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Encyclopedia > Putonghua

Standard Mandarin refers to the official Chinese spoken language used by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China on Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.

Standard Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, which belongs to Mandarin, a group of Chinese dialects spoken across northern and southwestern China. Standard Mandarin itself is usually called "Mandarin" in non-academic, everyday usage, but linguists also use "Mandarin" to refer to a much larger and very diverse group of dialects spanning northern and southwestern China. This definition will be adopted by the rest of this article.

Standard Mandarin is officially known in mainland China as Putonghua (Simplified Chinese: 普通话 Hanyu Pinyin: Pǔtōnghu, literally "ordinary speech"), in Taiwan as Guoyu (Traditional Chinese: 國語 Tongyong Pinyin: Guyǔ, Wade-Giles: Kuo-y, literally "national language"), and in Malaysia and Singapore as Huayu (Traditional Chinese: 華語 Simplified Chinese: 华语; Hanyu Pinyin: huyǔ, literally "the Chinese language"). All three terms are used interchangeably in Chinese communities around the world where different groups have come into contact.



Since ancient history, the Chinese language has always consisted of a wide variety of dialects; hence prestige dialects and lingua francas have always been needed. Confucius, for example, used yǎyn (雅言), or "high-class speech", rather than colloquial regional dialects; text during the Han Dynasty also referred to tōngyǔ (通語), or "common language". Rime books, which were written since the Southern and Northern Dynasties, may also have reflected one or more systems of standard pronunciation during those times. However, all of these standard dialects were probably unknown outside the educated elite; even among the elite, pronunciations may have been very different, as the unifying factor of all Chinese dialects, Classical Chinese, was a written standard, not a spoken one.

The Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912) began to use the term guānhu (官話), or "official speech", to refer to the speech used at the courts. It seems that during the early part of this period, the standard was based on the Nanjing dialect, but later the Beijing dialect became increasingly influential, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various dialects in the capital, Beijing. In the 17th century, the Empire had set up Orthoepy Academies (正音書院 Zhengyin Shuyuan) in an attempt to make pronunciation conform to the Beijing standard. But these attempts had little success. As late as the 19th century the emperor had difficulty understanding some of his own ministers in court, who did not always try to follow any standard pronunciation. Nevertheless, by 1909, the dying Qing Dynasty had established the Beijing dialect as guyǔ (國語), or the "national language";

After the Republic of China was established in 1912, there was more success in promoting a common national language. At first there was an attempt to introduce elements from other Chinese dialects into the national language, in addition to those existing in Beijing dialect. But this met with insurmountable difficulties, since it was hard to teach anyone to speak an artificial language that nobody spoke. In 1924 this attempt was abandoned and the Beijing dialect became the major source of standard national pronunciation, due to the status of that dialect as a prestigious dialect since the Qing Dynasty. Elements from other dialects continue to exist in the standard language, but as exceptions rather than the rule.

The People's Republic of China, established in 1949, continued the effort. In 1955, standard Mandarin was renamed pǔtōnghu (普通話), or "ordinary speech". (The name change was not recognized by the Republic of China which has governed only Taiwan and some surrounding islands since 1949). Since then, the standards used in mainland China and Taiwan have diverged somewhat, though they continue to remain essentially identical.

In both mainland China and Taiwan, the elementary school education system is committed to teaching Mandarin, and this has contributed to the spread of standard Mandarin. As a result, standard Mandarin is now spoken fluently by most people in Mainland China and on Taiwan. In Hong Kong, the language of education and formal speech remains Cantonese but standard Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential.


The phonology of Standard Mandarin varies widely among speakers, as everyone (including national leaders) introduces elements of his/her own native dialect. By contrast, television and radio announcers are usually chosen for their pronunciation accuracy. Below is the phonology of standard Mandarin usually heard on television or radio broadcasts.


The following is the initial (initial consonant) inventory of Standard Mandarin as represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA):

Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Retroflex Alveolo-palatal Velar
Plosive p t k
Nasal m n
Fricative f s ʂ ɕ x
Affricate ts tsʰ tʂʰ tɕʰ
Lateral approximant l
Approximant w ɻ j ʁ

Corresponding chart in:

  • Pinyin
  • Zhuyin
  • Gwoyeu Romatzyh

For more complete information, showing how initials and finals interact, see this Zhuyin-IPA chart (http://www.wfu.edu/~moran/Cathay_Cafe/IPA_NPA_4.htm). The vowel sounds in that chart have been verified against the official IPA: site (http://www.sil.org/computing/speechtools/softdev2/IPAhelp2/ipavowel2.htm).

/j/ and /w/ appear when a rhyme starting with a close vowel, like /i/ or /u/, begins a syllable with no other onset. Some linguists analyze a /ʁ/ when an open vowel like /a/ begins a syllable.

The alveolo-palatal consonants j q x are in complementary distribution (see Minimal pair) with the alveolar consonants z c s, retroflex consonants zh ch sh and velar consonants g k h. As a result, some linguists prefer to classify j q x as allophones of one of the three other sets.

/w/ may be pronounced as /ʋ/, the voiced labiodental approximant; this may be considered substandard, but it nevertheless occurs frequently.

j q x may be pronounced as /tsj tsʰj sj/ instead of /tɕ tɕʰ ɕ/. This is characteristic of the speech of young women and girls, and also of some men and boys; it is usually considered rather effeminate and may also be considered substandard.


Finals (or rhymes) are combinations of medial (-i-, -u-, -y-), vowel, and final consonant.

Full rhyme table of Standard Mandarin in IPA:

i u y
ɤ   uo 1  
ɤʊ iɤʊ    
an iɛn uan yɛn
ən in uən yn
ɑŋ iɑŋ uɑŋ  
ɤŋ iɤŋ    
    ʊŋ yʊŋ

1 Both pinyin and zhuyin have an additional "o", used after "b p m f", which is distinguished from "uo", used after everything else. "o" is generally put into the first column instead of the third. However, in Beijing pronunciation, these are identical.
2 Another way to represent the four rhymes of this line and the line above is (with the two lines spliced together): "ɯʌ iɛ uɔ yœ". This is much more symmetrical and also reflects Beijing pronunciation.

Standard Mandarin uses rhotic vowels. All rhotic vowels are the result of -儿 /-ɹ/, a noun suffix, except for a few words pronounced as /ɑɹ/ that do not have this suffix. The chart below shows how rhymes from the chart above change in pronunciation when this suffix is added:

əɻ iəɻ yəɻ
ɑɻ iɑɻ uɑɻ  
ɤɻ   uoɻ  
  iɛɻ   yɛɻ
ɑɻ   uɑɻ  
əɻ   uəɻ  
aʊɻ iaʊɻ    
ɤʊɻ iɤʊɻ    
ɑɻ iɑɻ uɑɻ yɑɻ
əɻ iəɻ uəɻ yəɻ
ɑ̃ɻ iɑ̃ɻ uɑ̃ɻ  
ɤ̃ɻ iɤ̃ɻ    
    ʊ̃ɻ yʊ̃ɻ

Corresponding chart in:

  • Pinyin
  • Zhuyin
  • Gwoyeu Romatzyh


Mandarin, like all Chinese dialects, is a tonal language. This means that tone, just like consonants and vowels, are used to distinguish words from each other. The following are the 4 tones of Standard Mandarin:

Tone name Yin Ping Yang Ping Shang Qu
Tone contour 55 35 214 51
Tone 1 2 3 4
  1. First tone, or high-level tone (陰平/阴平 yīnpng, literal meaning: yin-level):
    a steady high sound, as if it were being sung instead of spoken.
  2. Second tone, or rising tone (陽平/阳平 yngpng, literal meaning: yang-level), or linguistically, high-rising:
    is a sound that rises from mid-level tone to high (e.g., What?!)
  3. Third tone (low tone, or low-falling-raising, 上聲/上声 shǎngshēng or shngshēng, literal meaning: "up tone"):
    has a mid-low to low descent, in some contexts then followed by a rising pitch. It is similar to saying "w-e-l-l" thoughtfully or as if inviting an answer.
  4. Fourth tone, falling tone (去聲/去声 qshēng, literal meaning: "away tone"), or high-falling:
    features a sharp downward accent ("dipping") from high to low, and is a shorter tone, similar to curt commands. (e.g., Stop!)

