Mandarin or Putonghua?

Today I received an email in which the writer tells me that Chinese should be called Putonghua and not Mandarin. Apparently, “People don’t know, and school teachers don’t care! obviously; leaving me to inform: The name ‘Mandarin’ has been obsolete 105 years now.” The name Mandarin was used for a ‘Manchurian high official’ who spoke 官話 (official speech). However since the fall of the Manchurian Qing monarchy in 1911, “Mandarins dead as dodos” and to use the name Mandarin is “an affront to the republican nation”.

This language in fact has a number of different names in different countries and regions:

– 普通话 [普通話] (pǔtōnghuà) – “common speech” – in China
– 國語 (guóyǔ) – “national language” – in Taiwan
– 华语 [華語] (huáyǔ) – “Chinese language” – in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, and the other parts of Southeast Asia.
– 汉语 [漢語] (hànyǔ) – “Han language” – in the USA and among the Chinese diaspora
– 中文 (zhōngwén) – “Chinese language” – in Taiwan, mainly
– Chinese, Mandarin, Mandarin Chinese, Putonghua, etc. in English-speaking countries
– Other names in other countries and languages

During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties, the language used by court officials became known as 官话 [官話] (guānhuà) – “official speech”. The word Mandarin comes from the the Sanskrit मन्त्रिन् (mantrin = counselor, minister) via the Portuguese mandarim. It was first used to refer to Chinese bureaucrats, and later it was used to refer to the language those officials spoke, which was used as a lingua franca of China from the 14th century.

What is Mandarin / Putonghua / Chinese known as in other languages?


10 thoughts on “Mandarin or Putonghua?

  1. I’ve seen it as 中国官话 (Zhōngguó guānhuà, in English: Chinese Mandarin).

    All label choices for this language are freighted with history and politics.

  2. When I was teaching a general ESL course to MSc and PhD candidates in Beijing, I had them read an article about brand names in China, and most of them did not know what “Mandarin” meant, even in a context such as “Coca-Cola, or in Mandarin, Kekoukele.”

  3. I have a couple of observations about this.

    One is simply that Mandarin is, after “Chinese”, the only term I can think of that’s widely understood in the English-speaking world, and it has been around for a good while, to the point that it no longer seems like a foreign borrowing – “mandarin” is still in use as a term for British government officials. The fact that it refers to a historical social class that doesn’t exist in the current political setup doesn’t seem a particularly good reason to change – this isn’t like using a term that’s inherently offensive for an ethnic group, for example.

    Secondly, putonghua would be a poor choice of replacement even if one were needed. For starters, it refers to one particular version of Mandarin Chinese, so it’s not an adequate term. Worse, it has a ton of political baggage because it is specifically a People’s Republic of China term referring to their version of Standard Mandarin Chinese. Adopting this as a general English term would be bound to offend others.

    Thirdly, you’d have to actually persuade English speakers to adopt it. It’s not a term for a foodstuff, a martial art or a spiritual discipline, so I rate chances low there. Not only is it a novel foreign alternative to an established (also foreign, but hey) term that English-speakers are content with, but it’s a extra offputting by dint of using an orthography unfamiliar to them, plus there’s the complication of tones.

  4. I agree with Shimmin Beg. Mandarin is just a term in English language by now, not connected with a social group in China (I doubt if there are many people who know the origin of this term). In the USA there is a lot of controversy regarding naming of places, ethnic groups, social groups, etc. My opinion is always “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. If it is not offensive, I would leave it alone.

  5. zhōngwén does not refer to the spoken language at all but the written Chinese language and as such are not related to the other choices which references the official dialect of spoken Chinese in both mainland China and Taiwan. wén is written language, yǔ is spoken language.

    As for the official dialect, every name for it has draw backs. calling it mandarin does not acknowledge the influences of common beijing, shanghai and smattering of other dialect had on it in the intervening years. Calling it pǔtōnghuà seems to suggest the official dialect as the most common dialect, it is doubtful that even a plurality of chinese speak it as the primary everyday dialect. both guóyǔ and huáyǔ has similar problems. Calling it hànyǔ might be most apt, but it evokes a ethnic boundary that does not necessarily overlaps perfectly with the spoken language and again rubs out the smaller dialects that many hans probably speak. too bad there is no equivalent word to received pronunciation in chinese. Because for most chinese I think the official dialect is exactly that, received.

    Just like how in english the chinese are called ‘chinese’ even though the origin of the word for china is obscured by history and certainly has nothing to do with what the chinese themselves use, so it is apt I think english use the word ‘mandarin’ to describe the official dialect of spoken chinese. Coincidentally, some has argued that the word ‘china’ itself was derived from a Sanskrit word as well.

  6. In general, this is not the only word with “obsolete” meaning. For example, the device I am using right now is called “computer”, however, its use is very far removed from computing. Actually, I do not compute anything, just use it for word processing, internet, email, etc. Should we change the name “computer” to something else as well?

  7. Quote: “The word Mandarin comes from the the Sanskrit मन्त्रिन् (mantrin = counselor, minister) via the Portuguese mandarim”. – Interesting piece of information.

    In Spanish it is “mandarín”… do you mean to say that the word Mandarin has a lot to do with the Sanskrit and the Portuguese language?

    國語 (guóyǔ) is 国语 in simplified Chinese.

  8. I find it funny that someone will think that it is “an affront to the republican nation”. I believe this person means “People’s Republic of China” which has a government that doesn’t allow citizen to access Facebook, YouTube etc and other sites that tell the truth.

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