Ancient Chinese

Oracle Bone – inscribed, Shang dynasty, China.

Oracle Bone – inscribed, Shang dynasty, China.

Some of the earliest extant forms of writing in China are inscriptions made on tortoise shells during the Shang dynasty (1600-1045 BCE). The writing on these shells (often called “oracle bone inscriptions”) is a predecessor to the more recognizable written Chinese that emerged in the Zhou dynasty (1045-256 BCE), and resemblance can often be seen. It is the Zhou texts, however, that are models of written Chinese from then on, with texts by Confucius, Zhuangzi, and many other individuals as representative examples.

Classical Chinese

Written Chinese mostly followed the example set by the Zhou texts, despite changes in spoken grammar and vocabulary. By the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), the conventions of Zhou dynasty written Chinese had hardened into a literary style that was fully separate from spoken, vernacular Chinese. This antique style of written Chinese, or Classical Chinese, was the language used by scholars and bureaucrats in any official communication. While those in at home or in the marketplace spoke a contemporary Chinese that was very different from Zhou dynasty Chinese, official writings resembled it closely.

Writing and Calligraphy

If one looks at the Shang inscriptions, and compares them with texts from the Han dynasty, they are obviously different. One reason for this, however, is that writing in Chinese – writing, or painting, calligraphy – had been erstwhile developed into an art form. Although a standard written form was often used, developing writing skills was seen – and often continues to be seen – as a mark of culture. Some styles, especially those developed during the Tang (618-907 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties, were barely legible, and were primarily seen as forms of emotional expression, similar to paintings.


Spoken Chinese

Pronunciation in Chinese did not stagnate, or develop, in the same ways that writing had. By looking at various translations from non-Chinese languages into Chinese, and by referring to literary manuals, scholars have been able to construct versions of how Chinese may have sounded at different periods. Differences of course varied according to historical changes, such as migration into non-Chinese speaking territories, and according to geographical factors that enabled linguistic isolation.

TabloidThe major dialects are, in reality, language families united in a shared written language and culture. They are mutually unintelligible, and sometimes bear as little resemblance as French and Romanian. Although different dialects (and regions) have developed distinct pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, because of the unified written language there have been only small differences in the basic meanings of written words. For example, someone from Beijing could go to Hong Kong and read a newspaper and understand it, except in the case of the newspaper using terms that connote a dialectal meaning (usually based on pronunciation) in addition to the standard meaning.

Since the Han dynasty, there has been a standard speech spoken for official, government functions, called guanhua (meaning “official language”). It was developed in order to cut down on language problems in governance caused by linguistic misunderstanding. Beginning after the establishment of the Republic of China (1911-1949 CE), efforts were made to establish a standard public speech, called guoyu (meaning “national language”). After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (1949 CE-present), breakthroughs (and compromises) were made to realize this standard speech, which is now taught throughout China. It is called putonghua, is based on Mandarin Chinese, and means the “common language.”

A guide to the tones of putonghua. Note how different tones change the meaning of a given sound.

A guide to the tones of putonghua. Note how different tones change the meaning of a given sound.



“China,” in Mandarin, as Romanized by different systems.

Efforts to introduce Romanization or transliteration of Chinese have been made since the nineteenth century. The first comprehensive system of Romanization was the Wade-Giles system, which aimed to transcribe what the speech of Beijing sounded like. In 1913 a system of transliteration called zhuyin (meaning “sound annotation”) was introduced, using “mandarin phonetic symbols.” In the 1950s the Romanization system hanyu pinyin (meaning “spelling sound”) was introduced as the standard phonetic notation in mainland China. Outside of mainland China all three systems are still in use, with hanyu pinyin the most prevalent.

Traditional and Simplified Characters

As with the standardization of the spoken language, further written standardization happened in the twentieth century. Beginning with a push to raise the profile of vernacular literature, Classical

“China” in traditional and simplified characters.

“China” in traditional and simplified characters.

Chinese was quickly displaced as the medium of even official communications by the 1920s. In an effort to increase literacy, the government of the People’s Republic of China sought to “simplify” Chinese characters, and instituted, alongside the development of putonghua, reform of the written language. Today in mainland China all people are taught to read and write simplified characters, or jiantizi. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, however, traditional characters, or fantizi, remain the norm.

Other Languages of China

Chinese, or hanyu (meaning “language of the Han”), is not the only language in China, however – no matter what dialectal variation. The Chinese government recognizes 56 different ethnic groups in China, and almost all of them have their own distinct language, and sometimes have even more than one. The major non-Chinese languages spoken in China today include Uighur, Tibetan, Mongolian, and the many minority languages of south China, which often fall within the Tai family of languages.

Language 4


The Languages of China Before the Chinese, Terrien de Lacouperie. David Nutt: 1887.

A History of the Chinese Language, Hongyuan Dong. Routledge: 2014.

The Chinese Language: its History and Current Usage, Daniel Kane. Tuttle: 2006.

Chinese (Cambridge Language Surveys), Jerry Norman. Cambridge University Press: 1988.

The Languages of China, S. Robert Ramsay. Princeton University Press: 1989.

Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora, Jing Tsu. Harvard: 2011

Dialect Resource: phonemica.net