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As the most widely spoken language on earth, Chinese can hardly be overlooked. Chinese is, strictly speaking, a series of dialects spoken by the dominant ethnic group within China , the Hall. Indeed, the term most commonly used by the Chinese themselves to refer to the language is hanyu, meaning "Han-language", though Zhongyu, Zhonwen, and zhongguoha are frequently used as -well. However, non-Han peoples such as Uigurs and Tibetans speak languages which have little or nothing to do with Chinese.

The dialects of Hanyu are a complicated story in themselves. Some of them are mutually unintelligible and - where the spoken word is concerned - have about as much in common as, say, German and English. The better-known and most dis­ tinct dialects include those spoken around China's coastal fringes, such as Shanghainese, Fujianese and Cantonese, though even whithin the areas covered by these dialects you'll find huge local divergences. Cantonese and Fujianese are themselves languages of worldwide significance, being the dialects spoken by the people of Hong Kong and among Overseas Chinese communities, particularly those in Southeast Asia.

What enables Chinese from different parts of the Country to converse with each other is Mandarin Chinese. Historically based on the language of Han officialdom in the Beijing area, Mandarin has been systematically promoted over the past hundred years to be the official, unifying language of the Chinese people, much as modern French, for example, is based on the original Parisian dialect. It is known in mainland China as putonghua -"common language" - and in Taiwan (and also remoter corners of China ) as guoyu -"national lan­guage". As the language of education, government and the media, Mandarin is understood to a greater or lesser extent by the vast majority of Hall Chinese, and by many non-Han as well, though there are two caveats to this general­ ization: first, that knowledge of Mandarin is far more common among the young, the educated and the urban-dwelling; and second, that many people who understand Mandarin cannot actually speak it. For example, the chances of the average Tibetan peasant being able to speak Mandarin are extremely small in Hong Kong and Macau , likewise, there has been until recently very little Mandarin spoken, though this situation is now changing fast.

Another element tying the various dialects together is the Chinese script. No matter how different two dialects array sound when spoken, once they are written down in the form of Chinese characters they become mutually com­ prehensible again, as the different dialects use the same written characters. A sentence of Cantonese, for example, written down beside a sentence of the same meaning in Mandarin, it will look broadly similar except for occasional unusual words or structures. Having said this, it should be added that some non-Han peoples use their own scripts, and apart from Cantonese it is unusu­al to see Chinese dialects written down at all. Most Chinese people, in fact, associate the written word inextricably with Mandarin.

From the point of view of foreigners, the main distinguishing characteristic of Chinese is that it is a tonal language: in order to pronounce a word cor­rectly, it is necessary to know not only its sound but also its correct tone.

Despite initial impressions, there is nothing too difficult about learning the bacis of communication, however, and being able to speak even a few words of Chinese can mean the difference between a successful trip and a nightmare. Given the way tones affect meaning - and the fact that individual characters are monosyllabic - accuracy in pronunciation is particularly important in Chinese, for which an understanding of the pinyin phonetic system is vital. For advance teach-yourself grounding in spoken Mandarin, try Hugo's Chinese in Three months, which includes piny, in transliteration and tapes and, while a bit dry, is wider in its approach than purely business- or travel-oriented alternatives. On the road, the Rough Guide Mandarin Chinese Dictionary Phrasebook provides useful words and phrases in both pinyin and characters, while Langenscheidt's Pocket Dictionary Chinese is - for its size - perhaps the best available dictionary of colloquial usage. Once you're in China , you'll find that any bookshop will have a huge range of inexpensive Chinese-English dictionaries, and perhaps livelier teach yourself texts than are available overseas.

There are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, in use since at least the Shang dynasty (1600-1700BC), though the vast majority of these are obsolete - you need about 2500 to read a newspaper, and even educated Chinese are unlikely to know more than ten thousand. The characters themselve s are pic­ tograms, each representing a concept rather than a specific pronunciation. This is similar to the use of numerals there is nothing in the figure "2" which spells out the pronunciation; having learned what the symbol means, we sim­ply - know how to say it - whether "two" in English, "deux" in French, and so on- Similarly, Chinese speakers have to memorize the sounds of individual characters, and the meanings attached to them. While the sounds might early from region to region, the meanings themselves do not -which is how the written word cuts through regional variations in language.

