Chinese Language

The Chinese language is often considered a language family rather than a singular language in of itself. This is because the language, which was originally spoken by the Han Chinese, features many varieties. Though the native speakers of the language often consider the different varieties as only dialects within the larger Chinese language linguists and sinologists consider this simplified differentiation inappropriate due to the large fluctuation in the varieties.

Chinese is categorized as being a part of the Sino-Tibetan language family. It is spoken as a primary language by over one billion people, or one-fifth of the world’s total population. Depending on the exact internal classifications that are being used for differentiation, there are between 7 and 13 varieties, generally divided by region. The predominant of these regional groups is Mandarin, which is spoken as the primary language by approximately 850 million people worldwide. This is followed by the Wu variation which is spoken by 90 million, then Cantonese (or Yue depending on the person making the differentiation) which is spoken by 70 million, and then Min which is spoken by another 50 million.

The intelligibility among these groups is varied, with the majority of them being unintelligible though sharing a few terms or usages. To accommodate these differences a dialect of Mandarin Chinese dating back to 19th Century Beijing has been used to create a standardized form of the Chinese language, referred to simply as “Standard Chinese”. This is considered the official language of PRC, the People’s Republic of China, and is one of the six official languages used by the United Nations.

The roots of this language are found in a core language referred to as Proto-Sino-Tibetan. It is from this language that the languages within the Sino-Tibetan language family descended. There has been great effort dedicated to recreating the original core language by understanding the links between the different languages that were developed from it.

The language identifiable as Chinese originated during the Zhou Dynasty and is known as either Old Chinese or Archaic Chinese. Though not fully reconstructed, Old Chinese has been linked to the development of Middle Chinese during the Southern and Northern Dynasties. This transition, as well as that from Middle Chinese and the variations present at the same time, to the variations of modern Chinese as well as Standard Chinese has been complex. This is largely due to the reluctance of different groups of people to adapt to different varieties of the language than those that they were using for their day to day activities.

Chinese Characters

Chinese uses a writing system made up of characters which are known in Chinese as 漢字 [汉字] (hànzi).

Chinese is famed for its tens of thousands of characters, with some dictionaries containing more than 50,000 words as entries. However, the good news for Chinese learners is that a large number of the characters are rarely used variants. Studies carried out in China have shown that workable literacy in the Chinese language only requires a knowledge of between three to four thousand characters.

While Chinese characters are often thought of as very complex, in fact they are all derived from a couple hundred simple pictographs and ideographs, and are usually quite logical and easy to remember.

Elements of a Chinese Character

The first Chinese characters were created to depict simple objects like “human”, “hand”, “mountain”, “sun”, “moon” and “tree”. What came next were logical combinations of these simple characters. Some of these simple characters and logical combinations still remain clear enough within the character to reveal what they depict. Such simple and basic characters, when used to construct more complex characters, are called “radicals”.

Looking at a page of Chinese characters may seem overwhelming; however once you start to delve into them you will see that all characters are made up of combinations of these smaller ‘picture’ elements. Some of these smaller pictures within the character give a hint as to meaning and pronunciation (though not always).

Earliest Records of Chinese Characters

Most linguists believe that writing was invented in China during the latter half of the 2nd millennium, BC. The earliest recognizable examples of written Chinese date from 1500-950 BC (Shang dynasty), and are found mainly on oracle bones. These bones were instruments used for divination. The bones were heated; and the resulting cracks were inspected to determine answers to questions about hunting, warfare, the weather, and the selection of auspicious days for ceremonies. The bones were then inscribed with details of the questions and the answers.

Chinese characters are also used in the Japanese written language, to some extent in Korean, and formerly in Vietnamese.

Traditional vs. Simplified Characters

The traditional form of Chinese characters was widely used up until the mid-20th century. Most of the simplified Chinese characters in use today are the product of simplifications made by the government of China in the 1950s and 60s. The simplified characters have fewer strokes, and certain parts of some characters were completely eliminated.

The simplified characters are the official written language of Mainland China, and are also used in Singapore. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia still use the traditional characters.

Composition of Chinese Words

Chinese verbs and adjectives generally consist of one character (syllable) but nouns often consist of two, three or more characters (syllables). When written on the page, each character is given exactly the same amount of space, no matter how complex it is. There are no spaces between characters and the characters which make up compound words are not grouped together. This means that when reading Chinese, you not only have to work out what the characters mean and how to pronounce them, but also which characters belong together.

Phonetics

So how does one learn to pronounce all these characters? Pinyin is a phonetic system used to teach standard pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese, to spell Chinese names in foreign publications, and to enter Chinese characters on computers. It is a system that uses the Romanized alphabet to represent the sounds of Mandarin. Pinyin can easily be mastered with a few hours of study and practice. For help, check out ChineseClass101’s pinyin chart; it shows all the possible pronunciations of Chinese words in pinyin, and has corresponding audio files; just click, listen, and imitate the native speaker’s pronunciation.

Introduction to China

China is one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations, and the people of China are very proud of their 6,000 years of history.

For centuries China was a leading civilization in the world, far ahead of many other nations in the arts and sciences. However, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, civil unrest, major famines, military defeats, and foreign occupation all contributed to take their toll on these aspects of Chinese civilization.

The word for ‘China’ in Chinese is 中国 (Zhōngguó). Literally translated, this term means ‘center nation’ or, as it is commonly translated, ‘middle kingdom’. This concept gives insight into the strong identity of the Chinese people, and the tenacity that enabled them to ultimately survive as an intact nation, in spite of the challenges placed in their path.