Other pitch shapes sometimes called tones:

  • Fifth tone, or neutral tone or zeroeth tone (轻声 qīng shēng, literal meaning: "light tone"):
    All unstressed syllables are pronounced with this "tone", with is sometimes considered as a lack of tone. In most varieties of Mandarin, the second syllable in two-syllable compounds is weaker in tonal prominence than the first character, and is sometimes called a "neutral" tone. On the other hand, if a very unemphasized incorrect tone is produced, its presence may be noted by the careful listener.

Most romanizations represent the tones as diacritics on the vowels (e.g., Pinyin, MPS II and Tongyong Pinyin). Zhuyin uses diacritics as well. Others, like Wade-Giles, uses superscript number at the end of each syllable. Representation of Chinese tone marks/numbers is rarely practised outside textbooks. Gwoyeu Romatzyh is a rare example where tones are not represented as special symbols, but as true alphabet letters (hence creating a very complex orthography).

To listen to the tones, see http://www.wku.edu/~shizhen.gao/Chinese101/pinyin/tones.htm (click on the blue-red yin yang symbol).

Pronunciation also varies with context according to the rules of tone sandhi. The most prominent phenomenon of this kind is when there are two third tones in immediate sequence, in which case the first of them changes to a second tone. If there are three third tones in series, the first may or may not be converted to a second tone, depending on the preference of the speaker and the dialect area.

Relationship between Middle Chinese and modern tones:

V- = unvoiced initial consonant
L = sonorant initial consonant
V+ = voiced initial consonant (not sonorant)

Middle Chinese Tone Ping Shang Qu Ru
Middle Chinese Initial V- L V+ V- L V+ V- L V+ V- L V+
Standard Mandarin Tone name Yin Ping Yang Ping Shang Qu redistributed
with no pattern
to Qu to Yang Ping
Standard Mandarin Tone contour 55 35 214 51 to 51 to 35


Chinese language Romanization

For Standard Mandarin

For Standard Cantonese

For Min Nan (Taiwanese)

Ever since the first Westerners entered China and tried to learn Mandarin, the need for a phonetic transcription system to record the pronunciation of Chinese characters became apparent. Over the years, many such systems have been proposed. The first to be widely accepted was the Wade-Giles system, named after its 19th century inventors. Postal System Pinyin, standardized in 1906, is a similar and somewhat irregular system used predominantly for place names. These two systems are still in use today, but they are rapidly losing ground to Hanyu Pinyin. They are now mostly encountered in older textbooks, histories, etc.

In the 20th century, Chinese linguists proposed various transcription systems, one of which even introduced a whole new syllabic alphabet: the Zhuyin system (Bopomofo). The most successful of these transcription systems was Hanyu Pinyin, which was accepted as the official transcription system for the Chinese language by the PRC in 1958 and later by the United Nations and other international organizations. During the 1950s, there were plans for Pinyin to supersede the Chinese characters. These plans, however, proved to be impractical due to the large number of homonyms in the Chinese language.

A variety of transcription systems are used on Taiwan. The ROC central government adopted Tongyong Pinyin in 2002, but has permitted local governments to override that decision in favor of their own preferred romanization systems. Zhuyin is used as the method for teaching pronunciation of characters and compounds in schools. Efforts to phase out this system in favor of Pinyin have stalled due to disagreements over which form of pinyin to use, and the massive effort needed to produce new educational materials and to completely retrain teachers.

A less popular and outdated Romanization is the Yale Romanization.


See Chinese grammar.

