An overview of Chinese Language

BY CchattyArticleComprehensive Chinese
Release time:2018-12-21
Tag: Chinese Language
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Hanyu, or the language of the Han nationality, commonly known as the Mandarin Chinese, is certainly the language generally used by the Chinese people.
part 1

Languages of the Han Chinese and Chinese Ethnic Groups

Languages of the Han Chinese and Chinese Ethnic Groups

Hanyu, or the language of the Han nationality, commonly known as the Mandarin Chinese, is certainly the language generally used by the Chinese people. Its standard form is also called Putonghua, Guoyu, or Huayu, respectively in Mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. But it is not the only language used by all Chinese. This is because China is a big country with 55 ethnic minorities in addition to the Han people, and most of them have their languages. Chinese linguists generally agree that the total number of languages used by China's ethnic groups is over 80, with some ethnic groups using more than one languages. Among these different languages, 30 have written forms. Regarding language genealogy, they are categorized into 5 different families: the Sino-Tibetan, Altai, Austro-Asiatic, Austronesian, and Indo-European.

Therefore, the phrase "Chinese Language” should have its plural forms. When used in the singular form, it only means the language originally belonging to the Han people (hence called Hanyu), which has been adopted as the common language used across ethnic boundaries. Among all ethnic groups of China, some have adopted the Han people's language, with their languages have gone into extinction, such as the Hui and Manchurian people (respectively counting for 9.8 million and 10.6 million in population). Others use both Hanyu and their own languages.

The Chinese central government's language policy is to promote the use of Standard Chinese (or Standard Mandarin) as the national language. In the meantime, however, the policy also encourages protection of the ethnic languages. According to Article 8 of the Law of the Peoples Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language, "all the nationalities shall have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages." As a result, most preliminary and secondary schools in China's ethnic minority areas practice bilingual education in both Mandarin Chinese and their languages, with the former for public communication across ethnic boundaries and the latter for regional and community activities.

In spite of the great number of ethnic languages across the country, 91.59% of the Chinese population are Han people, while the ethnic population only accounts for 8.41% of the whole nation (according to the fifth Population Census of China in 2000). So it is evident that Hanyu has a prevailing influence in use. From the statistics of a survey on the language conditions in mainland China (not including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) carried out from 1999 to 2004, it is seen that the percentage of people who can use Standard Mandarin (Putonghua) is 53.06%, while the percentage of people who can use a dialect of Hanyu is 86.38%. In contrast, only 5.46 percent of the population use ethnic languages. This means that about a third of the whole ethnic population no longer have their languages. As for the remaining two thirds or so, a better part can use Hanyu or a dialect of it along with an ethnic language.

For the above reasons, the word Hanyu is tacitly taken as the language of the Chinese people. Its standard form, as the national language of the People's Republic of China, is called Putonghua (or Standard Mandarin). Putonghua is based only on the Beijing sub-dialect of the Northern Dialect (or Guanhua) though nationally used.

part 2

Mandarin, Putonghua and Chinese Dialects

Mandarin, Putonghua and Chinese Dialects

In the Chinese word "Putonghua," "putong" means "common" or "general," while "Hua" refers to the spoken language, speech or simply "tongue." So Putonghua is taken as the generally adopted spoken the Chinese language used across geographical and ethnic boundaries, as well as the common language, is spoken or understood among the Chinese, emigrates abroad. However, it neither necessarily substitutes for various ethnic languages of the nation nor the various dialects of the Chinese Han people used in different areas across the country.

The classification of the Chinese dialects spoken on the vast land of the country is a very complicated matter that remains controversial even today, with different periods in history having different standards and actual results of classification. However, the most influential two models generally accepted at present are respectively the "seven-category classification" and the "ten-category classification." The former includes 1) Guanhua (also called the Northern Dialect), 2)Wuyu, 3)Ganyu, 4) Xiangyu, 5) Minyu, 6) Kejiahua, and 7) Yueyu. The latter has added three dialects on the former, namely, 8) Jinyu, 9) Huiyu, and 10) Pinghua.

