Standard Mandarin

Standard Mandarin refers to the official Chinese spoken language used by the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China on Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.

The phonology of Standard Mandarin is based on that of the Beijing dialect, which belongs to Mandarin, a large and very diverse group of Chinese dialects spoken across northern and southwestern China. The vocabulary is largely drawn from this group of dialects. The grammar of Standard Mandarin is standardized to the body of modern works written in Vernacular Chinese, which in practice follows the tradition of the Mandarin group of dialects most closely with some notable exceptions. As a result, Standard Mandarin itself is usually called "Mandarin" in non-academic, everyday usage in the West. However, linguists use "Mandarin" to refer to the entire group of dialects. This convention will be adopted by the rest of this article.

Standard Mandarin is officially known in mainland China as Putonghua (Simplified Chinese: 普通话 Hanyu Pinyin: Pǔtōnghu, literally "ordinary speech"), in Taiwan as Guoyu (Traditional Chinese: 國語 Tongyong Pinyin: Guyǔ, Wade-Giles: Kuo-y, literally "national language"), and in Malaysia and Singapore as Huayu (Traditional Chinese: 華語 Simplified Chinese: 华语; Hanyu Pinyin: huyǔ, literally "the Chinese (in a cultural sense) language"). All three terms are used interchangeably in Chinese communities around the world where different groups have come into contact.



Since ancient history, the Chinese language has always consisted of a wide variety of dialects; hence prestige dialects and lingua francas have always been needed. Confucius, for example, used yǎyn (雅言), or "elegant speech", rather than colloquial regional dialects; text during the Han Dynasty also referred to tōngyǔ (通語), or "common language". Rime books, which were written since the Southern and Northern Dynasties, may also have reflected one or more systems of standard pronunciation during those times. However, all of these standard dialects were probably unknown outside the educated elite; even among the elite, pronunciations may have been very different, as the unifying factor of all Chinese dialects, Classical Chinese, was a written standard, not a spoken one.

The Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912) began to use the term guānhu (官話), or "official speech", to refer to the speech used at the courts. It seems that during the early part of this period, the standard was based on the Nanjing dialect, but later the Beijing dialect became increasingly influential, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various dialects in the capital, Beijing. In the 17th century, the Empire had set up Orthoepy Academies (正音書院, Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) in an attempt to make pronunciation conform to the Beijing standard. But these attempts had little success. As late as the 19th century the emperor had difficulty understanding some of his own ministers in court, who did not always try to follow any standard pronunciation. Nevertheless, by 1909, the dying Qing Dynasty had established the Beijing dialect as guyǔ (國語), or the "national language";

After the Republic of China was established in 1912, there was more success in promoting a common national language. At first there was an attempt to introduce elements from other Chinese dialects into the national language, in addition to those existing in Beijing dialect. But this was deemed too difficult, and in 1924 this attempt was abandoned and the Beijing dialect became the major source of standard national pronunciation, due to the status of that dialect as a prestigious dialect since the Qing Dynasty. Elements from other dialects continue to exist in the standard language, but as exceptions rather than the rule.

The People's Republic of China, established in 1949, continued the effort. In 1955, standard Mandarin was renamed pǔtōnghu (普通話), or "ordinary speech". (The name change was not recognized by the Republic of China which has governed only Taiwan and some surrounding islands since 1949). Since then, the standards used in mainland China and Taiwan have diverged somewhat, though they continue to remain essentially identical.

In both mainland China and Taiwan, the elementary school education system is committed to teaching Mandarin, and this has contributed to the spread of standard Mandarin. As a result, standard Mandarin is now spoken fluently by most people in Mainland China and on Taiwan. In Hong Kong, the language of education and formal speech remains Cantonese but standard Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential.


Template:IPA notice

The standardized phonology of Standard Mandarin is reproduced below. Actual reproduction varies widely among speakers, as everyone (including national leaders) inadvertantly introduces elements of his/her own native dialect. By contrast, television and radio announcers are usually chosen for their pronunciation accuracy. Below is the phonology of Standard Mandarin.


The following is the initial inventory of Standard Mandarin as represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA):

Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Retroflex Alveolo-
Fricative 1
Lateral approximant
Approximant 2 1 2 2

1 and are interchangeable.
2 These are actually medials, not initials.

Corresponding chart in:

  • Pinyin
  • Zhuyin
  • Gwoyeu Romatzyh

For more complete information, showing how initials and finals interact, see this Zhuyin-IPA chart ( The vowel sounds in that chart have been verified against the official IPA: site (

and  appear when a final starting with a close vowel, like  or , begins a syllable without an initial. Some linguists analyze a  when an open vowel like  begins a syllable. These approximants are actually medials, the first part of the final.  See the Finals section below.