Standard Mandarin and Beijing dialect

By the official definition of the People's Republic of China, standard Mandarin uses:

  • The phonology or sound system of Beijing minus some pronounced regionalisms. In practice, the actual colloquial pronunciation in Beijing dialect is not identical to Putonghua, and Chinese speakers can tell the difference between a speaker of Beijing dialect and a speaker of Standard Mandarin. Moreover, most people (Beijingers included) speak Standard Mandarin with elements of their own dialects (i.e. their "accents") mixed in.
  • The vocabulary of Mandarin dialects in general. This means that all slang and other elements deemed "regionalisms" are excluded. On the one hand, the vocabulary of all Chinese dialects, especially in more technical fields like science, law, and government, are very similar. (This is a similar to the profusion of Latin and Greek words in European languages.) This means that much of the vocabulary of standardized Mandarin is shared with all varieties of Chinese. On the other hand, many colloquial vocabulary and slang found in Beijing dialect are not found in Standard Mandarin, and may not be understood by people not from Beijing.
  • The grammar and usage of exemplary modern Chinese literature, such as the work of Lu Xun, which in turn is based loosely upon a mixture of northern (predominant), southern, and classical grammar and usage. This gives formal standard Mandarin structure a slightly different feel from that of street Beijing dialect.

In theory the Republic of China defines standard Mandarin differently, though in reality the differences are minor and are concentrated mostly in the tones of a small minority of words.

Although Chinese speakers make a clear distinction between Standard Mandarin and the Beijing dialect, there are aspects of Beijing dialect that have made it into the official standard. Standard Mandarin has a T-V distinction between the polite and informal versions of you, that comes from Beijing dialect. In addition there is a distinction between "znmen" (we including the listener) and "wŏmen" (we not including the listener). In practice, these distinctions are almost never used by most Chinese.

Standard Mandarin and other dialects

The national standard can be very different from a local Mandarin speech, to the point of being unintelligible. In addition, since standard Mandarin is taught as a second language across all China, it is also very common for two people who both believe themselves to be speaking standard Mandarin to require a translator. Nevertheless, efforts by the PRC, ROC, and Singapore to promote standard Mandarin as the standard tongue have greatly boosted the number of standard Mandarin speakers.

To the dismay of non-Mandarin speakers, the predominant role of standard Mandarin has led to the misidentification of Mandarin as the only "Chinese language". Although both Mainland China and Taiwan use standard Mandarin as the official language and promote its nationwide use, there is no official interest or intent in either location to have standard Mandarin replace local dialect, and as a practical matter, standard Mandarin is still far from supplanting the local dialects that are in daily use in many locations, particularly in the southern provinces of Mainland China or on Taiwan itself. Speaking only standard Mandarin in these areas is widely regarded as a significant social handicap; many Chinese language speakers there, particularly the older people, do not speak standard Mandarin very well or at all.

In the predominantly Han areas in Mainland China, the interaction between standard Mandarin and the local Chinese dialects has generally not been controversial. Although the use of standard Mandarin is encouraged as the common working language, the People's Republic of China has attempted to be sensitive to the status of local dialects and has not discouraged their use. One example of this is Mao Zedong himself, who often spoke in Xiang, a category of Chinese that does not even fall within the wider category of regional Mandarin dialects. Many native speakers of Chinese find Mao's spoken language to be largely incomprehensible, even when speaking in formal occasions.

Standard Mandarin, however, is used very commonly for logistical reasons in that it is often the only means of communications between people from different areas. In many parts of southern China, the linguistic diversity is so large that even people from neighboring cities find it difficult to talk to each other in the local form of Chinese, thereby requiring the use of a lingua franca such as standard Mandarin. Curiously the use of standard Mandarin in the 20th century has supplanted the use of pidgin English which was used as a common language in some parts of southern China in the 18th and 19th century.

On Taiwan, the relationship between standard Mandarin and local dialects, particularly Taiwanese has been more heated. Until the 1980s the government discouraged the use of Taiwanese, even portraying it as inferior. This produced a backlash in the 1990s. Although some more extreme supporters of Taiwan independence tend to be opposed to standard Mandarin in favor of Taiwanese, efforts to replace standard Mandarin either with Taiwanese or with a multi-lingual standard have remained stalled.

