Mandarin is a variety of Chinese spoken by about 1.12 billion people, mainly in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, the USA and Malaysia, and in many other countries. Mandarin is the main language of government, the media and education in China and Taiwan, and one of the four official languages in Singapore.
Mandarin is known as 普通话 [普通話] (pǔtōnghuà - common language), 北京话 [北京話] (běijīnghuà - Beijing language) or 汉语 [漢語] (hànyǔ - Han language) in China, 国语 [國語] (guóyǔ - national language) in Taiwan, and 华语 [華語] (huáyǔ - Chinese language) in Singapore and Malaysia.
During the reign of the Jin (1115-1234) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, a common language, known as Old Mandarin began to emerge in northern China. It was used in literature, along Classical/Literary Chinese, and written with either the Chinese script, or the 'Phags-pa script.
Mandarin, in some form or another, has been used as the lingua franca in China since the 14th century, particularly among officials. Until the middle of the 19th century this lingua franca was based on Nanjing dialects, but since then northern dialects, particularly the Beijing dialect, have risen to prominence.
The officials called their language 官话 [官話] (guānhuà) or 官方语言 (guānfāng yǔyán), which mean "official language". The word Mandarin comes from Portuguese mandarim, from Malay menteri (minister), from Hindi मंत्री (mantrī - secretary), from Sanskrit मन्त्रिन् (mantrin - counselor, minster), and originally meant an official of the Chinese empire.
In the 1930s there was much dispute about which version of Mandarin to adopt as the national language or guóyǔ (国语 [國語]). There were advocates for northern and southern dialects, and atempts to create an artificial pronunciation. Eventually in 1932 the National Language Unification Commission (国语推行委员会 [國語推行委員會]) decided to adopt Beijing dialect. This became the official language of China. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 it was renamed pǔtōnghuà (普通话 [普通話]) or "common speech".
Written Chinese is based on spoken Mandarin and is known as 汉语 [漢語] (hànyǔ) or 中文 (zhōngwén). Speakers of other varieties of Chinese have to learn the grammar and vocabulary of Mandarin in order to read and write in Chinese.
The official romanization system used in China and in Western publications about China is hànyǔ pīnyīn (Chinese phonetic spelling) or simply pīnyīn. It was developed in the Soviet Union in 1931 for use by Chinese immigrants living there. A slightly revised version was adopted in China in 1958.
In China pīnyīn is used for road signs, maps, brand names, computer input, Chinese Braille, telegrams, semaphore and for many other purposes. It also appears in books for children and foreign learners of Chinese. The United Nations and the International Standards Organisation (ISO) both recognise pīnyīn as the standard romanization for Mandarin.
Pīnyīn uses all the letters of the Latin alphabet (except v) in the following order:
Comparison of pīnyīn and other transcription systems
This system was devised by the Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation (讀音統一會) between 1912 and 1913. It was adopted as the official transcription system for Mandarin in China in 1928, though was abandoned in favour of Hànyǔ Pīnyīn after 1949, and has been used in Taiwan since then.
Zhùyīn fúhào, which is more popularly known as bopomofo (after the names of the first 4 symbols), is used in Taiwan in dictionaries, children's books, text books for foreigners and some newspapers and magazines to show the pronunciation of characters. It is also used to show the Taiwanese pronunciation of characters and to write Taiwanese words for which no characters exist.
Bopomofo consists of 37 symbols derived from Chinese characters: 21 initials (consonants) and 16 finals (vowels, diphthongs, triphthongs or vowels + n or ng). Finals can stand alone and some initials can as well.
When combined with characters, Bopomofo is usually written on the right of each character.
The Wades-Giles romanization was devised by Thomas Francis Wade (1818-1895), a British ambassador in China and Chinese scholar who was the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge University. Wade published the first ever Chinese textbook in English in 1867. The system was refined in 1912 by Herbert Allen Giles (1845-1935), a British diplomat in China.
