree diagram for the word niao, bird. (See table 1.)

“Final” in Chinese phonology refers to the syllable less the initial consonant (if any); in other words, the “final” is the medial plus the rime portion of the syllable. (See tables 2 and 3.) The possible initials and finals of Modern Standard Chinese are given in both pinyin romanization (in italics) and the International Phonetic Alphabet (in brackets).

Full syllables in Modern Standard Chinese carry one of four tones, which play a role in distinguishing word meaning. (See table 4.)

Tone 3 often rises when it occurs at the end of a sentence or utterance and is sometimes referred to as the dipping tone. In addition to full tones, grammatical particles, suffixes, and unstressed syllables in Mandarin Chinese are often stripped of their tonal value, a condition referred to as being in the neutral tone.

Mandarin, like most other varieties of Chinese, is relatively free of inflection. Nouns generally are not marked for case, number, or gender. Verbs need not agree with the person, number, or gender of the subject or object. As such, much essential information is encoded in the syntax (word order) of a sentence.

There is much controversy over word order in Mandarin. While the simple declarative sentence in Mandarin retains the subject-verb-object (SVO) order of Old Chinese (600 BCE–265 CE), Modern Standard Chinese contains characteristics of languages with the basic word order subject-object-verb (SOV). In the early 1980s, some linguists saw this as evidence that Mandarin Chinese was in the process of transitioning from SVO to SOV, most likely due to influence from the Altaic languages of northern China. But recent scholarship in language acquisition and actual samples of spoken Chinese have revealed that SOV structures in Mandarin are infrequent, marked forms that are not easily acquired by young children, and that such properties are not unusual in rigid SVO languages such as English and biblical Hebrew. The prevailing view, for now at least, seems to be that Mandarin Chinese, like most other languages of southern and southeastern China, is a typical SVO language.

TABLE 1 Tree Diagram for the Word niao (bird)

TABLE 2 Modern Standard Chinese Initials

Labial b [p] p [ph] m [m] f [f]
Alveolar (non-sibilant) d [t] t [th] n [n] l [l]
Alveolar (sibilant) z [ts] c [tsh] s [s]
Retroflex zh [t?] ch [t?h] sh [?] r [?]
Alveopalatal j [t?] q [t?h] x [?]
Velar g [k] k [kh] h [x]

TABLE 3 Modern Standard Chinese Finals

i [i] u [u] ü [y]
a [a] ia [ia] ua [ua]
o [o] uo [uo]
e [?] ie [i?] üe [y?]
ê [?]
ai [ai] uai [uai]
ei [ei] ui [uei]
ao [?u] iao [i?u]
ou [ou] iu [iou]
an [an] ian [i?n] uan [uan] üan [y??]
en [?n] in [in] un [u?n] ün [yin]
ang [??] iang [i??] uang [u??]
eng [??] ing [i?]
ong [??] iong [i??]
er [??]

TABLE 4 Modern Standard Chinese Tones

Tone 1 high HH “mother”
Tone 2 rising LH “linen”
Tone 3 low LL “horse”
Tone 4 falling HL “to scold”
NOTE: H = high pitch; L = low pitch

Mandarin as a Branch of Northern Chinese

Mandarin, or guanhua, refers to a branch of Northern Chinese, which includes dialects used throughout most of northern and southwestern China, the majority of which are descended from or have had extensive contact with the guanhua lingua franca. Mandarin, in this context, refers to an entire dialect family, the largest family in the sinitic branch of Sino–Tibetan, in terms of both geographical distribution and number of speakers.

The Mandarin family is distinguished from other dialects of Chinese by way of five shared innovations: velar palatalization; spirantalization of initial /m/; merger of final /m/ with /n/; loss of initial /ŋ /; and the development of voiced obstruents into voiceless aspirated and unaspirated initials depending on tone.

Within the Mandarin family are three main divisions comprising eight subdialects (after Liu 1995): Southern Mandarin includes the Yangzi (Jianghuai guanhua) and Southwestern (Xinan guanhua) subdialects; Central Mandarin includes the Central Plains (Zhongyuan guanhua) and Northwestern (Lanyin guanhua) varieties; and Northern Mandarin includes Northeastern (Dongbei guanhua), North Central (Jilu guanhua), Peninsular (Jiaoliao guanhua), and Beijing Mandarin (Beijing guanhua).

Mandarin as Premodern Chinese

From the Tang dynasty (618–907) onward, the homeland of the shared northern Chinese language was successively occupied by peoples of Turkic, Mongol, and Tungus-Manchu stock, resulting in the drastic simplification of Middle Chinese (265–1269). The product of this simplification is described by Chinese linguistics also as guanhua, or Mandarin. Thus Mandarin is synonymous with what linguistics call Premodern Chinese and refers to the language of northern China from the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) to the present day.

Linguists further divide the Mandarin period into three parts. Early Mandarin (1269–1455) is typified by the opera manual Zhongyuan Yinyun (Rhymes of the Central Plains, 1324) by Zhou Deqing (1277–1365). Middle Mandarin (1455–1795) is preserved in Chinese-Korean language primers such as Hongmu Jeongun Yeokhun (Standard Rhymes of the Reign of Hongwu, Annotated and Transcribed, 1455) and Saseong Tonghae (Thorough Investigation of the Four Tones, 1517), as well as the Yunlue Huitong (Summary Compendium of Rhymes, 1642) and other Chinese rhyme manuals. Mandarin from the mid-nineteenth century to the present is considered to have changed very little and is referred to as Modern Mandarin or Modern Chinese.

Further Reading

Chen Ping. (1999). Modern Chinese: History and sociolinguistics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Coblin, W. S. (2000). A brief history of Mandarin. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 120(4), 537–552.

Duanmu San. (2000). The phonology of standard Chinese. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Gallagher, L. J. (1953). China in the sixteenth century: The journals of Matthew Ricci, 1583–1610. New York: Random House.

Li Rong. (1989). Hanyu Fangyan de Qufen [Classification of the Chinese dialects]. Fangyan 4, 241–259.

Li, Chris Wen Chao. (1999). A diachronically-motivated segmental phonology of Mandarin Chinese. Berkeley Insights in Linguistics & Semiotics, No. 37. New York: Peter Lang.

Lin Yen-Hwei. (2007). The sounds of Chinese. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Liu Xunning. (1995). Zailun hanyu beifanghua de fenqu [Dialect regions of Northern Chinese revisited]. Zhongguo Yuwen 6, 447–454.

Norman, J. (1988). Chinese. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Yan, Margaret Mian. (2006). Introduction to Chinese dialectology. Munich, Germany: Lincom Europa.

Source: Li, Chris Wen-Chao. (2009). Mandarin. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1385–1389. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Historical illustration of “the Heavenly Mandarin.”

An example of ancient Chinese calligraphy.

Mandarin (Gu?nhuà ??, P?t?nghuà ???, Guóy? ??)|Gu?nhuà ??, P?t?nghuà ???, Guóy? ?? (Mandarin)

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