Note that while the term Hnyǔ (漢語; simplified: 汉语), or "the Han Chinese language", is sometimes used to refer to just standard Mandarin, it is more precisely used to refer to all variants of Chinese, since they are, after all, all spoken by Han Chinese. Some speakers of Hakka, for example, object that their own dialect should carry the name Hanyu, as its grammar is closer to that of ancient texts.

See also:


Most Chinese (Beijingers included) speak Standard Mandarin with elements of their own dialects (i.e. their "accents") mixed in.

For example, natives of Beijing, add a final "er" (retroflexion) — commonly used as a diminutive — sound to vocabulary items that other speakers would leave unadorned (兒音/儿音; pinyin: ryīn).

On the other hand, speakers from northeastern or southern China often mix up zh ch sh and z c s, because their own home dialects often do not make these distinctions.

See List of Chinese dialects for a list of articles on individual Chinese dialects and how their features differ from Standard Mandarin.

Role of standard Mandarin

From an official point of view, standard Mandarin is theoretically something like a lingua franca — a way for Han Chinese and non-Han ethnic groups speaking a wide variety of mutually unintelligible of languages to communicate with each other. The very name of "Putonghua", or "ordinary speech", reinforces this idea. In implementation, however, standard Mandarin is sometimes given the aura of the "only right language", and other languages or dialects, both Chinese and non-Chinese, have shown signs of greatly losing ground to standard Mandarin, to the chagrin of many local culture proponents.

On Taiwan, Guoyu (national language) continues to be the official term for standard Mandarin. The term Guoyu is rarely used in Mainland China, because declaring a Beijing dialect-based standard to be the national language would be deemed unfair to other Chinese dialects and ethnic minorities. Instead the term Putonghua (ordinary speech), with the implication that Putonghua is simply a lingua franca. Some in Taiwan, especially proponents of Taiwan independence also object to the term Guoyu to refer to standardized Mandarin on the grounds that the "nation" referred to in the name of the language is China and that Taiwan is or should be independent. They prefer to refer to Mandarin with the terms Beijing dialect or Zhongwen (writing of China). As with most things political in Taiwan, some support the name for precisely the same reasons that others oppose them.

In December 2004, the first survey of language use in the People's Republic of China revealed that only 53% of its population could communicate in Standard Mandarin. (China Daily) (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-12/26/content_403419.htm)

See also

Wikibooks has a textbook about:
Standard Mandarin

Chinese: spoken varieties
Categories: Mandarin | Jin | Wu | Hui | Xiang | Gan | Hakka | Yue | Pinghua | Min
Danzhouhua | Shaozhou Tuhua | Xianghua
Subcategories of Min: Min Dong | Min Bei | Min Zhong | Pu Xian | Min Nan | Qiong Wen | Shao Jiang
Note: The above is only one classification scheme among many.
Comprehensive list of Chinese dialects
Official spoken varieties: Standard Mandarin | Standard Cantonese
Historical phonology: Old Chinese | Middle Chinese | Proto-Min | Proto-Mandarin | Haner
Chinese: written varieties
Official written varieties: Classical Chinese | Vernacular Chinese

  Results from FactBites:
Standard Mandarin - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (3361 words)
After the handovers of Hong Kong [1] and Macau, the term Putonghua is used in those Special Administrative Regions of the People's Republic of China.
In implementation, however, standard Mandarin is sometimes given the aura of the "only right language", and other languages or dialects, both Chinese and non-Chinese, have shown signs of greatly losing ground to standard Mandarin, to the chagrin of many local culture proponents.
Some in Taiwan, especially proponents of Taiwan independence, also object to the term Guoyu to refer to standardized Mandarin, on the grounds that the "nation" referred to in the name of the language is China and that Taiwan is or should be independent.
Putonghua (124 words)
Putonghua 普通話 (pu3 tong1 hua4) was adopted by the People's Republic of China as the official pronunciation of Chinese words.
The theory behind putonghua is radicially different from the theory behind guoyu.
Putonghua and guoyu refer to speech and hence the difference in the use of simplified characters and traditional characters is not usually considered to be a difference between these two concepts.
  More results at FactBites »



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