The alveolo-palatal consonants are in complementary distribution (see minimal pair) with the alveolar consonants , retroflex consonants and velar consonants . As a result, some linguists prefer to classify as allophones of one of the three other sets, commonly of the last one in order to make the set phonemically parallel to the sets and .

may be pronounced as , the labiodental approximant; this may be considered substandard, but it nevertheless occurs frequently. 
may be pronounced as , which is characteristic of the speech of young women, and also of some men.  This is usually considered rather effeminate and may also be considered substandard.


The final is a combination of a medial (or glide, , , ), a nucleus, and a coda. The important feature of Mandarin finals is the contrast of and .

Full rime table of Standard Mandarin in IPA:

rowspan=5 style="background:#efefef"style="background:#efefef"|Ø 
rowspan=5 style="background:#efefef"style="background:#efefef"|Ø 1 2
style="background:#efefef" 3

1 Both pinyin and zhuyin have an additional "o", used after "b p m f", which is distinguished from "uo", used after everything else. "o" is generally put into the first column instead of the third. However, in Beijing pronunciation, these are identical.
2 Another way to represent the four finals of this line is: , which reflects Beijing pronunciation.
3 It is pronounced when it follows an initial.

Standard Mandarin uses a rhotic consonant, , as a noun suffix (Traditional: -兒, Simplified: -儿), except in a few cases where 兒/儿 does not act as a suffix and is pronounced . The chart below shows how finals from the chart above change in pronunciation due to r-coloring when this suffix is added:

rowspan=5 style="background:#efefef"style="background:#efefef"|Ø 
rowspan=5 style="background:#efefef"style="background:#efefef"|Ø

The attached simply removes the codas and , and removes the coda by nasalizing the nucleus.

Corresponding chart in:

  • Pinyin
  • Zhuyin
  • Gwoyeu Romatzyh


Missing image
Relative pitch changes of the four tones

Mandarin, like all Chinese dialects, is a tonal language. This means that tone, just like consonants and vowels, are used to distinguish words from each other. The following are the 4 tones of Standard Mandarin:

Tone name Yin Ping Yang Ping Shang Qu
Tone contour 55 35 21(4) 51
Tone 1 2 3 4
  1. First tone, or high-level tone (陰平/阴平 yīnpng, literal meaning: yin-level):
    a steady high sound, as if it were being sung instead of spoken.
  2. Second tone, or rising tone (陽平/阳平 yngpng, literal meaning: yang-level), or linguistically, high-rising:
    is a sound that rises from mid-level tone to high (e.g., What?!)
  3. Third tone (low tone, or low-falling-raising, 上聲/上声 shǎngshēng or shngshēng, literal meaning: "up tone"):
    has a mid-low to low descent, if at the end of a sentence or before a pause, it is then followed by a rising pitch. It is similar to saying "w-e-l-l" thoughtfully or as if inviting an answer.
  4. Fourth tone, falling tone (去聲/去声 qshēng, literal meaning: "away tone"), or high-falling:
    features a sharp downward accent ("dipping") from high to low, and is a shorter tone, similar to curt commands. (e.g., Stop!)

Other pitch shapes sometimes called tones:

  • Fifth tone, neutral tone, or zeroth tone (輕聲/轻声 qīng shēng, literal meaning: "light tone"):
    All unstressed syllables are pronounced with this "tone", with is sometimes considered as a lack of tone. In most varieties of Mandarin, the second syllable in two-syllable compounds is weaker in tonal prominence than the first character, and is sometimes called a "neutral" tone. On the other hand, if a very unemphasized incorrect tone is produced, its presence may be noted by the careful listener.

Most romanizations represent the tones as diacritics on the vowels (e.g., Pinyin, MPS II and Tongyong Pinyin). Zhuyin uses diacritics as well. Others, like Wade-Giles, uses superscript number at the end of each syllable. Representation of Chinese tone marks/numbers is rarely practised outside textbooks. Gwoyeu Romatzyh is a rare example where tones are not represented as special symbols, but as true alphabet letters (hence creating a very complex orthography).

To listen to the tones, see (click on the blue-red yin yang symbol).

Pronunciation also varies with context according to the rules of tone sandhi. The most prominent phenomenon of this kind is when there are two third tones in immediate sequence, in which case the first of them changes to a second tone. If there are three third tones in series, the first may or may not be converted to a second tone, depending on the preference of the speaker and the dialect area.