The following digraph may mostly represent the general situation of the Chinese language or languages.

Chinese language

1.      Guanhua (Mandarin)

Guanhua is unique in that its status as a dialect is not so much based on its geographically determined features as on sociological ones. The word originally means "official tongue," and thus refers to the standard language used in the officialdom for civil service.

Therefore, with the transfer of the political and cultural center of the country time and again in history, it has also undergone changes from one dialect to another. For instance, the official language named Guanhua of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was Nanjing dialect, but in Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), it gradually adopted Beijing dialect as its basis, which has kept its status as such up to the present, serving as the foundation of Standard Mandarin (Putonghua). Although Guanhua has also been called "the Northern Dialect," it is used in a much more extensive area of the country, not limited to the northern part in geographical terms. Areas using Guanhua also include the southwest, middle south and the central part of the country, actually covering the whole or some parts of such provinces as Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, and Jiangsu.

As for the sub-classification of Guanhua, there used to be four major categories (before 1987)# named after its geographical situation, the northern, northwestern, the southwestern, and the Jianghuai (Jiangsu and Huai River Reaches). Then the Maps of Chinese Languages published in 1987 in the mainland re-classified Guanhua into 8 categories according to finer regional differences and distinctive features in pronunciation, which include the varieties of Guanhua in 1) Beijing (i.e., Putonghua or Standard Mandarin), 2) the Northeast, 3) Liaojiao (Liaoning and Eastern Shandong, 4) Jilu (Hebei and Western Shandong, 5) Zhongyuan (the Middle Plain), 6) Lanyin (Lanzhou and Yinchuan Area), 7) Jianghuai, and 8) the Southwest. At present, this classification has been adopted in most academic publications in China's mainland.

The regional varieties of Guanhua (Mandarin) have evolved through a long course of interaction between the official language and different dialects. Although various Guanhua forms may share common grammatical structures and a larger part of the vocabulary, and thus stand very close in condition to the official written language, they nevertheless have many minor differences in speech, most strikingly in the tones.

In all varieties of Chinese, Guanhua (Mandarin), is by far the most widely spread, used by most people, nearly one billion, which accounts for 70% percent of the Chinese population.

The varied influences of regional dialects taken by the official Guanhua in different areas have certainly brought the distinctive features of its subcategories. However, these features are not so striking as to make understanding between them impossible. This is why it stands out as an independent category against all other distinctively different major dialects.

The following table gives a general description of the other major dialects of the Chinese language.

2. Major Chinese Dialects: Their Users and Areas 

The Chinese people hold a view quite unlike that of the Europeans as regards the relation between the language of a nation and its dialects. For one thing, a dialect in a European country will be taken as a language variety with certain regional features in pronunciation and some vocabulary items, different from those in another variety of the same language, but not so much different as to make understanding impossible. However, when the Chinese people use the same word "dialect," it would often mean that the language variety is hard to understand to people outside the dialect area. Some linguists even believe that Chinese dialects differ from one another as great as completely different languages in the Indo-European language family (such as English and German). Therefore, it remains a very controversial issue even today as to whether the Chinese language should be regarded as a language family or just one language with regional dialects.

方言 dialects

Special Notes: 1) Both "语 Yu" and “话 Hua" mean the spoken language, but the former is more formal. 2) The above names are all given after the formal short appellations of the central areas, with Kejia as an exception. 3) Yue Dialect and Kejia Dialect are more commonly known in English as Cantonese and Hakkan.

However, the ground for the majority of Chinese linguists to regard all major Chinese dialects as one language instead of a language family is solid enough. That is, the different varieties of spoken Chinese all share the same unified writing system, no matter how little intelligibility between them when spoken. And it is indeed seen sometimes that people of different Chinese dialect zones do communicate with the aid of writing if one or both sides can not speak or understand the Standard Mandarin.

