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How Do You Say “Chinese?”

From the series Learning Chinese

I work a lot with people who want to learn Chinese or are preparing to learn Chinese. Most generally have the same questions: Is it hard? Is it even possible? How many characters will I have to memorize? How can I pronounce all those strange sounds? In helping people prepare to learn I like to start with an overview of the language itself; it helps them know what they are getting into.

With that in mind, in today’s post, I am beginning a series on the Chinese language and language learning. Over the next few weeks we will look at interesting facts and features of the language, as well as issues related to learning it. I think a good place to start is looking at the various ways the Chinese language refers to itself.  In other words, what is the Chinese word for “Chinese?” Like many things related to China, the answer isn’t a simple one since there are various terms that refer to Chinese or the Chinese language. Here are a few:  

中文 (zhōngwén)

This is the term commonly used when referring to the written language. 中 would refer to China or Chinese; 文 to the language in its literary form.

汉语 (hànyǔ)  

A literal translation of this term would be the “language of the Han,” although in this case the word for language—语 —references speech or spoken language.

中国话 (zhōngguó huà)

This is a more colloquial term that refers to spoken Chinese; literally “language of China.” 中国 is China, and 话 can be translated as speech, spoken words, or talk.”

国语 (guóyǔ)

This is another term for the Chinese language that is associated with Nationalist China, and thus today is used more commonly in Taiwan. It is literally “national language,” with 国 meaning nation.

普通话 (pǔtōng huà)

This term is commonly translated as standard speech, and refers to the standardized version of spoken Chinese that is used in mainland China. When you hear someone talk about “standard Chinese,” this is what they are referring to. 普通 is the word for common or standard.

汉子 (hànzì)

This term refers to the actual characters that make up the written language. 汉 for the Han people; 字 for character. In other words, one uses 汉子 to write 中文. In mainland China, they use simplified characters, while in Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as many overseas schools and universities, they use traditional characters.

This doesn’t even touch on the issue of dialects, of which there are many. We will save that topic for another post.

In the meantime, good luck with your 中文/汉语/ 国语/普通话!

For the duration of this series, we will be running a book giveaway. If you fill out this survey for us, you can be entered to win a free copy of my book Survival Chinese Lessons. We will be giving away ten free books.

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio