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

Many may wonder that, while Cantonese and the Teochew dialect are extensively spoken by the overseas Chinese community, why is Mandarin the official language of China?


What is the history of Mandarin?

The predecessor of Mandarin (普通话 Pǔ tōng huà) is the Beijing dialect (北京话 Běi jīng huà), which dates back to the Ming Dynasty in China and has a history of about 600 years. In fact, the Beijing dialect that is now widely spoken was not originally the native language of  Beijing.

When the Ming Dynasty (明朝 Míng cháo) was founded, its capital was Nanjing (南京Nán Jīng). Following the death of the dynasty’s emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋 Zhū yuán zhāng, or the Hongwu Emperor), Zhu Di, or the Yongle Emperor usurped the throne that had belonged to Zhu Yuanzhang’s nephew, while relocating the capital to Beijing. 100,000 aristocrats from Nanjing moved north with Zhu Di, and Beijing was the abandoned capital of the old dynasty, the Yuan Dynasty (元朝 Yuán cháo) at this time, with its adherents (遗民 Yí mín) who remained there primarily speaking Mongolian and a few languages from the area west of the Central Plains of ancient China. As the time went by, the Nanjing dialect and these dialects gradually merged to form the modern Beijing dialect when these southern people moved in.


Mandarin, the predecessor of the Beijing dialect, was recognized only 60 years ago and was first confirmed as an official language of China in October 1955, at the Academic Conference on the Standardization of Modern Chinese and the National Conference for Text Reform. Following that, the definition of Mandarin was established: Mandarin is the common language of the modern Chinese people of the Han ethnic group, with the Beijing dialect serving as the standard pronunciation, the northern dialect serving as the foundation dialect, and exemplary modern vernacular works serving as the grammatical norm. Mandarin was introduced to the Constitution as China’s official language and gradually spread throughout the country. The country “must promote the use of Mandarin,” according to the Chinese Constitution.

dialect map of China

As is known to all, China has a vast territory with quite a number of ethnic groups, and there are more than 80 kinds of dialects that are commonly used in China. According to data, the least frequently used Ping dialect, among the top ten used dialects in China, is still spoken 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. Beijing is the capital of China and was established as such during the Yuan Dynasty, so Mandarin, which is based on the Beijing dialect, has an inherent 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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