The central Chinese government’s language policy is to promote the use of Standard Mandarin (Putonghua) while advocating equal rights of ethnic languages and protecting the regional dialects. As a result, a great many of the population in Chinese dialect regions are bilinguals or even multilingual of both Putonghua and at least one dialect. In many regions, local radio and TV stations usually run some programs in both Putonghua and the regional dialects, to cater to different needs. Most Chinese people living in big cities would use a dialect in the family or the neighbourhood but shift to Putonghua when at work, in school or other public situations. Regrettably, there is not yet a report to date on the percentage of people making such regular "code shifts" in the population. There are quite a large proportion of people, however, who can understand Putonghua broadcast in radio and TV stations but don't speak it themselves.

In Hong Kong Special Administration Zone and Singapore, most people who have received tertiary education can use or understand three languages: the local Chinese dialect, English and Putonghua.

part 3

Classic Chinese and Modern Chinese

Classic Chinese and Modern Chinese

The Chinese Language, like all other languages of the world, develops and changes throughout history. Given China's 4,000 years of civilized history marked by the use of written signs to record the spoken language, one may imagine how great the language change might be. The Classic Chinese, a term used relatively in opposition to Modem Chinese, refers to the language of the Chinese people in ancient times. The division line between the Classic Chinese and Modem Chinese is generally taken at 1919, the year when the "May 4th Movement" broke out, which directly ushered in the all-around cultural renovation under the name of "the New Cultural Movement" and the language reform of "Baihuawen Movement" (also known as the Vernacular Language Movement).

Classic Chinese is strikingly different from Modem Chinese, particularly in that it uses every character to its full extent and so is extremely concise. It is tacitly understood as the written form of the ancient Chinese (called "Wenyan") because no authentic records of the ancient spoken language are available. Not many contemporary Chinese people can fully understand Classic Chinese of hundred years old, except for the highly educated scholars and those with a special interest in it. On the other hand, however, the relation between the Classic and Modern Chinese is one of source and branch, and thus the latter has kept many of the former's qualities regarding phonology, vocabulary, and structure. These traces are most apparent in a lot of idioms used in the more formal style of modem Chinese writing, but may also be found in the informal speeches of some dialects.

Of course, the Chinese language of the ancients also had its spoken forms besides the formal Wenyan writing. It is known from historical records that the difference between the two was very great, with the written style much more compact and concise. Therefore, the real ancient Chinese language is regarded to have two distinct systems, one referred to as Wenyanwen, and the other called Gubaihua (literally the formal written text and vernacular speech respectively). The first is based on the strictly written texts of the Qin (221-206 BC) and Pre-Qin periods about two thousand years ago, which have been preserved mainly in stele inscriptions, reduplicated and imitated through history with little change in the style; such as those classic texts represented by 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. Needless to say, this category also includes texts of the later Periods that followed the style of the Qin and Pre-Qin texts, like that in the poetry and songs of West Han (206 BC-25 AD) and East Han (25-220) dynasties, and the essays of the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1127) dynasties. The other category contains the written records of the more informal speech that evolved through Wei and Jin periods, such as Essays and Criticism (Shishuo Xinyu), the Buddhist song scripts (Bianwen) of the Tang Dynasty, Zen Quotations, and the written records of the orally told stories of the Yuan (1206-1368), Ming and Qing dynasties. This category has more in common with the Modem Chinese.

Of the two categories, only the former is considered as the orthodox texts to be used in courses of Classic Chinese for college students in China, for the simple reason that it is relatively more formal and representative, used for keeping serious records of Chinese history.

Modem Chinese developed mainly by the ancient Chinese Baihua (of the latter category), but at the same time, it has also inherited some traits of the formal Wenyan written style. Besides, what is considered as "modern" in China would often imply some relation with the more developed countries of the West. This is to say that modern Chinese has also taken on more or less influence of some Indo-European languages through translation and introduction of their grammatical systems. So, compared with the Classic Chinese, it features not only in the direct relationship between its written and spoken forms but also in a relatively rigid grammatical conception behind it, which is more or less related with that of the English. This is because the first Chinese work on grammar was almost entirely constructed concerning the grammars of Latin and French. Although this first grammar book was born in 1883, before the birth of Modem Chinese, it nevertheless laid the first comer stone for the modernization of the Chinese which soon began to take place.

