The Chinese language is often called Mandarin, but where does the name Mandarin come from? Not from China, as you’ll see.
China’s long history and culture attract numerous tourists from both home and abroad. Most foreign friends who come to China hear the name Mandarin a lot. Perhaps some of them are shocked by how big China is and at the same time wonder how people from different places and nationalities can speak the same language? Where does Mandarin come from? And where does the name Mandarin come from?
‘Mandarin’ isn’t a Chinese name
In fact, Mandarin is not an English word, but from Portuguese, and it refers to the officials at different levels from grade one to grade nine in the Qing Dynasty. The situation at that time was similar to what it is now. Officials came from different parts of the country. Their first language was usually their own dialect. However, when these officials went to Beijing to work with other colleagues and report to the emperor if they don’t understand each other’s words, it would greatly affect their work efficiency and the emperor will be very unhappy, and the consequences would be very bad. So these Chinese officials began to try to speak the Beijing dialect mixed with their own dialect, and thus there was Mandarin (官话 guān huà), a popular official language among officials. At that time, there were different types of Mandarin, such as Tianjin Mandarin (based on Tianjin dialect) and Nanjing Mandarin (based on Nanjing dialect).
The name Mandarin
This language itself wasn’t named Mandarin though, not in China. During the Ming Dynasty (just before the Qing Dynasty), Portuguese travellers reached China as one of the first Europeans. They settled in Macau and kept expanding their trade with Chinese salesman.
The Portuguese also settled in Malaysia, and the Malaysians had a word for minister called ‘menteri’, which originates from the Sanskrit ‘mantrī’, which also means minister or counsellor. And so the Portuguese started calling the Chinese officials with whom they dealt with ‘mandarim’, despite the fact that this word does not originate from the Portuguese language itself. And these Chinese government officials spoke the Chinese language named ‘官话 guān huà’, and thus slowly this language was also named ‘Mandarin’.
For centuries, more Europeans entered China but often they entered through the Portuguese port in Macau, and thus were ‘taught’ that the Chinese language was named ‘Mandarin’. And now this name is so settled that it’s unlikely to ever change: Portuguese (Mandarim) or English (Mandarin), Dutch (Mandarijn), French (Mandarin), German (Mandarin), Italian (Mandarina) and many more. Mandarin is thus not a Chinese name. Linguistics call this an ‘exonym’, an external name given by non-natives.
Not just the Chinese language was named ‘Mandarin’, it also started being applied to animals native to China, such as types of ducks, wasps, and snakes – as well as the Chinese citrus because it had a similar color to the robes worn by Chinese officials.
From ‘official speech’ to ‘common speech’
How did the language of officials enter into the life of ordinary Chinese people? In the history of China, with the economic development and social integration, more and more common people had a stronger need for communicating in the official speech, and the language grew outwards from there. Therefore, common Chinese people also began to use official speech (aka Mandarin) as a common language. However, with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in the early 20th century, the status of the standard pronunciation of Beijing Mandarin has been widely questioned. At the same time, great changes are taking place in Chinese society.
Mandarin in the 20th century
In 1918, the Ministry of education of the Republic of China officially announced the ‘national phonetic’ letter, which is a ‘compromise between the north and the south, involving ancient and modern’ standard sound. Although it takes care of local dialects to the maximum extent, it also becomes an ‘artificial language’. In real life, there was no one who spoke this ‘national voice’ as their mother tongue. In 1932, the ‘new national pronunciation’ based on the standard of Beijing common pronunciation was introduced. In this period, Mandarin was called ‘the national language’ (国语guó yǔ). However, China has always been a multi-ethnic country, and the national language comes from the Han nationality language. Therefore, it seems inappropriate for Mandarin to be called the national language. Moreover, the subsequent Anti-Japanese War and the civil war made the national government’s goal of unifying the national language in the whole country still far from being realised.
Until 1949, after the founding of the people’s Republic of China, the unification of languages once again became an urgent problem. After six years of repeated research and mass discussion by language experts, on February 6, 1956, the State Council issued the ‘instruction on the promotion of Mandarin’, which officially determined that Mandarin ‘takes Beijing pronunciation as the standard pronunciation, takes the northern dialect as the basic dialect, and takes the typical modern vernacular writings as the grammatical norm’. At that same time, Mandarin in China was named as ‘普通话pǔtōng huà”, which means a common language, a language that can be used by ordinary people. In this way, Mandarin has become one of the most widely used languages in the world.