Chinese language/Talk

< Chinese language

HomePage | Recent changes | View source | Discuss this page | Page history | Log in |

Printable version | Disclaimers | Privacy policy

"The Chinese Language" is, however, a fiction. The term "Chinese" is employed to denote both the language spoken by Confucius and the one [Mao Zedong]? used in authoring his works, the language people in Beijing? use in daily life as well as the conversational language of Hongkong?. These sub-languages differ considerably. To the casual observer, this difference may seem so big as to render the usage of an umbrella term to collectively refer to them preposterous.

I don't quite agree with this paragraph. I am not a linguist so I can only express my opinion from the perspective of a native Cantonese speaker and a layman. The author is mixing the written language, spoken dialects and text from different periods in history in the same discussion. It is true that those who don't understand the differences simply lump everything together as Chinese. To my mom who don't know English, modern English and Shakespearean English are all English. According to the same argument, the English Language is a fiction too. It is just generalization due to ignorance. In my opinion, such generalized statement does not belong in an encyclopedia.

The language used by Confucius is known as "Wen Yen Wen" (literally: literature language text). The language used by Mao Zedong or those in present days Beijing is known as "Bai Hua Wen" (literally: plain speech text). "Plain speech" here refers to Mandarin. Both use the same characters. But it takes special scholars to understand Confucius's text. Most ancient literatures require annotation for students to understand the precise meaning.

In fact, "Bai Hua Wen" became the official language around 1911. Mandarin is the closest dialect to "Bai Hua Wen" at the time. From that point on "Wen Yen Wen" became less and less popular in modern writing because they are too arcane to understand. All Chinese students have exposure to "Wen Yen Wen" when we study ancient Chinese literature in high school. Strictly speaking, there is only one official Chinese language, that is Mandarin. All others are just spoken dialects. I was told that there are 7 major dialect groups in China and hundreds if not thousands of regional dialects.

It is true that residents of Hong Kong can read newspapers from Beijing (but not vice versa). It is because Chinese people in Hong Kong learn Mandarin as the official written language and learn Cantonese as the spoken language. We don't learn the fictional Chinese you described. If one reads a Chinese newspaper aloud in Cantonese, it sounds strange because the grammar and choice of words are in Mandarin despite every word is pronounced in Cantonese. A well written Chinese article should be in Mandarin so that all Chinese people can read the same standard language regardless of their regional dialects. In practice, most tabloid newspapers in Hong Kong use Cantonese words and grammar in their writing. As a result, a Beijing resident will have major difficulties understanding a Hong Kong tabloid. They might have better luck with serious publications from Hong Kong which are written in formal written Chinese.

According to legend/history, the first emperor in Qin Dynasty unified the Chinese written language by burning books and buried scholars alive. In present days, most Chinese dialects can associate with the written language in one way or the other because each dialect evolved around the same written language over centuries.

Chinese dialects are quite different from one another. Not only the pronounciation of the same words are different; the choice of words are different too. For example, a refridgerator is called a "Bing Shang" (ice box) in Beijing in Mandarin; but it is called a "Suet Gui" (snow cabinet) in Hong Kong in Cantonese; but it is called a "Shon Gue" (frost cabinet) in San Francisco old Chinatown in Taisanese. Despite both in Mandarin, Computer is called "Gee Shun Gi" (computing machine) in Beijing; but it is called "Den Lau" (electric brain) in Taiwan. If these are written as spoken, they all use different characters. However, all Chinese people can guess what it is by the meaning of the characters. There are exception when there are conflicts in usage. For example, "Gee Shun Gi" are names for handheld calculators in Hong Kong. So one has to read in context or identify the dialect used by the author to tell between a computer vs. a calculator.

It is understandable that different names are given to modern inventions depending on cultural bias. However, some basic words are different too. For example, "home" is "Uk Kay" in Cantonese, but "Ga" in formal Chinese. If I were to write a letter to my brother, I would write "Uk Kay", but if I were to write for a newspaper, I should be writing "Ga" instead. A spoken dialect, such as Cantonese, should never be used in formal writings.


The idea is that the different dialects people call Chinese are not always mutually intelligible, so deserve to count as different languages. Hence, the one Chinese language does not exist, the single written language not withstanding. This is not the same as English, where speakers from one dialect have a pretty good chance at conversing with speakers from another. Old English counts separately, as should Confucius' speech, but not the separation between Beijing's Mandarin and Hong Kong's Cantonese. Maybe I am missing the point... :(


Both Beijing and Hong Kong use the same written Chinese language which was based on "Bai Hua Wen". Beijing use Mandarin dialect and Hong Kong use Cantonese dialect as their spoken language. The situation is similar to the 300+ dialects in India which seem totally unrelated, except English as a common language.

