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Chinese, subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages (see Sino-Tibetan languages), which is also sometimes grouped with the Tai, or Thai, languages in a Sinitic subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan language stock. Chinese comprises a number of variants; those that are mutually unintelligible are considered separate languages by some linguists but are classed among the many dialects of Chinese by others.

Forms of Chinese

The most widespread form of Chinese is Mandarin, which may be regarded as modern standard Chinese. It has several dialects and is spoken as a first language by some 835 million people in central and N China, as well as Taiwan, claiming more native speakers than any other language. An additional 100 million speak it as a second language. Originally the language of the court at Beijing during the imperial period, Mandarin was then called kuan hua [official speech]. After the Nationalists seized control in 1911, the name was changed to kuo yü [national tongue]. The Communist government adopted and simplified the Beijing dialect of Mandarin as the basis for a national language, renaming it putonghua [generally understood speech]. Mandarin in its various forms is spoken by about 70% of the population of China. It is the official language of both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan and is employed as one of the official languages of the United Nations.

Other leading forms of Chinese include Wu, the tongue of about 65 million people in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provs.; Fukienese or Northern Min, with some 50 million speakers distributed in Fujian prov., Taiwan, and SE Asia; Cantonese or Yue, spoken by over 65 million persons residing in Guangxi and Guangdong provs., Hong Kong, SE Asia, and the United States; Hakka or Kejia, the language of about 35 million in Guangdong and Jiangxi provs.; and Amoy-Swatow or Southern Min, the mother tongue of 15 million living in Fujian and Guangdong provs., Taiwan, and the South Pacific.

Grammar, Pronunciation, and Vocabulary

The various forms of Chinese differ least in grammar, more in vocabulary, and most in pronunciation. Like the other Sino-Tibetan languages, Chinese is tonal, i.e., different tones distinguish words otherwise pronounced alike. The number of tones varies in different forms of Chinese, but Mandarin has four tones: a high tone, a rising tone, a tone that combines a falling and a rising inflection, and a falling tone.

Chinese (again, like other Sino-Tibetan languages) is also strongly monosyllabic. Chinese often uses combinations of monosyllables that result in polysyllabic compounds having different meanings from their individual elements. For example, the word for “explanation,” shue-ming, combines shue (“speak”) with ming (“bright”). These compounds can embrace three and even four monosyllables: shuo-ch'u-lai, the word for “describe,” is made up of shuo (“speak”), ch'u (“out”), and lai (“come”). This practice has greatly increased the Chinese vocabulary and also makes it much easier to grasp the meaning of spoken Chinese words.

The elements of Chinese tend to be more grammatically isolated than connected, because the language lacks inflection to indicate person, number, gender, case, tense, voice, and so forth. Suffixes may be used to denote some of these features. For example, the suffix -le is a sign of the perfect tense of the verb. Subordination and possession can be marked by the suffix -te. The position and use of a word in a sentence may determine its part of speech and its meaning.

The Chinese Writing System

The Chinese writing system developed more than 4,000 years ago; the oldest extant examples of written Chinese are from the 14th or 15th cent. B.C., when the Shang dynasty flourished. Chinese writing consists of an individual character or ideogram for every syllable, each character representing a word or idea rather than a sound; thus, problems caused by homonyms in spoken Chinese are not a difficulty in written Chinese. The written language is a unifying factor culturally, for although the spoken languages and dialects may not be mutually comprehensible in many instances, the written form is universal.

Traditionally, the characters are written in columns that are read from top to bottom and from right to left, or in horizontal lines that read from left to right. The Chinese characters, although universal to all dialects, have proved to be an obstacle to mass literacy, for one needs to know at least several thousand characters to read a newspaper and even more to read literary works. In an attempt to deal with this problem, the People's Republic of China in 1956 introduced simplifications of commonly used characters. This was intended as a transitional phase until a workable alphabet could be devised and adopted.

Also in 1956 an alphabet based on Roman letters (Pinyin) was developed in mainland China. Its purpose, however, was the phonetic transcription of Chinese characters rather than the replacement of them. Since alphabetic writing requires a standardized spoken language, the local differences in the pronunciation of Chinese present a serious obstacle to the development of a satisfactory alphabet. The Chinese government has made a great effort to standardize the pronunciation of Mandarin, which is essentially a spoken language, and to have it adopted throughout China. The Beijing dialect of Mandarin was chosen because it was already the most widely used.

The literary language of Chinese differs greatly from the spoken form. Known as wenyen, the literary language is the same for all variants of Chinese as far as vocabulary, grammar, and the system of writing are concerned, but pronunciation differs locally according to the dialect. Under Nationalist leadership a movement began in 1917 to employ the popular, everyday speech (called paihua) in literature insead of wenyen. Since 1949, under the Communists, paihua has been used for all writing, including governmental, commercial, and journalistic texts as well as literary works.