Until 1998, Wade-Giles was the main romanization system used to represent the sounds of Mandarin in Western publications. It is still used in Taiwan for transliterating place names, street names and people's names. However, as it is not taught in schools, few people know how to use it properly. For example, in Wade-Giles Taipei should be written T'ai-Pei or T'ai²-Pei³ (Táiběi in pīnyīn). Without the apostophe, the t is pronounced like "d".
In 1998 Taipei City government adopted a modified version of pīnyīn to write the names of streets, districts, etc, in Taipei City. In this new system, Taipei is written TaiBei. The Wades-Giles system is still used elsewhere in Taiwan.
Comparison of Wade-Giles and other transcription systems
The Yale romanization system was developed by Yale University in the 1950s and 60s as an aid to teaching Mandarin and Cantonese to Americans. Today it used mainly for romanizing Cantonese, though it does appear in some Mandarin dictionaries and textbooks.
Comparison of Yale and other transcription systems
Gwoyeu Romatzyh was devised by the Committee for National Language Romanization between 1926 and 1928, when it was adopted as the official romanization system of Mandarin in China. It was first used in Gwoin Charnyonq Tzyhuey (Gúoyīn Chángyòng Zìhuì - "Glossary of Frequently Used Chinese") published in 1932.
Gwoyeu Romatzyh is still used in Mandarin textbooks published by the Mandarin Daily News (Gwoyeu Ryhbaw) in Taipei. The Mandarin Daily News is also the only Chinese newspaper I have come across which includes bopomofo transcriptions of characters.
Gwoyeu Romatzyh uses differences in spelling to indicate different tones.
Comparison of Gwoyeu Romatzyh and other transcription systems
The Palladius system for transcribing Chinese using the Cyrillic alphabet was devised by Pyotr Ivanovich Kafarov (Пётр Ива́нович Кафа́ров) (1817 – 1878), a Russian sinologist and monk who spent 30 years in China with the Russian Orthodox Mission. Palladius (Палла́дий), which was his monastic name, published many manuscripts about China, and also compiled a Russian-Chinese dictionary.
Comparison of Palladius and other transcription systems
Alternative scripts for Chinese languages invented by visitors to this site
Information about Mandarin | Phrases | Numbers | Colours | Family words | Terms of endearment | Time | Weather | Tongue twisters | Tower of Babel | Articles | Links | Learning materials
A guide to the writing of Mandarin Chinese in romanization
Transliteration Chinese into Cyrillic
Pinyin Joe's Chinese Computing Help Desk - information for typing hanzi and pinyin
Automatic transliteration of Cyrillic Chinese names into Pinyin
Dungan, Cantonese, Fuzhounese, Gan, Hakka, Jian'ou, Mandarin, Puxian, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, Taiwanese Hakka, Teochew, Weitou, Wenzhounese, Xiang
Written Chinese: Oracle Bone Script, Simplified characters, Bopomofo, Types of characters, Structure of written Chinese, Evolution of characters, How the Chinese script works, Xiao'erjing, General Chinese
Spoken Chinese: Mandarin, Dungan, Wu, Shanghainese, Wenzhounese, Yue, Cantonese, Weitou, Min, Jian'ou, Taiwanese, Teochew, Fuzhounese, Puxian, Hakka, Xiang, Gan, How many people speak Chinese?
Other Chinese pages: Chinese numbers (數碼) | Chinese classifiers (量詞) | Electronic dictionaries | Chinese links | Books: Chinese characters and calligraphy | Cantonese | Mandarin, Shanghainese, Hokkien and Taiwanese
Akkadian Cuneiform, Ancient Egyptian (Demotic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieratic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieroglyphs), Chinese, Chữ-nôm, Cuneiform, Japanese, Jurchen, Khitan, Linear B, Luwian, Mayan, Naxi, Sawndip (Old Zhuang), Sui, Sumerian Cuneiform, Tangut (Hsihsia)
Page last modified: 15.03.23
Why not share this page:
Learn languages for free on Duolingo
If you like this site and find it useful, you can support it by making a donation via PayPal or Patreon, or by contributing in other ways. Omniglot is how I make my living.
Note: all links on this site to Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.fr are affiliate links. This means I earn a commission if you click on any of them and buy something. So by clicking on these links you can help to support this site.