The wonders of Chinese Mandarin

Helal Uddin Ahmed | Published: November 24, 2018 21:22:58 | Updated: November 25, 2018 21:20:59

Children participate in UN Headquarters' celebration of Chinese Language Day on April 20, 2018, where books and games were on offer. —Photo: Xinhua

Spoken by around one-fifth of the global population, the Chinese (Mandarin) is deemed to be the most popular language in the world. Simultaneously influencing several other East and Southeast Asian languages including Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, traces of Chinese language can still be detected in these languages despite changes brought about through language reforms over the past decades. Even the various 'Kana' signs of Japanese words have largely evolved from the written forms of Chinese characters. In the backdrop of ever-expanding global integration alongside China's phenomenal economic growth over the past four decades, an increasing number of people across the world have been showing interest in learning the Chinese language for direct communications with the Chinese people.

Commonly known as 'Mandarin Chinese', 'Hanyu' or the language of the Han nationality has been the language generally used by the Chinese people. Mandarin or 'Guanhua' is derived from Hanyu. 'Putonghua', 'Gyoyu' or 'Huayu' are its standard forms in mainland China cum Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore respectively. In fact, the Han population constitutes about 92 per cent of the total population in mainland China and 95 per cent in Taiwan. However, in addition to the Han people, China has 55 ethnic minorities and the total number of languages spoken by them is over 80. Among these, 30 have written forms. They belong to five distinct families in terms of language genealogy: Sino-Tibetan, Altai, Austro-Asiatic, Austronesian and Indo-European. Among the ethnic groups, some have adopted the Hanyu with their own languages passing into extinction, such as the Hui and Manchurian people, both having populations of over 10 million.

The language policy of the Chinese central government promotes the use of Standard Chinese (Standard Mandarin or Putonghua) as the national language. The policy, however, encourages the protection of ethnic languages and dialects as well. Article 8 of the 'Law of the People's Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language' stipulates that all nationalities shall have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages. Consequently, most primary and secondary schools in ethnic minority areas allow bilingual education in Mandarin Chinese as well as in their own languages. The former is practised for public communications across ethnic boundaries, while the latter is used for community activities. According to a survey conducted during 1999-2004 in mainland China (Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan excluded), the percentage of people who could use Standard Mandarin or Putonghua were found to be 53.05 per cent, while the proportion of people who could use a dialect of Hanyu was 86.38 per cent. Only 5.46 per cent of the population was found to be using own languages. Based on the Beijing sub-dialect of the Northern Dialect (or Guanhua), Standard Mandarin or Putonghua is used as the national language of the People's Republic of China.

'Putong' in the Chinese word 'Putonghua' means 'common' or 'general', while 'hua' implies spoken language or speech. Therefore, Putonghua is recognised as the generally adopted Chinese spoken language practiced across geographical and ethnic boundaries. However, it differs from various ethnic languages as well as different dialects spoken by the Han people in different regions of China. In fact, the classification of Chinese dialects is quite complicated, which reflects different standards and outputs in different periods of history. The two most influential models in vogue are the 'seven category classification' and the 'ten category classification' of dialects. The former comprises: Guanhua, Wuyu, Ganyu, Xianyu, Minyu, Kejiahua and Yueyu. The latter includes three additional dialects, viz. Jinyu, Huiyu and Pinghua.

Similar to other languages of the world, the Chinese language has also evolved, developed and underwent transformation over the centuries. The word 'Guanhua' originally meant 'official language', mainly referring to the standard language used in the civil service. It has therefore undergone changes from one dialect to another with the shifting of political and cultural centre of the country. For example, Nanjing dialect was adopted as the official language or Guanhua during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); but Beijing dialect became its basis during the Qing dynasty (1616-1911), which acted as the foundation for Standard Mandarin or Putonghua. Although called the 'Northern Dialect', it is not confined to the northern region alone, but is practised much more extensively all over China. It is also used in the southwest, middle-south and the central parts of the country covering the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui and Jiangsu, either wholly or partially.

Guanhua has been classified into 8 (eight) dialect categories based on finer regional differences and distinctive features in pronunciation (Maps of Chinese Languages, 1987). These include the varieties practised in Beijing (Putonghua); the Northeast; Liaoning and Eastern Shandong (Liaojiao); Hebei and Western Shandong (Jilu); the Middle Plain (Zhongyuan); Lanzhou and Yinchuan (Lanyin);  Jianghuai; and the Southwest. A long process of interaction between the official language and different dialects has led to the evolution of Guanhua or Mandarin. Although they share common grammatical structures and a major part of the vocabulary, they nevertheless display minor variations in speech, most notably in the tones. 