See C. C. Chu, A Reference Grammar of Mandarin Chinese for English Speakers (1983); J. F. De Francis, The Chinese Language (1984); R. S. Dawson, A New Introduction to Classical Chinese (1984); S. R. Ramsey, The Languages of China (1986).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(self-designation, Han), the nationality comprising most of the population of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The total number of Chinese is about 750 million (1970, estimate), of whom more than 730 million live in the PRC (95 percent of the country’s population). Outside the PRC the largest groups of Chinese live in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma, the Philippines, and Cambodia.

The Chinese language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. The writing is ideogrammatic and derives from the picture writing of the mid-second millennium B.C. The Chinese language has several dialects that differ from each other so markedly that mutual understanding between inhabitants of different parts of the country is hindered.

The Chinese are not racially uniform. Most Chinese belong to the Pacific branch of the Greater Mongoloid race. Among the northern Chinese various types of East Asian groups predominate, and among the southern Chinese variants of the South Asian group are most common. A combination of elements of various beliefs and religions is characteristic of Chinese religious ideas. Ancestor worship was of greatest importance. During the long history of China first Taoism and Confucianism, and later Buddhism and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity, have been practiced among the Chinese.

The ethnic history of the Chinese is a complex process covering many centuries, in which many peoples speaking Sino-Tibetan, Malaysian-Polynesian, Mon-Khmer, or Altaic languages took part. The farming tribes of the Huang Ho and Yangtze basins, who created the first Neolithic cultures in the third and second millennia B.C. (such as the Yangshao and Lungshan), were among the ancestors of the Chinese. They cultivated local varieties of millet (foxtail millet) and had domesticated animals (dogs and pigs).

The early state formation known as the Yin arose in the second millennium B.C. in what are now Honan, Shensi, and Shansi provinces; it retained significant features of primitive communal relations. The Yins had well-developed bronze metallurgy and spoke a language that was the basis for the development of ancient Chinese.

The related Chou tribes, who in the 11th century B.C. conquered the Yin state, were their neighbors to the west. Between the 11th and third centuries B.C. various peoples known in Chinese sources by the collective names Man in the south, Jung in the west, Ti in the north, and I in the east lived in what is now China near the descendants of the Yin and Chou peoples, who had intermingled. From the mid-first millennium B.C. Chinese sources also mention numerous Yüeh tribes living south of the Yangtze. Most of these tribes were ancestors of the Thai peoples, but the ancestors of the Indonesians, Vietnamese, and probably the Mon-Khmer were also among them. Even in this period the ancestors of the Chinese were not isolated from other peoples and borrowed from them many aspects of material and intellectual culture.

The formation of the ancient Chinese nationality dates to the time of the Han Dynasty (third century B.C. to the third century A.D.). The name of the dynasty, which stems from the name of the Han River (a tributary of the Yangtze), subsequently became the Chinese self-designation. The expansion of the Han state was accompanied by significant resettlement of the Chinese (primarily to the south) and generally by forcible assimilation of other East Asian peoples.

The new unification of China under the rule of the T’ang Dynasty (sixth-ninth centuries), after a period of feudal fragmentation, contributed to the ethnic consolidation of China. In this period, however, the region inhabited by the Chinese encompassed far from the entire territory of modern China. In the north independent nomadic amalgamations of Turkic and Mongolian peoples succeeded one another; states inhabited chiefly by the ancestors of the Yi, Thai, and Mon-Khmer peoples existed in the southwest (Yünnan, Szechwan).

From the tenth to the 13th century (Sung Dynasty), China was divided into two parts, the northern and the southern. At first the Mongolian-speaking Khitans, from whose name the Russian word Kitai [China] originates, and later the Juchen, who spoke languages of the Tungus-Manchu group, ruled in the north. In south China, where the Chinese dynasty continued to rule, the influx of Chinese from the north increased. In the mid-13th century the states in what is now China were conquered by the Mongols. After the Mongols were driven out (1368) during the Ming Dynasty, the resettlement of the Chinese from the Huang Ho and Yangtze basins continued.

During the Manchu Ch’ing Dynasty (1644–1911) the current political borders of China were basically established. The wars of aggression of the Ch’ings were often accompanied by the extermination of large groups of natives. In the late 18th century, after the conquest of the Dzungarian Khanate, the resettlement of Chinese into the newly formed Sinkiang (literally “new border”) Province began. This process has continued to the present day. In the late 19th and early 20th century, during the period of development of capitalism and the formation of a Chinese nation in China, Chinese gradually settled Manchuria.

More than 80 percent of the Chinese in the PRC are involved in agriculture. Various types of crafts, both domestic (such as weaving, pottery, carpentry, and wickerwork) and artistic (such as cloisonné enamels, carving in wood, bone, and stone, modeling, painted and carved lacquerware, brocade, and embroidery), are highly developed. Chinese porcelain is renowned.


