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Mandarin is the most widely spoken dialect of Chinese. It is referred to as Pǔtōnghuà in China, Guóyǔ in Taiwan, and Huáyǔ in Singapore. In its modern form, Mandarin is based on the dialect of Beijing. Localisms, such as the final r sound favored by Beijing residents, are not part of the standard form. Although each city in China has a distinct accent, the spoken language in the northern and central regions is of a single type. In contrast, the dialects spoken in the South, such as Cantonese, are not intelligible to Mandarin speakers.

Traditional Chinese 普通話
Simplified Chinese 普通话
Literal meaning common speech

In imperial times, Chinese of different regions communicated with each other using written Classical Chinese. By the Tang dynasty (618–907), spoken and written Chinese had diverged into separate languages. At the end of the Tang, China was divided into northern and southern states. The Mongols conquered both states in the thirteenth century. They treated North China and South China as two separate nations within their larger empire. For example, Marco Polo writes of "Cathay" (North China) and "Manzi" (South China). He does not use any expression that corresponds to the modern concept of "China." By the time China was reunited by the Ming dynasty in 1368, North and South had drifted far apart.

The first Ming emperor selected the speech of Nanjing to serve as the basis of an imperial lingua franca. This dialect was referred to as Guānhuà, or "officials' speech". The word "Mandarin," first recorded in Portuguese in 1524, refers to a Chinese official. Guān was translated as "Mandarin," so the word came to refer to the dialect as well.

Although Classical Chinese continued to be used for formal writing, various works of popular literature, such as the novel The Golden Lotus (1610), were written in Mandarin. In the late nineteenth century, the dialect of Beijing displaced that of Nanjing. Although the dialects of the two cities are mutually intelligible, there is considerable divergence.

China's regional language differences mainly concern pronunciation. They are far less noticeable in text that is written in ideographs. In the early twentieth century, language reformers led by Hu Shih developed a writing system called báihuà. This system is based on language usage in the vernacular novel Dream of the Red Chamber (1791). The novel is written in the Beijing dialect. In the 1920s, báihuà displaced Classical Chinese as the China's standard writing system.

In the twentieth century, both the Nationalists and the Communists promoted the use of Mandarin. This policy has been resisted occasionally by speakers of other dialects. The popularity of Hong Kong-based pop culture has allowed the Cantonese-speaking South to resist the advance of Mandarin.


  • Coblin, W. South, "A brief history of Mandarin", Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 120, issue 4, pp. 537–552.