Although to untrained eves many Chinese characters scent impossibly complex, there is a logic behind their structure which helps in their mem­orization. Firstly, each character is written using an exact number of brush (or pen) strokes: thus the character for "mouth", which forms a square, is always written using only three strokes: first the left side, then the top and right side together, and finally the base. Secondly, characters can very broad­ ly be broken tip into two components, which often also exist as characters in their own right: a main part, which frequently gives a clue as to the pro­ nunciation; and a radical, which usually appears on the left side of the char­ acter and which vaguely categorizes the meaning. As an example, the char­ acter for "mother" is made up of the character for "horse" (to which it sounds similar), combined with a radical which means "female". In a few cases, it's easy to see the connection between the pictogram and its mean­ ing-the character mu, wood, resembles a tree - though others require some lateral thinking or have become so abstract or complex that the meaning is hidden.

Given the time and difficulty, involved in learning characters, and the neg­ ative impact this has had on the general level of literacy , the government of the People's Republic announced in 1954 that a couple of thousand of the must common characters were to be, quite literally, simplified, making them not only easier to learn but also quicker to write, as the new characters often use far fewer penstrokes. This drastic measur e was not without controversy. Some argued that by Interfering with the original structure of the characters, vital clues as to their meaning and pronunciation would be lost, making them hard­ er than ever to learn. These simplified characters were eventually adopted not just in mainland China but also in Singapore : but Hong Kong and Taiwan , as well as many overseas Chinese communities, continue to use the older- tradi­ tional forms.

Today, ironicallv, the traditional forms are also making a comeback on the mainland. Where they are now seen as sophisticated. Note that some of these traditional forms differ considerably from the simplified forms provided in this book, though their meaning and pronunciation are identical.


Chinese grammar is relatively simple. There is no need to conjugate verbs, decline nouns or make adjectives agree -being attached to immutable Chinese characters, Chinese word, simply cannot have different "endings". Instead, con­text and fairly rigid rules about word order are relied on to make those distinc­tions of time, number and gender that Indo-European languages are so con­cerned. Instead of cumbersome tenses, the Chinese make use of words such as "yesterday" or "tomorrow", instead of plural endings they simply state how many - things there are, or use quantifier words equivalent to “some” or “many”.

Word formation is affected by the fact that the meanings of many Chinese characters have become diffuse over time. For instance, there is a single char­acter, pronounced ju with the third tone in Mandarin, which is a verb mean­ing, "to lift", "to start" or "to choose", an adjective meaning "whole" and a noun meaning “deed”. In a very dim way we might perhaps see the underly­ing meaning of ju on its own, but to make things clear in practice, many con­cepts are referred to not by single characters but by combining two or more characters together like building blocks. In the case of ju above, the addition of character for "world" creates a word meaning "throughout the world"; and the addition of "eve" creates a word meaning "look".

For English speakers, Chinese word order follows the familiar subject verb-object pattern, and you'll find that by simply stringing words together you'll be producing fairly grammatical Chinese. Just note that adjectives, as well as all qualifying and describing phrases, precede nouns.

Pronunciation and pinyin

Back in the 1950s it was hoped eventually to replace Chinese characters alto­ gether -with a regular alphabet of Roman letters, and to this end the pinyin sys­tem was devised. Basically, pinyin is a way of using the Roman alphabet (except the letter "e") to write out the sounds of Mandarin Chinese, with Mandarin's four tones represented by accents above each syllable. Other dialects of Chinese, such as Cantonese - having nine tones - cannot be written in pinyin.

The aim of replacing Chinese characters with pinyin was abandoned long ago, but in the meantime pinyin has one very important function, that of help­ ing foreigners to pronounce Chinese words. However, in pinyin the letters do not all have the sounds you would expect, and you'll need to spend an hour or two learning these. You'll often see pinyin in China , on street signs and shop displays, but only well-educated locals know the system well. Occasionally, you will come across other systems of rendering Mandarin into Roman letters, such as Wade-Giles, which writes Mao Zedong as Mao Tse-tung, and Deng Xiaoping as Teng Hsiao-ping. These forms are no longer used in mainland China , but you may see them in Western books about China , or in Taiwanese publications.