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the language of the Chinese people, the official language of the People’s Republic of China. Chinese is spoken by 95 percent of the population of China (more than 730 million; 1970, estimate) and the Chinese population of Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and other countries (more than 20 million). Chinese is a Sino-Tibetan language and includes seven principal dialects: the Northern (spoken by more than 70 percent of the population), Wu, Hsiang, Kan, Hakka, Yüeh, and Min. The dialects differ phonetically, complicating or making impossible interdialectical communication, in vocabulary, and somewhat in grammar, but the principles of their grammatical structure and vocabulary are the same. The dialects are connected by regular sound correspondences (certain sounds of one dialect correspond to certain sounds of another).

The oldest written records (divination inscriptions on bronze, stone, bone, and tortoise shell) apparently date from the second half of the second millennium B.C. The oldest literary works are the Shu Ching (Book of History) and the Shih Ching (Book of Poetry) from the first half of the first millennium B.C. The ancient Chinese literary language, or wen-yen —which with time diverged from the spoken language and became incomprehensible to the ear as early as the first millennium A.D.—was based on the living dialects of that period. This written language, which reflects the standards of ancient Chinese, was used as a literary language until the 20th century, although over the centuries it underwent significant changes (in particular, its terminology was augmented). Samples of the new written language, which reflected conversational speech— pai-hua (“simple, comprehensible language”)—date from the early first millennium A.D. Northern pai-hua formed the basis of the national Chinese language, which was called p’u-t’ung-hua (“generally understandable language”). In the first half of the 20th century p’u-t’ung-hua was fully established in written communication, having supplanted wen-yen and become the national literary language.

Contemporary Chinese exists in two forms—written and oral. In terms of grammar and vocabulary, national literary Chinese is based on the northern dialects. Peking pronunciation is its phonetic standard. Ancient Chinese in its written ideogrammatic form, which concealed the actual sound of the words, was a monosyllabic language in which words were monomorphemic and uninflected and lacked grammatical form. Reconstructions of the sound of ancient Chinese words display the complex structure of the syllable in ancient Chinese and in particular the confluence of initial consonants and various final consonants. Some consonants composing a syllable apparently were prefixes and suffixes, leading to the assumptions that ancient Chinese had a very complex morphological system which was later lost and that words were not monomorphemic.

The rise of the new language, pai-hua, was accompanied by the appearance of new morphological features—the development of the disyllabic and correspondingly dimorphemic standard of word formation and the appearance of word-formative and “form-building” affixes that developed from autosemantic words. At the same time the phonetic composition of the syllable was simplified through the disappearance of consonant clusters and the dropping of nearly all consonants in final syllables, for example.

The phonic composition of Chinese with respect to phonetics is characterized by the fact that its consonants and vowels (data on the number of phonemes are at odds) are organized as a limited number of tonal syllables of fixed (constant) composition. In p’u-t’ung-hua there are 414 syllables, but taking tonal variations into account the total is increased to 1,324 (there are four distinctive tones, and each syllable may have from two to four tonal variations). Syllabification is morphologically significant; that is, every syllable has the phonetic shell of a morpheme or simple word. The individual phoneme, as the carrier of meaning (usually a vowel), has a tone and is a particular case of the syllable.

The morpheme generally is monosyllabic. There are many monosyllabic words. Some of the old ones are not syntactically independent and are used only as components of compounds and derived words. The disyllabic (dimorphemic) standard of word formation predominates. The number of words with more than two syllables is increasing with the growth of the vocabulary. Because of the distinctive features of its phonetic and morphologic structure, Chinese has almost no direct loan words but makes extensive use of semantic borrowings, forming caiques. The rapid growth of the multisyllabic vocabulary supports the description of modern Chinese as a polysyllabic language. Words are formed by compounding, affixation, and conversion. The models for compounding are analogues of models of compounds. In many cases it is impossible to distinguish a composite word from a compound. Form-building is represented primarily by verbal aspectual suffixes. The plural form is used for nouns designating persons and for personal pronouns. One affix may be used for “group” marking—that is, may be classified as an autosemantic word. The affixes are few, agglutinative, and in many cases optional. Agglutination in Chinese does not serve to express relations between words, and the structure of Chinese remains principally isolating.

Chinese syntax has a nominative structure and a relatively rigid word order. The attributive always precedes the dependent member. A sentence may have an active or passive construction; metatheses that do not change the syntactic role of words are possible within certain limits. Chinese has a developed system of compound sentences formed by conjunctive and asyndetic coordination and subordination.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


any of the languages of China belonging to the Sino-Tibetan family, sometimes regarded as dialects of one language. They share a single writing system that is not phonetic but ideographic. A phonetic system using the Roman alphabet was officially adopted by the Chinese government in 1966
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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