Besides a closer relationship between the written texts and the spoken language, the Modem Chinese features the following aspects in contrast to the Classic Chinese:

1)      having a grammatical frame that is systematically similar to that of the Western languages, like English and French;

2)      longer sentences with definite punctuation marks borrowed from the Western languages;

3)      more two-syllable (or two-character) words and multi-syllable words (characters)

4)      relatively more stable parts of speech of words.

If learning the Chinese language is to communicate with the contemporary Chinese people, the learner should, of course, learn Modem Chinese. And for the needs of daily conversation with possibly most Chinese speakers, the Standard Mandarin Putonghua should be learned first.

part 4

The speech and writing of modern Chinese

The speech and wring of modern Chinese

The May 4th Movement in 1919 ushered in a period of great cultural reform in China, of which the most important event concerning language reform, in particular, is the so-called "Baihuawen Movement"(or "Vernacular Chinese Movement") calling for "unification of speech and writing."

Since then, the orthodox Wenyan written style of Classic Chinese has gradually fallen away for its detachment from the spoken language, and the educated Chinese began "to write down what is spoken." However, this "unification of speech and writing" is set in the sociocultural context of the time in which the two are too greatly different. More or fewer differences exist between the spoken and written forms of all languages, modern or classic, which are sometimes called stylistic variations. To professional linguists, it is often simply a matter of scale, and not of polar contrast. In the case of Modem Chinese, such differences may still be striking at times, for there is quite a great deal of language phenomena that are peculiar to only one of the two forms or styles. The following is a short list of the major differences:

1)      Some characters are pronounced differently;

2)      Some characters are pronounced with different tones and stresses;

3)      Some words are used only in the informal speech, and others only in written text;

4)      Some structures or sentence patterns are used only in the spoken language, and some may be peculiar to the written text;

5)      Spoken Chinese tends to use simple words and shorter or incomplete sentences, as in other languages.

Apart from these differences, the two styles nevertheless also share a lot of language features in common. Not all that is written is in the written language style by nature, and not all that is spoken belongs to the spoken style, simply for a reason that speech can be written down, and texts can be spoken. Therefore, learning Chinese by starting with the daily used spoken words and sentences is still very beneficial for learning to read Chinese of the more formal writing. Although some learners began learning Chinese directly with the texts of very formal written-style language, most of them still begin with learning spoken Chinese of everyday use and usually find it relatively easy.

part 5

Chinese Characters and their Changes

Chinese Characters and their Changes

Although the origin of human languages is difficult to trace, the beginning of writing may be relatively clear, at least for some of them that are supported with more evidence found in archaeological excavations. As for the origin of Chinese characters, in particular, it is also frequently told as legends and thus just taken as such rather than hard facts. Among various sayings, such as "tie knots," the "eight diagrams," "picture," the legendary story about Cang Jie inventing the characters is most wide-spread and often appears in many books.

According to historical records, Cang Jie was said to be the grand scribe of the legendary Yellow Emperor, the supposed foremost ancestor of the Chinese Han people. And it was said that the creation of the Chinese characters was such a shocking event that "the heaven rained grains and ghosts cried at night" while he was making them. As seen in history books, the tale about Cang Jie already became well known during the period of Qin and Han dynasties (which spanned from 221 BC to 220 AD).

Given the immense time that has passed, it is just a matter of course that all efforts of the past historians in trying to find the truth of Cang Jie were largely fruitless, due to the lack of proof. What researchers nowadays generally agree is that the name of Cang Jie may well have been given to a person who only worked at sorting out and standardizing the characters that had been created and used earlier by a group of people, simply for the reason that the whole writing system of such a complicated language as Chinese could hardly be "made" overnight by a single individual and directly accepted by the whole society. More reasonably, the "creation" of Chinese characters should be the result of collective efforts, through a long period of trial and improvement.

Through research, modem specialists have found that one way the ancestors of the Chinese people used for recording events is to tie knots in a rope, and another way, which was used later, is to use sharp tools to inscribe signs on stone or engrave them on pottery clay.

