The Chinese Language

The origin of the Chinese language is still under research, but critics believe the more modern forms of Chinese were derived from two different languages. These two languages come from Sino-Tibetan styles. Ancient records provide sounds of the languages, but there are no written records of the languages, making it extremely difficult to tell if Chinese came exactly from these predecessors. Through the development of the country, many different types of Chinese were spoken. Many versions of the language related to the region, or location of people. It wasn’t until the People’s Republic of China declared their education system would only teach Mandarin that there was a unified language for the country.

Videos about Chinese Language

      History of Chinese Characters                       Chinese Genesis: Part 1                           Chinese Genesis: Part 2


Chinese Writing

The Chinese language is one of the oldest languages that still remain today. Chinese literature has been dated back to 11 BCE. Although, there have been many different dialects, large parts of the language still have been carried through populations. Most changes in the language evolved through writing and characters, not spoken manners. There is a large variance between Chinese writing and speaking. Chinese writing is typically written in rectangular formats. Reading is done from top to bottom, or right to left, unlike most languages.

Influences in the Chinese Language

The Chinese language has had many influences on other countries. Two notable countries would be Korea and Japan. Both countries have similar writing techniques and have adapted their language to Chinese characteristics. Vietnam has also used a type of Chinese writing since the 19th century. Nearly 50% of the Korean alphabet is Chinese, however South Korea and North Korea do not use the same alphabet due to different political stances. Different influences and dialects of the Chinese language tend to have different phonetics.

Chinese Language Nowadays

With the ever-growing population of The People’s Republic of China, the economy is increasing as well. Today, the Mandarin Chinese language is becoming a much more common course of study in primary, secondary, and university level schools. The Chinese proficiency test included nearly 2,000 participants in 1991. In 2005, the number of tests taken was over 115,000. The Chinese vocabulary contains over 20,000 characters with around 10,000 in general conversation. In Chinese, one character does not represent a word, but often two to three. The most comprehensive book of the language records nearly 23,000 characters and over 350,000 definitions.

Documents in Chinese

Chinese documents may be written in a variety of Chinese dialects. The most common are the Mandarin Chinese and the Cantonese Chinese.

The relationship between the Chinese spoken and written language is rather complex. Its spoken varieties evolved different than the written Chinese.

The Chinese orthography centers on Chinese characters. In documents such characters are usually arranged in vertical columns, read from top to bottom down a column, and right to left across columns.

Romanization of Documents

Romanization is the process of transcribing a language into the Latin script.  There are different systems of romanization for the Chinese languages due to the lack of a native phonetic transcription until recently. Chinese is first known to have been written in Latin characters by Western Christian missionaries in the 16th century.

Today the most common romanization standard for Standard Chinese is Hanyu Pinyin a.k.a. pinyin, introduced by the People’s Republic of China, and later adopted by Singapore and Taiwan.

When used within European texts, the tone transcriptions in both pinyin and Wade-Giles are often left out for simplicity. Most Western readers will be much more familiar with Beijing than they will be with Běijīng (pinyin), and with Taipei than T’ai-pei (Wade-Giles).

Timeline of the Chinese Language

Old Chinese, as knows as “Archaic Chinese”, originated in 1122 BCE and existed as the common language of China until 256 BCE. This phase of Old Chinese lasted during what was classified as the Zhou Dynasty. According to linguists, the different dialects of Chinese were in the Sino-Tibetan language family. The original Chinese language, called Proto-Sino-Tibetan, eventually evolved to form variations of the language such as Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman.

There has been controversy and investigation about the relations between Chinese and Sino-Tibetan languages as linguists try to reconstruct the sounds and phonetics of Chinese from ancient documentation. Old Chinese text can be found as poetry in the Shijing, history pages in the Shujing, and philosophical pieces in the Yijing (I Ching). A large presense of phonetic elements has provided evidence that these texts represent the language of Old Chinese. The fact that Old Chinese borrows from the languages of Vietnamese, Japanese, and Korean are also strong clues for detecting Old Chinese writing.

Middle Chinese

Middle Chinese is also referred to as “simplified Chinese” or “traditional Chinese.” This phase of the language existed during the Sui Tang and Song dynasties, which lasted from the 6th century to the 10th century CE. Many different sources influenced the pronunciation of Middle Chinese: rime dictionaries, modern dialect variations, foreign transliterations, and summaries of the phonetic system.


It’s hard for historical linguists to define the development of the spoken language of Chinese. It is a very complex research. Mandarin was a standard dialect (or home language) for people who lived in Sichuan, Manchuria, and Yunnan. Mandarin has prevailed across northern China because of China’s plains. The mountain ranges, rivers, and valley in China have naturally created diversity in the Chinese language.


The majority of southern Chinese people only spoke their native language. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that people changed the integral methods for communication. With the creation of an educational system determined to teach Mandarin, the language was more accessible and able to be learned easier. This institution allowed for Mandarin to expand and prosper into other parts of the country.

Since then, Mandarin has flourished in the mainland of China and has been picked up by both young and old. Mandarin is becoming more and more influential to China’s educational system, speech, and daily lives of the Chinese people.

Chinese Literature

Many Classics of early Chinese literature were produced during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, which lasted from 770 to 256 BCE. Important prose writings in the areas of Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism and Legalism accompanied by pieces on military science and Chinese history were produced during this time. Most, if not all, of these prose works were philosophical in nature and, though they may use elements of storytelling, were not works of fiction.

Classical poetry became prominent in the years of the Tang dynasty (CE 618-907), and is subsequently called, Tang poetry. The most popular poetry form was the Iushi, which is an eight-line poem that has five to seven words per line. Other popular poetry forms were Zi, a strict verse style, and jueju, which is a four-line with five or seven words in each. Out of the Tang period came the use of narration, which the poet Bai Juyi mastered while critiquing the society of his time.

Modern Chinese Literature

The origins of modern Chinese literature can be found in the Qing period (1895-1911). This period was marked by crisis in the collective conscious of the Chinese people. Artists and philosophers began to look beyond traditional thought in order to solve domestic problems. During this time there was a large influx of Western writings being translated into Chinese. Due to these conditions, in 1905, a large movement of fiction writers began.

Starting in 1949, the Communist Party began to nationalize China’s publishing industry, as well as consolidating writers into a controllable entity, the Writers Union. An era of censorship began that blacklisted writers who did not adhere to party standards. The promoted style of the Communist era was socialist realism. This style was limiting to the writers of the time because it denied the use of social satire, surrealism, and other so-called “bourgeois” artistic styles. During the 1950s, Mao Zedong began the Hundred Flowers Campaign to promote writers to publish works that were critical of their current society. Many works of journalism, fiction and film were produced that focused on the problems of authoritarianism and bureaucratism within the Communist Party. Mao then used these works to attack the “Rightist” intellectuals who created them.

The literature of the contemporary era tends to focus on the discordance of power during the Cultural Revolution, such as Moa’s Hundred Flowers Campaign. Due to the sympathetic nature of these writings, they have been dubbed “the literature of the wounded.”

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