Studying the History of Chinese Language

Temples of the Forbidden City in Beijing China during sunsetLearning how to read, write, and speak Chinese means you need to understand the language as whole and understand the history that created such an interesting and diverse language tree. One thing to understand about the history of the language is that there’s not just one language.

Chinese includes Mandarin, Cantonese, Min Nan (a form of which is also known as Hokken in countries like the Philippines and Malaysia), Hakka, and Shanghainese, among others. China wasn’t always one unified region. Although many saw themselves as Chinese, different provinces would have a different evolution in language.

The history of Chinese, in this way, is tied into the history of Chinese language. The one unifying factor over all the spoken sub-languages or dialects is that they all use the same Chinese characters. While there are literally tens of thousands of characters with upward ranges including numbers as high as 40,000 or 80,000, reading and writing fluency can happen at the basic level at just 1,000 to 2,000 and at an educated level at 4,000 to 6,000.

Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family and the oldest known examples of the written classic language appear during the Western Zhou period of Chinese history, which ran from 1046-771 BCE.

That language doesn’t look a lot like modern Chinese, as it went through many evolutions over the centuries that followed. “Middle Chinese,” as it is now known, refers to what was spoken and written during multiple historical dynasties including the North and South Dynasties, Song, Tang, and Sui.

The language was further changed and made complicated by the influence of northern dialects to follow. Because of how far reaching the modern borders of China are, there were times when areas that are now China spent centuries more or less on their own or under conquest of a different power such as the Mongols.

Because of this, even as recently as the 1930s the Chinese language looked a lot different than it does now. The history of this language would show that decade as a critical turning point for unifying a wide and far reaching array of dialects, some of which looked very different from the original language it was based on as well as a more modern version of the language.

In the 1930s with dozens if not hundreds of local dialects, the decision was made to start unifying the language, which has led to the modern day result of Mandarin Chinese, and specifically the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, as becoming the official Chinese language for use in schools, government matters, etc.

This doesn’t mean Mandarin has replaced all other forms of Chinese. Far from it: but it is now by far and away the most widely used dialect, while respect is also given to long used local dialects like Cantonese and other dialects that are not going to disappear.

The history of Chinese language leads to Mandarin as a global economy and the modern era gives the need for one dialect to smooth over bureaucratic and economic processes. What will the future hold for the expansive group of dialects under the Chinese language? Only time will tell.