Chinese language

汉语; 漢語; Hànyǔ or 中文; Zhōngwén
Hànyǔ written in traditional (top) and simplified (middle) forms, Zhōngwén (bottom)
Native to
Native speakers
1.35 billion (2022)[1]
Early forms
Standard forms
Official status
Official language in
Regulated by
Language codes
ISO 639-1zh
ISO 639-2chi (B)
zho (T)
ISO 639-3zho – inclusive code
Individual codes:
cdo – Eastern Min
cjy – Jinyu
cmn – Mandarin
cpx – Pu-Xian Min
czh – Huizhou
czo – Central Min
gan – Gan
hak – Hakka
hsn – Xiang
mnp – Northern Min
nan – Southern Min
wuu – Wu
yue – Yue
csp – Southern Pinghua
cnp – Northern Pinghua
och – Old Chinese
ltc – Late Middle Chinese
lzh – Classical Chinese
Map of the Chinese-speaking world
  Regions with a native Chinese-speaking majority.
  Regions where Chinese is not native but an official or educational language.
  Regions with significant Chinese-speaking minorities.
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Han language
Simplified Chinese汉语
Traditional Chinese漢語
Literal meaningHan language
Chinese writing
Literal meaningChinese writing
Han writing (esp. when distinguished from other languages of China)
Simplified Chinese汉文
Traditional Chinese漢文
Literal meaningHan writing

Chinese (simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語; pinyin: Hànyǔ; lit. 'Han language' or 中文; Zhōngwén; 'Chinese writing') is a group of languages[d] spoken natively by the ethnic Han Chinese majority and many minority ethnic groups in Greater China. Approximately 1.3 billion people, or around 16% of the global population, speak a variety of Chinese as their first language.[4]

Chinese languages form the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The spoken varieties of Chinese are usually considered by native speakers to be dialects of a single language. However, their lack of mutual intelligibility means they are sometimes considered to be separate languages in a family.[e] Investigation of the historical relationships among the varieties of Chinese is ongoing. Currently, most classifications posit 7 to 13 main regional groups based on phonetic developments from Middle Chinese, of which the most spoken by far is Mandarin with 66%, or around 800 million speakers, followed by Min (75 million, e.g. Southern Min), Wu (74 million, e.g. Shanghainese), and Yue (68 million, e.g. Cantonese).[6] These branches are unintelligible to each other, and many of their subgroups are unintelligible with the other varieties within the same branch (e.g. Southern Min). There are, however, transitional areas where varieties from different branches share enough features for some limited intelligibility, including New Xiang with Southwestern Mandarin, Xuanzhou Wu Chinese with Lower Yangtze Mandarin, Jin with Central Plains Mandarin and certain divergent dialects of Hakka with Gan (though these are unintelligible with mainstream Hakka). All varieties of Chinese are tonal to at least some degree, and are largely analytic.

The earliest Chinese written records are oracle bone inscriptions dating from the Shang dynasty c. 1250 BCE. The phonetic categories of Old Chinese can be reconstructed from the rhymes of ancient poetry. During the Northern and Southern period, Middle Chinese went through several sound changes and split into several varieties following prolonged geographic and political separation. The Qieyun, a rime dictionary, recorded a compromise between the pronunciations of different regions. The royal courts of the Ming and early Qing dynasties operated using a koiné language known as Guanhua, based on the Nanjing dialect of Mandarin.

Standard Chinese is an official language of both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan, one of the four official languages of Singapore, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Standard Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, and was first officially adopted in the 1930s. The language is written primarily using a logography of Chinese characters, largely shared by readers who may otherwise speak mutually unintelligible varieties. Since the 1950s, the use of Simplified characters has been promoted by the government of the People's Republic of China, with Singapore officially adopting them in 1976. Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and among Chinese-speaking communities overseas. Traditional characters are also in use in mainland China, despite them not being the first choice in daily use. For example, practising Chinese calligraphy requires the knowledge of traditional Chinese characters.

  1. ^ Chinese at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) closed access
    Eastern Min at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) closed access
    Jinyu at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) closed access
    Mandarin at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) closed access
    Pu-Xian Min at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) closed access
    Huizhou at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) closed access
    Central Min at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) closed access
    (Additional references under 'Language codes' in the information box)
  2. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 211–214.
  3. ^ Pulleyblank (1984), p. 3.
  4. ^ "Summary by language size". Ethnologue. 3 October 2018. Retrieved 7 March 2021.
  5. ^ Mair (1991), pp. 10, 21.
  6. ^ Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (2012), pp. 3, 125.

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