The history of Chinese civilisation spreads over four thousand years, marked by the use of written symbols to record the spoken language. As against Modern Chinese, Classic Chinese refers to the language spoken by the Chinese people during the ancient era. However, the cut-off year between the two is generally considered to be 1919, when the '4th May Movement' ushered in all-round cultural resurgence under the banners of 'New Cultural Movement' and the 'Baihuawen Movement' (also known as Vernacular Language Movement) that led to the reform of Chinese language. Classic Chinese was strikingly different from Modern Chinese, especially because it used every character to its full extent and was therefore extremely concise. Called 'Wenyan', it was recognised as the written form of Ancient Chinese. The linkage between the two has however been that of source and branch. Therefore, Modern Chinese has maintained many of the ancient qualities related to phonology, vocabulary and structure.

Historical records show that the difference between the spoken and written forms of Ancient Chinese was huge and the Wenyan writing style was much more compact and concise. As a result, two distinct systems existed in Ancient Chinese language, one called 'Wenyanwen' (formal written text) and the other called 'Gubaihua' or vernacular speech. The former is based on the written texts of the Qin (221-206 BC) and Pre-Qin era, which have been mainly preserved in stele inscriptions. These have been imitated and duplicated throughout history with little changes in style, as seen in classic texts like 'The Book of Songs' (Shi), 'Collection of Ancient Texts' (Shu), 'The Rites' (Li), 'The Spring and Autumn Annals', 'Lao Zi', 'The Analects of Confucius', 'Xun Zi', etc. This style was also followed by some texts of the later periods as well like Western Han (206 BC-25 AD), Eastern Han (25-220 AD), Tang (618-907 AD), and Song (960-1127 AD). On the other hand, Gubaihua was followed in the written records of informal speech that evolved through the Wei (220-265 AD) and Jin (265-420 AD) dynasties.

Modern Chinese developed mainly based on the Ancient Chinese Baihua of the latter category, but it also inherited at the same time some traits of the formal Wenyan style. Modern Chinese has also absorbed the influences of some Indo-European languages including their grammatical systems through translations. Contrary to Classic Chinese, it shows direct relationship between the written and spoken forms and also follows rigid grammatical structure as in English. The first Chinese grammar book published in 1883 was based on Latin and French grammars. It acted as the cornerstone for the modernisation of the Chinese language. Modern Chinese differs from its Classic version in terms of the following features: 1) It has a grammatical framework similar to that of English and French; 2) it has longer sentences with definite punctuation marks borrowed from Western languages; it has relatively more stable parts of speech.

The 'Baihuawen (Vernacular Chinese) Movement', an offshoot of the '4th May Movement' of 1919, called for unification of the Chinese speech and writing. The orthodox Wenyan written style of Classic Chinese has gradually been abandoned since then, and the educated Chinese people started to write down what was actually spoken. However, some differences still persist between the spoken and written forms of Chinese, as in other languages. Some of the major differences are as follows: 1) Some characters are pronounced differently; 2) some characters are pronounced with varying tones and stresses; 3) some words are used only in the formal speech, and others only in written text; 4) some structures or sentence patterns are used only in the spoken language, and some exist only in the written form; 5) spoken version tends to use simple words and shorter or incomplete sentences.

The grand scribe Cang Jie of the Yellow Emperor, foremost ancestor of the Han people, is credited with the invention of the Chinese characters. It is said that the creation of the Chinese characters was such a shocking event that "the heaven rained grains and the ghosts cried at night". However, the Chinese characters created by its ancient inhabitants have undergone continuous changes. As a consequence, with the exception of specialists, contemporary readers no longer understand many ancient characters. The Chinese characters gradually became stabilised since the unification of China by the Qin Dynasty during 221-206 BC. However, the use of more or less same strokes in writing characters has remained unchanged throughout history.

There were over 47 thousand characters in the prestigious 'Kangxi Dictionary' compiled during 1710-16 on the orders of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty. At present, only 3 to 4 thousand characters on an average are used by contemporary Chinese citizens, which is quite adequate for reading. Most of the old characters have either gone out of circulation or are rarely used. 'Hanyu Pinyin' (Chinese Spelling Sound) or 'Pinyin' in short is currently the most commonly used Romanisation system for annotating the pronunciation of Chinese characters. Developed by the special government committee on language reform affairs of the People's Republic of China, it replaced 'Zhuyin' as the means of Chinese phonetic instruction in mainland China since 1958.

Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a former editor of Bangladesh Quarterly, and a 2016-17 'CCSP Understanding China Fellow' of the Confucius Institute Headquarters, Beijing, China.

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