Common Speech

Chinese resources all around the Internet very soon tell you that the term ‘Chinese’ just won’t cut it. Words that you might recognise like ‘Mandarin’ and ‘simplified’ are mixed in with terrifying ones like ‘Hokkien’ – so what’s a learner to do?

It probably won’t come as a surprise that the Chinese language isn’t that homogenous. You can travel nearly 4000 km between the northern town of Karamay and Hong Kong, yet both are in the colossal land called China. This is more than the distance from Moscow to Madrid – passing through France, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic and Poland on the way. The diverse cultures and languages of these countries have to illustrate that Chinese can’t ever be united – or can it?

Even if it’s impossible, Beijing is giving it a good go. The Beijing dialect of Chinese, called Mandarin (which amusingly translates as ‘Commoners’ Speech’), is taught in most schools across the country despite the fact that vastly different dialects which will be spoken at home. Chinese dialects are varied and diverse –  some Chinese universities will even offer Cantonese (from Hong Kong and Guangzhou) as a different language to Chinese. Two ‘Chinese’ citizens from Karamay and Hong Kong will barely be able to talk to each other – but in writing, it’s a very different story.

Chinese Calligraphy Autumn Characters

The huge differences in spoken dialects are totally reversed in writing. This morning’s newspaper in Karamay and Hong Kong will be pretty mutually understandable. The only difference will be between ‘simplified’ and ‘traditional’ characters – traditional characters such as ‘Biáng.svg‘ (an obscure type of noodle with 57 strokes, making it the longest character in the language) were evidently too hard for the non-arty Chinese citizens of the 1950s, when Mao drastically simplified many characters to aid literacy. This has created a hugely easier system for non-arty Westerners in the 21st century, who have filled up many notebooks with illegible scribblings of traditional characters.

Written language has stayed so similar in China due to how it was used. The rural areas will only have encountered writing in government messages and standardised signs  – thus allowing spoken language to mutate so much into countless dialects. The scholars of the east were writing the language, which allowed them to keep it so similar across the entire country.


Things I’ve learned this week:

  • Biáng.svg noodles have been weaving a long advertising campaign with their impossible character
  • Ancient Chinese people weren’t all calligraphers. There’s hope for us Westerners who can’t draw a stick man.
  • Writing likes to stay put, whereas dialects like to wander off to Mongolia and bring back strange words.

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