Chinese Culture: Why is Mandarin the Official Language of China?

Why is Mandarin the official language of China?

Many may wonder about this. The overseas Chinese community widely speaks Cantonese and the Teochew dialect.

So, why Mandarin?


What is the history of Mandarin?

The predecessor of Mandarin is the Beijing dialect (北京话 Běi jīng huà). It dates back to the Ming Dynasty in China. This dialect has a history of about 600 years.

The Beijing dialect widely spoken today wasn’t originally the native language of Beijing.

During the Ming Dynasty (明朝 Míng cháo), its capital was Nanjing (南京 Nán Jīng).

Following the death of the Ming Dynasty’s emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), Zhu Di, or the Yongle Emperor, seized the throne.

He relocated the capital to Beijing, along with 100,000 aristocrats from Nanjing.

Beijing was the abandoned capital of the previous dynasty, the Yuan Dynasty (元朝 Yuán cháo), at that time.

The remaining inhabitants, known as adherents (遗民 Yí mín), primarily spoke Mongolian. They also spoke a few languages from the region west of the Central Plains of ancient China.

As time passed, the Nanjing dialect and these other dialects gradually merged to form the modern Beijing dialect due to the southern population’s relocation.


Mandarin, which served as the precursor to the Beijing dialect, gained official recognition only about 60 years ago. In October 1955, during the Academic Conference on the Standardization of Modern Chinese and the National Conference for Text Reform, Mandarin was first confirmed as an official language of China.

Following that, they established the definition of Mandarin.

It defined Mandarin as the common language of the modern Chinese people of the Han ethnic group. The standard pronunciation derived from the Beijing dialect, the foundation dialect was the northern dialect, and exemplary modern vernacular works set the grammatical norm.

China gradually introduced Mandarin as its official language, incorporating it into the Constitution, and it began to spread throughout the country.

The country “must promote the use of Mandarin,” according to the Chinese Constitution.

dialect map of China

China, known for its vast territory, houses numerous ethnic groups and boasts over 80 commonly used dialects.

Data reveals that even the least spoken Ping dialect, among the top ten dialects in China, is still in use by two million people.

So how did Mandarin beat out other dialects like Cantonese and the Wu dialect to become the official lingua franca of China?

Politics is the primary reason.

The Yuan Dynasty designated Beijing as the capital of China, giving Mandarin, based on the Beijing dialect, a significant political advantage.

In addition, Mandarin is more inclusive.

It is not exactly the same as the Beijing dialect, but it incorporates characteristics of dialects from the north and south of China.

Mandarin is also the closest to the basic pronunciation of Chinese characters.

Also, because spoken Mandarin is the closest to the basic pronunciation of Chinese characters, Chinese characters have always been the official writing system of China, despite the many Chinese dialects.

In contrast to other dialects, there are no discrepancies between the spoken and written forms of Mandarin because they are both based on pinyin.

Mandarin is also much simpler in terms of tones, with only four basic tones.

Other dialects, however, have a more complex system with single tones and legato tones, such as Cantonese (click to know the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese), which has nine tones and six modes (the tonal system of Cantonese and other southern dialects in China), and the Wu dialect, which has a more complex system with single tones and legato tones.

As a result, Mandarin is much simpler to learn and better suited for promotion as a nation’s official language.

China town

Now let’s go back to the question at the beginning of our discussion:

Why do Cantonese, Teochew, and Minnan dialects continue to have such a strong international presence now?

The majority of these dialects were used in China’s southern provinces, such as Guangdong, Guangxi, and Fujian, which are close to the sea and make it easier for people to travel by sea.

Before Mandarin was declared the official language of China, many locals sailed overseas to do business and even chose to settle in other parts of the world, which is why languages like Cantonese continue to account for a large portion of the language used by the overseas Chinese community today.

As China’s economy continues to prosper, the influence that Mandarin brings as an official language will gradually expand for sure.

With China’s abundant tourism resources, massive trading market, and rich history, learning Mandarin will be at the top of your priority list no matter how you intend to learn about the country in the future.

New words

明朝(Míng cháo): The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
The Ming Dynasty is one of China’s dynasties, dating back approximately 400 years ago.
朱元璋:(Zhū yuán zhāng), the Hongwu Emperor
He is the founder of the Ming Dynasty
元朝 (Yuán cháo): The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)
The Mongols founded the Yuan Dynasty, which was a unified dynasty.
遗民 (Yí mín): Adherents of a former dynasty
西域 (Xī yù): Generally refers to the area west of the Central Plains of China in ancient times.

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