Archeological findings have exposed such inscribed signs on Neolithic pottery shards in Banpo Village in Shaanxi Province, which dates back to over 6,000 years ago. Seeing apparent similarities between these signs and the later Chinese characters, now researchers generally believe that they are most probably the very roots of Chinese characters.

Through time, the Chinese characters created by the ancient people have undergone a continuous course of change, and the result is that the contemporary readers generally no longer understand many of the ancient characters, except for specialists. However, since the unification of the country by the Qin Dynasty in 221-206 BC, Chinese characters gradually became stabilized, looking more like those being used today. And, there is one thing that has remained unchanged all along in history, and that is the use of more or less the same strokes in writing the characters.

The evolution of the writing of Chinese characters through history is usually summarized in the following stages:

1.      Oracle Bone Script (甲骨文, jia3 gu3 wen2)

This type of writing is translated as "shell-bone script." It is so named because it was found inscribed on oracle bones made of turtle shells or other animal bones and used in divination in the Shang Dynasty (about 16-11 centuries BC). It is thought to be the earliest Chinese character writing as a system that was later to evolve into the modem forms gradually.

2.      Bronze Script (金文, jin1 wen2)

It is so called because it is characteristic of the inscriptions on bronze artifacts such as zhong3 bells and ding3 tripodal cauldrons, of which a great number have been unearthed of the Shang and Zhou (1046-256 BC) dynasties and even later, spanning vastly in time, for over two thousand years. In comparison with the Oracle Bone Script, the characters in this writing style are more detached from primitive pictographs, more stable, and generally more regular.

3.      Seal Script (篆书, zhuan4 shu1)

The literal translation of the Chinese name zhuan4 shu1 is "engraved decorative writing" because, by the time this name was coined in the Han dynasty, its use had been reduced to decorative inscriptions and seals from general use in the earlier times.

This style of writing evolved gradually out of the bronze script of the Zhou dynasty and came into wide use in the Warring States (475-221 BC). Then, the different forms of the characters were unified in the Qin dynasty after Qin Shihuang unified China in 221 BC.

There are two subcategories of the seal script, the Large or Great Seal script (大篆 da4 zhuan4; Japanese daiten), and the Small Seal Script (小篆 xiao3 zhuan4). The latter developed later but had greater influence, and thus is sometimes simply referred to as the seal script if the comparison between the two is not in question.

Most people today cannot read the seal script except a few characters, so its use is largely confined to the fields of seals and calligraphy studies.

In contrast to the large seal script, the small seal script is not only more stabilized information but also less rectangular and more squarish, thus assuming greater similarities to the modem characters.

4.      Official Script (also called Clerical Script, 隶书, li4 shu1)

The official script is generally believed to have evolved as a distinctive writing style in the Qin dynasty on the bases of unification and standardization of various forms of the seal script used in the Warring States, became dominant in the Han dynasty, and remained in use through the Wei4-Jin4 periods (220-420). Highly legible to modem readers, it is still used for artistic flavor in a variety of functional applications such as headlines, signboards, and advertisements. Compared with the preceding seal script, it has a highly rectilinear structure, a feature shared with the modem standard (or regular) script. However, in contrast with the tall-to-square modem script, it tends to be square-to-wide and often has a pronounced, wavelike flaring of isolated major strokes, especially a dominant rightward or downward diagonal stroke.

5.      Standard Script (also called Regular Script, 楷书, kai3 shu1)

Standard script or regular script is called kai3 shu1 in Chinese. It first appeared in the Wei Dynasty (200-265 CE), matured stylistically around the 7th century in the Tang Dynasty, and is still most commonly used in modem writings and publications. In appearance, it looks tall-to-square in contrast to the preceding Official Script and also writes faster.

To see the differences and the gradual evolution of the above styles, we can take the character for "horse" as an example for illustration:

马 horse

Of the above, the Standard (or Regular) style is nowadays generally used in printing and computer processing of Chinese. It is also a term used in opposition to the two faster handwriting styles called "running style"(行书, xing1 shu1) and the “cursive style"(草书, cao3 shu1) when talking about the art of calligraphy.