The key point and the only difference here is the unification of the written language which happened centuries ago. Imagine if a dictatorship rules India today and he destroys all non-English books and scholars in India like the Qin emperor did. And 500 years from now, the Indian language will evolve into something like today's Chinese which are written the same way but spoken totally differently in each region of India.


I'm the original author of the Chinese language article, and it seems like I've dropped in quite late - sorry... I agree with nearly everything you say, but it seems like I've done a bad job rendering all this into understandable English. I'm not a Chinese speaker, so you are in a better position to write this article than I am - please go on and do it!

I can understand that the statement "The Chinese language is a fiction" ails you - I somewhat regret having written it since it is very blunt. But I think the basic idea is correct. And I also think you definitely can't compare the situation of Chinese with the situation of English (again, I'm not an expert with English, not even an English native speaker - so this may be complete bullshit), but neither can you compare the situation of Chinese and the Indian languages. There is no reason whatsoever to use a collective term like "the Indian language" - Hindi and Mahrati don't even belong to the same family of languages, I think. On the other hand, there _is_ a good reason for calling both Cantonese and Putonghua "Chinese" - I speak very little Cantonese, but AFAIK its grammar is identical to Putonghua grammar in great parts (no flectional system, use of particles like "de"/"ge"...). Calling Confucius' language "Chinese" is justified, I think, for the same reason it is justified to call the language of early medieval England "Old English" - no modern English speaker could understand it without linguistic training, but it is the direct ancestor of his language and hence "the same language". (Just an aside about the Chinese dialect groups: I think there are _eight_ of them, but I only found the names of _seven_ in my sources - see article - do you know which one could be the eighth?) So the situation as I see it is that "Chinese" is an umbrella term (you would perhaps agree to that), but that this fact is often not understood. In Germany, most people don't, and so I think an encyclopedia article would be a good place to set this right. If my article doesn't accomplish this - well, blame it on my bad English and "go thou and improve it"! -- Xiemaisi

PS: Oh, one last thing: You claim Qin Shihuangdi did the "fen shu keng ru" to unify Chinese language?!?!? First time that I've heard this explanation! I'm not an expert with this either, but to the best of my knowledge, he did it to suppress Confucianism. And in fact he didn't burn _all_ the books - he spared the exemplars in the Imperial Library. All he wanted to do was monopolize knowledge in his hands and make it controllable. That the Imperial Library burnt down during the riots towards the end of the Qin Dynasty (and thus all these books really _were_ lost) wasn't his fault! Oops, this is beginning to sound like the vindication of a tyrant ... Best I stop it now ;-)


"English in India" is an incorrect analogy. English is an alphabetic language. Even if India lost all written languages, the English alphabets would be used like Pinyin in China instead of unifying the dialects themselves. My point is that several factors (the unified writing system, the time past, syllablic nature of the language) all contribute to the evolution of Chinese dialects to the current state. The Chinese language is quite unique and it is hard to compare to other languages which based on alphabets. It is like comparing oranges and apples.

What does the orthography have to do with anything? Are Mycenaean and Hellenic Greek different languages, just because one uses a syllabary and the other an alphabet?


I changed the description of Chinese language as a fiction. The problem with that statement is that is assumes that the idea of the world consists of separate distinctive language which are intelligible with each other but are unintelligible to outsiders is the "correct" one. This idea of how languages are structures comes out as a result of European ethno-linguistic nationalism of the 19th century, and there is no particular reason I know of to claim that it is more "correct" than the Chinese way of thinking about language.

I also edited some of the comments on grammar and writing system which are wrong. It is *NOT* true that there is a single writing system which is automatically intelligible to all Chinese. Most Chinese would have extreme difficulty reading something in wen-yan, and most Mandarin speakers would find something written in colloquial Cantonese to be completely untelligible. It's also not true that Chinese has a simple grammar (it doesn't have inflectional endings but the lack of complexity there is made up for in other areas). It is also not true that all dialects have the same grammar. There are many word order differences between the dialects.

Also, I added an outline of the description of different characters.


Made some more changes. Added an outline of material to be filled in. I changed the classification of dialects. The five part classification I've used is the standard one which I got from "languages of China" by the Princeton University Press.

I removed some of the material regarding the tones and multi-syllabication of Chinese because it was wrong. First of the all the paragraph implied that tones developed in ancient Chinese due to lack of syllables and we don't know that. We do know that tones existed in middle Chinese. Also, (ironically) the multi-syllabication of Chinese words is something that is happening only in Mandarin due to loss of tones. Southern dialects are still mostly mono-syllable. So I moved that section under Mandarin.