In this article, we look at the history of the Mandarin language, especially the history of how Mandarin became the main Chinese language.
The need for a common language
China is a big country with many nationalities, languages, and dialects. Due to the historical development and geography, Chinese dialects are divided into seven parts: Northern dialect, Wu dialect, Gan dialect, Xiang dialect, Min dialect, Guangdong dialect, and Hakka dialect. Each dialect area can be divided into several sub-dialect areas. But language is both a product as well as a tool of society. With social migration and national integration, the many local dialects in China proved difficult and therefore, a new national common language was needed.
The history of the Mandarin language
The common language of the Han nationality (92% of the population in China) has existed for a long time, but the specifics and the names for the language kept changing:
- In the Spring and Autumn period (770B.C-476 B.C), this common language was called ‘Yǎyán’
- From the Han Dynasty (202B.C-220 B.C), it was called ‘Tōngyǔ’
- In the Ming Dynasty (1368―1644) it was renamed ‘Guānhuà’
- In modern times, after the Revolution of 1911, it is called ‘Guóyǔ’
- After the founding of new China, it was called ‘Pǔtōnghuà’
Mandarin’s predecessor: Yayan
The history of the Chinese language starts earlier — but the first language which can be considered as a common language of China is Yayan. Even the name 雅言Yǎyán means ‘common speech’, or in a way; the most common of dialects. Yayan was formed in Xia Dynasty (2070B.C -1600 B.C), and formalized further in Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C. -1046 B.C), and finally matured in Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C. – 256 B.C), which is the origin of the common language. Several famous books were written in Yayan, for instance, the Analects of Confucius.
Open language: Tongyu
‘Tongyu’ was the common language of Han nationality in the Han Dynasty (202 BC–9 AD) and later dynasties. Tongyu 通语(which means ‘open language’) wasn’t just the first language to be used by government officials, merchants, and scholars, it was also used as a tool to explain dialects.
In Sui and Tang Dynasties (581—907), Tongyu was developed further on the basis of Northern dialects and gained the status of written language through the emergence of common literary works like novels and poems. The name Tongyu was used as a synonym for ‘the Chinese language’ until the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368).
Official speech: Guanhua
Fast forward many centuries. During the mid-20th century, the language spoken by most officials in the government was named ‘speech of officials’. If you wanted to work as an official, you had to learn Guanhua (官话).
The modern Chinese dictionary has two explanation for Guanhua:
- The old name for Putonghua, which is the basic”one is the old name of Putonghua, which is the basic dialect of the common language of the Han nationality.
- The northern dialect is also referred to as Mandarin.
National language: Guoyu 国语
National language refers to the language commonly used by its people. In 1902, a Chinese national Wu Rulun went to Japan to study politics. In Japan, he was deeply impressed by the achievements of the implementation of the national language in the Tokyo dialect. Back in China, he advocated the implementation of Mandarin based on the Beijing dialect. In 1909, Jiang Qian, a modern linguist, was the first one to replace Guo Yu” with “Putonghua”.
Normal speech: Putonghua
Many languages don’t just organically take shape: often language is designed. In 1906, Zhu Wenxiong not only put forward the name of ‘Putonghua’ but also defined its goal as ‘common words in all provinces.’ After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the official name of the modern Chinese common language was officially designated as Putonghua during the ‘National character reform conference’ and ‘Academic Conference on standardization of modern Chinese’ held in October 1955.
On February 6, 1956, the Chinese State Council issued the ‘instruction on the promotion of Putonghua’, which added and improved the meaning of Putonghua, and formally determined that Putonghua ‘takes Beijing phonetics as the standard pronunciation, takes the northern dialect as the basic dialect, and takes the typical modern everyday writings as the grammatical norm’. The word ‘Putonghua’ has been widely used with a clear connotation, in most cases being a synonym to ‘the Chinese language’.
Advantages of Mandarin
Mandarin Chinese is a beautiful language. In terms of pronunciation, vowels are dominant in its syllable structure, and each syllable has a tone. These characteristics make Mandarin full of cadence, harmony, and pleasant musical beauty.
In terms of vocabulary, disyllabic is dominant, word formation is flexible and diverse, and vocabulary is rich, which can reflect complex social phenomena and express delicate thoughts and feelings. In terms of grammar, the combination of language units at all levels is consistent. Word order and function words are the most important means of combination.