In nature, the Chinese character is a single sign unit consisting of some basic strokes. It is used as a word or part of a word. The simplest Chinese character had only one stroke, " 一 " meaning "one" and pronounced as "yi" (similar to the first part of "yeast," without pronouncing “st.” Though created by and thus belonging to the Chinese people, the characters are nevertheless not confined in use to China alone, but also sometimes appear in such oriental languages as Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, respectively called "kanji," "hanja" and "hanfu.”

Unlike the Western alphabetic languages that combine letters into syllables and words, the Chinese "builds up" characters by combining strokes. No matter more or fewer strokes are used to make up a character, they are supposed to follow the right order in writing, and are summarized into eight fundamental steps in spite of all possible minor changes. These are the dot, horizontal, turning, vertical, hook, right-upward, right-downward, and the left-downward. A representative Chinese character that uses all these eight strokes is "永" (read as "yong3" and meaning "forever"). The following is an illustration of this character's stroke order:


To summarize, the stroke order of the character "yong3" is:

1.      From top to bottom (从上到下)

2.      From left to right (从左到右)

3.      Horizontal before vertical (先横后竖)

4.      Left-downward before right-downward (先撇后捺)


Of course, some characters contain many more strokes than this one, and so there are indeed more rules to the correct stroke order, such as:

5.      Outside before inside in Surround-from-Upper- Right structure (从外到内)

6.      Inside before outside in Surround-from-Below structure (从内到外)

7.      Inside before bottom enclosing (先里头后封口)

8.      Center verticals before outside "wings"(先中间后两边)

9.      Crossing strokes last (相交笔画后写)

10.   Left vertical before enclosing (先左竖后封口)

11.   Top or upper-left dots first (点在上边或左上先写)

12.   Inside or upper-right dots last (点在右上或里边后写)

The handwriting of Chinese characters has always been considered as the art of calligraphy, using the brush as a tradition rather than the pen, although nowadays the so-called "hard-pen calligraphy" is also considered a branch of the art; and brush is seldom used except for the sake of art itself or for special needs like inscriptions, signboards, titles or names that are big in shape and limited in the number of characters.

Chinese calligraphy, the handwriting of Chinese characters, developed into a particular art through thousands of years of continuous practice by the Chinese people. Accompanying painting and poetry, it is cherished by the whole Chinese nation and many people in the world as a precious cultural treasure, with its masterpieces exhibited in the most famous museums in the world. This is mainly because the seemingly simple strokes can engender unlimited possible changes and styles in actual writing. In calligraphy, the saying "Style is the man" is indeed to the point.

There are 47,035 Chinese characters in Kangxi Dictionary, the most prestigious Chinese dictionary compiled during the period between 1710 and 1716 under the order of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty. However, the vast number of characters in this dictionary should not deter learners, for the simple reason that the contemporary Chinese people on average use only 3,000 to 4,000 of them, and that's already adequate for reading. Most of the old characters have either gone out of the use or are used very rarely.

Chinese dictionary

However, the Chinese character should not be understood as exactly equivalent to the English "word", because one character can be a word, and two, three, or more can also make a word, and there are also a limited number of characters that can only be used as a part of a word. In fact, the division line between Chinese characters and words are not always apparently clear-cut. With the limited number of three to four thousand characters in their daily communication, the Chinese people can make many more words. In this sense, a Chinese character in a multi-character word may be understood as a "roof or "affix" of an English word (though a single character may also function as a word). In most cases, it is not difficult to guess at the meaning of a word consisting of two or more characters that the learner has already learned. In learning Chinese, the Chinese children usually begin with reading and writing the Chinese characters, along with the aid of Pinyin, a Romanized system of phonetic signs (literally meaning "spelling-sound").

The "sound" or pronunciation of a character usually needs at least two letters to spell out, although there are a few characters that need only one (namely those pronouncing "a," "o," and "e." The letters used in Pinyin are same as those in the English alphabet, with only the letter “v” left out and the letter "ü" added.