The people of ancient China were resourceful and industrious, as are the Chinese of today. The Chinese are credited with several major inventions including paper, the compass, gunpowder, and printing. Another invention the Chinese take credit for is the humble noodle (though this claim is somewhat disputed by another noodle-loving nation.)

As China grows in influence on the world scene, a new China emerges; a mixture of old value systems and new, modern ideas; an integration of the traditional and modern; a migration from rural to urban life. The ever-adaptable Chinese continue to innovate and prosper along with their newfound circumstances, once again making their indelible mark on human civilization.

The People

Hundreds of ethnic groups have existed in China throughout its history. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) officially recognizes 56 distinct ethnic groups today, the largest of which are the Han Chinese, who constitute about 91.9% of the total population.

Ethnic groups receive certain preferential treatment; one notable perk being that, due to their small numbers, ethnic minority groups are exempt from the population growth controls of the One-Child Policy.

These minority groups often have their own distinct traditional dress, culture, language, food and art forms.

Culture

Confucianism has been the official philosophy throughout most of Imperial China’s history, and China’s traditional values were derived from various versions of Confucianism.

With the rise of Western economic and military power beginning in the mid-19th century, non-Chinese systems of social and political organization gained some proponents in China. In essence, the history of 20th-century China has been one of experimentation with new systems of social, political, and economic organization. These systems have evolved, and continue to develop, integrating and redefining of the identity of the nation in the wake of dynastic collapse.

Geography

China is the third largest country in the World, behind Russia and Canada. As of 2008, the population of China is estimated to be just over 1.3 billion. This is about one-fifth of the world’s population.

A diverse land with a varied terrain, China’s geography encompasses everything from deserts to mountains, fertile river basins to highland plateaus. The climate, likewise, is one of extremes. From the bitter winters of frigid Northern China to the hot and humid monsoon seasons of the south, the climate is varied and extreme. Five of China’s largest cities are referred to as the ‘fiery furnaces’.

Much of Western China is mountainous, with the Himalaya, Tian and Pamir ranges dominating. Western China also has a large desert, the famous Gobi. Central China consists of mountainous regions.

Rivers also play a major role in China, both for transportation and for irrigation.

Religion

The “official” faith observed by most dynasties of China until the overthrow of the last dynasty centered on worship of “Heaven” or Shangdi (literally “the Emperor Above”) as an omnipotent force. Its popularity gradually diminished after the advent of Taoism and Buddhism, but some of its concepts remained and were incorporated into later religions of China.

Taoism is a religion indigenous to China, and can be traced back to the composition of Lao Zi’s Tao Te Ching (The Book of Tao and Its Virtues). Buddhism was first introduced to China from India and Central Asia during the Han dynasty and became very popular among Chinese; it was particularly embraced by commoners. Buddhism is the largest organized faith in China, however many Chinese identify themselves as both Taoist and Buddhist.

Ancestor worship is a theme that transcends all the Chinese religions. Traditional Chinese culture values filial piety–a deep love and respect for one’s parents and ancestors. Many Chinese people will offer prayers and food, light incense, and make burnt paper offerings for their ancestors. These activities are typically conducted at the site of ancestral graves or tombs, a temple, or household shrine.

Sports

Beyond the fanfare of today’s ping pong tournaments, basketball stars, and the fervor of the Olympics, the roots of sport in China run deep. Chinese traditional sports include dragon boat racing, Mongolian-style wrestling and horse racing. In Tibet, archery and equestrian sports are part of traditional festivals. Physical fitness is highly regarded. It is common to see the elderly practicing Tai Chi and qigong in parks in the early morning hours.

Economy

China’s economy is ranked number three in the world and is strong in manufacturing, and is sometimes given the nickname, ‘the world’s workshop’. Almost every major multi-national company has an office in China; and most deem China as vital to their global corporate strategies.

Though foreign companies account for a lot of business in China, State-owned companies continue to dominate the list of the biggest companies in China, occupying all of the top ten spots.

With an economy now ranked third largest in the world after the US and Japan, and with a nominal GDP of US$3.5 trillion in 2007, for over a quarter of a century China has been one of the fastest growing economies. Its average annual GDP growth rate is more than 10%. China’s per capita income has grown at an average annual rate of more than 8% over the last three decades. This has brought a drastic reduction in poverty, but rising income inequalities, with the gap between the rich and the poor ever-widening.

Language

Spoken Chinese is distinguished by its high level of internal diversity, there are thousands of dialects within greater China. Those many of the dialects are mutually unintelligible, they are all tonal and some may share common terms and some degree of intelligibility.

The standardized form of spoken Chinese is Standard Mandarin, known in Chinese as 普通话 (pǔtōnghuà). It is based on the Beijing dialect. Standard Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China

A lot of words in Mandarin are formed by aggregating words according to their meaning. For example, the word for ‘typewriter’ is打字机(dǎzìjī). The first syllable of the word is a character that means ‘to strike’. The second syllable or character means ‘character’ or ‘word’, and the third means “machine.” So the word for ‘typewriter’ in Chinese literally means “hit word machine.”

Words and names in foreign languages may be given their place in the Chinese language by combining Chinese characters in an attempt to approximate the pronunciation of the foreign term. Chinese names of public figures and famous places are often transliterations of their renderings in the original language.

With the variety of accents and dialects of Chinese, even within the country people at times may have difficulty understanding one another. All television is subtitled in Chinese characters, and, when necessary for clarity, Chinese people will trace out which character they are referring to on the palm of their hand.

Writing System

The characters of written Chinese are the world’s longest continuously used written language system. Chinese characters have varied in style and appearance over the course of Chinese history, however there are still tens of thousands of ancient artifacts with ancient characters inscribed on them; from oracle bones to Qing edicts. Historically, calligraphy was viewed as a higher form of art than painting or drama.