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Population, Language

Han people, Chinese dialects, Putonghua, Uygur, regional dialects

More than 90 percent of China’s inhabitants speak Chinese, the language of the Han people, as their native language. Spoken Chinese consists of many regional variants, often called dialects. The Chinese dialects are tonal in nature, meaning that words are assigned a distinctive relative pitch—high or low—or a distinctive pitch contour—level, rising, or falling. Because the regional dialects have different tones and syntax, they are generally mutually unintelligible.

Most Chinese speak one of the Mandarin dialects. Putonghua (“standard speech”), the standard form of Mandarin spoken in Beijing, is China’s official spoken language. Putonghua is spoken by an estimated 70 percent of the population (about 870 million people), mainly in northern and central China. It is sometimes known to Westerners as Mandarin. In addition to the Mandarin dialects, there are six other Chinese dialect groups, spoken mainly in southern and southeastern China. They include the Wu dialects, spoken in the Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang area, with about 100 million native speakers; the Yue dialects (also known as Cantonese), spoken in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, with more than 65 million native speakers; and the Kejia (Hakka) dialects, spoken in southern Fujian and also in Taiwan and by many people of Chinese descent around the world. This linguistic fragmentation, particularly in southeastern China, has provided the basis for strong regional identity and some ethnic variation within the larger Han community.

Although the Chinese dialects are mutually unintelligible in their spoken forms, they share a common written form. The Chinese written language has existed for more than 3,000 years and has been standardized for more than 2,000 years. It has served as an important social cement, tying together the peoples of northern, central, and southern China. It also has provided an essential element of culture shared by the Han people.

One of the most ambitious efforts of the Chinese Communist government since 1949 has been the modification of the Chinese language. As a means of standardizing the language used by the Han, in 1956 the government declared the dialect of Putonghua the country’s common spoken language. The government also has made efforts to modify the written language. The use of simplified characters—traditional characters written with fewer strokes, or in a type of shorthand—has increased steadily. This simplification is designed to facilitate the government’s goal of increasing literacy. In 1977 the Chinese made a formal request to the United Nations (UN) to have the pinyin (phonetic spelling) method of romanization used to transliterate Chinese place names. The pinyin method was created by the Chinese in the late 1950s and has been steadily modified.

China’s approximately 100 million minority people have their own spoken languages, which include Mongolian, Tibetan, Miao (Hmong), Yi, Uygur, and Kazakh. Formerly, many of the minority languages did not have a written form. However, the government has encouraged the development of written scripts for these languages, using pinyin. China’s minority groups are encouraged to maintain traditions that promote knowledge of their ethnolinguistic heritage. Although Putonghua is taught in schools throughout China, it is sometimes taught as a second language.

Article key phrases:

Han people, Chinese dialects, Putonghua, Uygur, regional dialects, pinyin, spoken languages, different tones, phonetic spelling, Hakka, southern China, central China, formal request, Hmong, Mongolian, Chinese language, native speakers, Tibetan, Cantonese, Guangzhou, written language, Westerners, Kazakh, syntax, native language, Beijing, Miao, traditions, simplification, United Nations, written form, Taiwan, Hong Kong, schools, modification, words, percent, population, nature, government, world, means, knowledge, level, basis, addition, years


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