6.      Traditional Character and Simplified Character

In spite of the continuous efforts in unifying and standardizing Chinese characters in history, there have always been different ways of writing. And one major division is between the "simplified" and "traditional" styles, especially for some complicated characters that traditionally contain many strokes. The simplified style is now generally used in mainland China, while the traditional style is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other places like Singapore and Malaysia. This difference is largely due to a series of Chinese character simplification movements that have been carried out in the People’s Republic of China since the 1950s.

However, it should be noted that the difference between the two forms does not exist in all Chinese characters, because there is a great number of characters that are not so complicated as to need simplification. The simplified character forms were created by reducing the number of strokes of only those characters that contain too many strokes for fast and convenient hand-writing. Therefore, the two systems still have a considerable proportion of characters in common. And although some simplified characters look different from the traditional ones, the two still use some basic strokes and so their relationship may be guessed from the same contour, especially when used in collocation with other characters to form words. This means that the Chinese people using the two different systems in mainland China and overseas can still read each other's writing.

Here in this book, the simplified system is adopted for the two reasons: one is that the learner doesn't have to write too many strokes with some characters when it comes to writing, and the other, the simplified forms are used by a much greater population of Chinese. After all, this is not a matter of great seriousness, because in computer input the two styles can be converted automatically.

part 6

The Pinyin and the Computer Input of Chinese Characters

The Pinyin and the Computer Input of Chinese Characters

1.      The Pinyin System

The fact that the writing system of Mandarin Chinese has developed from its beginning by ideographic signs and not alphabetic letters means that its words cannot be directly pronounced according to its writing. In the ancient times, the Chinese people used the pronunciations of known characters to learn new ones, or in other words, by "cutting rhymes" of known characters and applying them to those to be learned. However, this is not easy to use and does not directly work for foreign learners.

Therefore, quite some systems have been developed in modem times to instruct the Chinese pronunciation, such as Gwoyeu Romatzyh of 1928, Latinxua Sin Wenz of 1931, and Zhuyin diacritic markings of 1928.

Among all the systems worked our so far for annotating the pronunciation of Chinese characters, Hanyu Pinyin (literally "Chinese Spelling Sound"), called Pinyin in short, is currently the most commonly used Romanization system. Developed by the special government committee concerned with language reform affairs in the People's Republic of China, the system was first brought into use in 1958 for teaching Chinese pronunciation in the elementary schools and improving the literacy rate among adults. Since then, it has superseded older Romanization systems such as Wade-Giles (1859; modified 1892) and Chinese Postal Map Romanization and replaced Zhuyin as the method of Chinese phonetic instruction in mainland China. It continued to be used for nearly 25 years before the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted it as the international standard in 1982. Then the United Nations followed suit in 1986. Up to the present, this system has also been accepted by the government of Singapore, the United States' Library of Congress, the American Library Association, and many other international organizations. Since January 1, 2009, it has been accepted as the official Romanization system in Taiwan. Now actually all Chinese language schools of the world use this system to teach foreign learners the standard pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese and to spell Chinese names in foreign publications. Besides, it is also most widely used to enter Chinese characters in computers, cell phones, and electronic handsets.

Like English, the Romanized Pinyin system also uses 26 letters as its basis, of which 24 are the same with those in the English alphabet. The English letter "v" is never used and a new letter “U" is added (and for this reason, "v" in computer keyboard is used for keying in "ii"). All the letters in Pinyin are classified into two major categories, namely the "initials" and the "finals," which are in some sense similar to the categories of the English "consonants" and "vowels" but are actually of different nature. Some individual letters in each of the two categories may also combine with some other letters in the same category to form up complex initial or final sounds (such as "ch, sh, zh" in the initials and "ao, ou, an, and, en, eng, ong" in the finals). The literal meanings of these two categories are respectively "voice letters" and "rhyme letters" (Sheng-mu and Yun-mu). Compared with English, the most important difference lies in the fact that all the Chinese initial letters are placed only at the beginning of a syllable except the nasal "n〃 and "m", while the "finals", as the name suggests, are usually placed at the end, following the initials to make up syllables (although some may also be independently used as syllables). This feature largely determines the nature of the Mandarin Chinese as an "open-syllable language" like Italian or Japanese. But different with Japanese and Italian, each syllable in Chinese is the pronunciation of a character.

The greatest distinctive feature of Mandarin Chinese, however, is not its open- syllable quality, but that it is a tonal language. This means that the Chinese words or characters all have tones related to meanings, and different tones of the same pronunciation (same Pinyin spelling) give different characters or words. The tones are usually not marked unless for the very beginners, and they may well cause misunderstanding if used wrong. Therefore, in learning Mandarin Chinese, a foreign beginner is strongly advised to learn the tone as an essential part of every character. In this sense, we should say learning Mandarin Chinese is like learning songs. The Chinese tonal system will be discussed in the next Chapter.

In Pinyin system, the pronunciation of most of the letters is predictable according to their pronunciations in English, but there are pitfalls too. Those letters with entirely different pronunciations are limited in number and are not difficult to remember. They include "c", "ch", "j", "q", “v”, "sh〃, "x", "z" and "zh”, which will be explained in the following chapter.

 Chinese  Characters-Chinese input method

2.      Computer Input of Chinese Characters

Dozens of methods for entering Chinese characters in the computer have been developed since the inception of the information age, but Pinyin input method is so far the most widely used of all, even though some other methods may be faster. This is mainly because every Chinese individual with just elementary education background has learned Pinyin and can directly put it in use for entering Chinese characters, while others usually call for more or less training. For foreign learners of Mandarin Chinese, Pinyin input method is also relatively easy because of its direct relation with the alphabetic system and the same keys on the standard keyboard. After keying in a Pinyin spelling, the user just needs to tap on the key "Space" or "Enter" to instantly convert it into Chinese characters. As for "ü," the only missing letter on the keyboard, it is assigned to the key for "v," which is the only missing letter in Pinyin system.

However, beginners may still have some difficulties in using Pinyin for entering Chinese characters. One of the problems results from the fact that Mandarin Chinese is rich in homophones. That is to say, quite many different Chinese characters may use the same Pinyin spelling. For some words' pronunciations, there can be dozens. And all these homophonic characters will appear on an input menu bar for character selection when keying in the same string of Pinyin letters. Then one still has to choose from them the right one. This indeed seems troublesome.

Fortunately, the number of single-character words is very small in Modem Mandarin Chinese, and words of two, three, four or even more characters are usually keyed in as a string, which may eliminate the possibilities of homophones or limited its number to just a few. So homophones will not pose so big a problem as we may expect. Besides, with the significantly improved intelligence of Pinyin input tool that automatically arranges the selection order of homophonic characters by the user's frequency of word use, the speed of character input is significantly raised. Even sentences could be entered in a string nowadays, often at a faster rate than entering English sentences translated from Chinese. Therefore, for many people, the Pinyin input system is not only the most convenient tool but also one of the fastest methods for entering Chinese characters.

Another problem for beginners or their teachers is caused by the tones that may need to be annotated in textbooks. Since the tone marks in the Pinyin system are not set in the standard keyboard, additional operations are necessary. As a rule, the tone mark is placed on the top of the "final-sound" letter (or the first "final-sound letter" in case there are two or three in combination). To solve this problem, the input tool makers have designed a "soft keyboard" in the input system containing those marked letters. This is, of course, time-consuming, but once you are through with the very beginning period, there will be no need to use it anymore, for Pinyin itself is only a tool for learning Chinese pronunciation and not an active written language system by its right.

In addition to various keyboard input methods, handwriting recognition and voice recognition systems are also developing fast and may be used more widely in the future.

Among the various systems based on the structures of Chinese characters, the Wubi Input Method (Five-Stroke Input Method) is by far the most influential because it does not involve the selection from homophonic characters and thus features high-speed and exactness. However, this method is still far less popular than Pinyin system, and its use is mostly limited to professional typists, for the simple reason that it requires the considerable time of training to master and persistent practice to keep skillful.