Relationship between Middle Chinese and modern tones:

V- = unvoiced initial consonant
L = sonorant initial consonant
V+ = voiced initial consonant (not sonorant)

Middle Chinese Tone Ping (平) Shang (上) Qu (去) Ru (入)
Middle Chinese Initial V- L V+ V- L V+ V- L V+ V- L V+
Standard Mandarin Tone name Yin Ping
(陰平, 1)
Yang Ping
(陽平, 2)
(上, 3)
(去, 4)
with no pattern
to Qu to Yang Ping
Standard Mandarin Tone contour 55 35 214 51 to 51 to 35

It is known that if the two morphemes of a compound word cannot be ordered by grammar, the order of the two is usually determined by tones — Yin Ping (1), Yang Ping (2), Shang (3), Qu (4), and Ru, which is the plosive-ending tone that has already disappeared. Below are some compound words that show this rule. Tones are shown in parentheses, and R indicates Ru.

左右 (34)
南北 (2R)
輕重 (14)
貧富 (24)
凹凸 (1R)
喜怒 (34)
哀樂 (1R)
生死 (13)
死活 (3R)
陰陽 (12)
明暗 (24)
毀譽 (34)
褒貶 (13)
離合 (2R)
集散 (24)


Chinese language romanization


For Standard Mandarin


For Standard Cantonese

Min Nan

For Hainanese

For Teochew

For Taiwanese


For Meixian dialect

Ever since the first Westerners entered China and tried to learn Mandarin, the need for a phonetic transcription system to record the pronunciation of Chinese characters became apparent. Over the years, many such systems have been proposed. The first to be widely accepted was the Wade-Giles system, named after its 19th century inventors. Postal System Pinyin, standardized in 1906, is a similar and somewhat irregular system used predominantly for place names. These two systems are still in use today, but they are rapidly losing ground to Hanyu Pinyin. They are now mostly encountered in older textbooks, histories, etc.

In the 20th century, Chinese linguists proposed various transcription systems, one of which even introduced a whole new syllabic alphabet: the Zhuyin system (Bopomofo). The most successful of these transcription systems was Hanyu Pinyin, which was accepted as the official transcription system for the Chinese language by the PRC in 1958 and later by the United Nations and other international organizations. During the 1950s, there were plans for Pinyin to supersede the Chinese characters. These plans, however, were abandoned, due to the prevalence of homonymic morphemes in Chinese (as well as the reliance of written Chinese forms, especially Classical Chinese, on disambiguation of homonyms via different logographs), the link between the various Chinese languages provided by the logographic system, and the long and close association between the writing system and the literature and culture of China.

A variety of transcription systems are used on Taiwan. The ROC central government adopted Tongyong Pinyin in 2002, but has permitted local governments to override that decision in favor of their own preferred romanization systems. Zhuyin is used as the method for teaching pronunciation of characters and compounds in schools. Efforts to phase out this system in favor of Pinyin have stalled due to disagreements over which form of pinyin to use, and the massive effort needed to produce new educational materials and to completely retrain teachers.

A less popular and outdated Romanization is the Yale Romanization.


See Chinese grammar.

Standard Mandarin and Beijing dialect

By the official definition of the People's Republic of China, standard Mandarin uses:

  • The phonology or sound system of Beijing. A distinction should be made between the sound system of a dialect or language and the actual pronunciation of words in it. The pronunciations of words chosen for Standard Mandarin -- a standardized speech -- do not necessarily reproduce those of the Beijing dialect. The pronunciation of words is a standardization choice and occasional standardization differences (not accents) do exist, between putonghua and guoyu, for example.

In fluent speech, Chinese speakers can easily tell the difference between a speaker of the Beijing dialect and a speaker of Standard Mandarin. Beijingers speak Standard Mandarin with elements of their own dialect (i.e. "accents") in the same way as other speakers.

  • The vocabulary of Mandarin dialects in general. This means that all slang and other elements deemed "regionalisms" are excluded. On the one hand, the vocabulary of all Chinese dialects, especially in more technical fields like science, law, and government, are very similar. (This is a similar to the profusion of Latin and Greek words in European languages.) This means that much of the vocabulary of standardized Mandarin is shared with all varieties of Chinese. On the other hand, many colloquial vocabulary and slang found in Beijing dialect are not found in Standard Mandarin, and may not be understood by people not from Beijing.
  • The grammar and usage of exemplary modern Chinese literature, such as the work of Lu Xun, collectively known as "Vernacular Chinese". Vernacular Chinese, the standard written form of modern Chinese, is in turn based loosely upon a mixture of northern (predominant), southern, and classical grammar and usage. This gives formal standard Mandarin structure a slightly different feel from that of street Beijing dialect.

In theory the Republic of China defines standard Mandarin differently, though in reality the differences are minor and are concentrated mostly in the tones of a small minority of words.

Although Chinese speakers make a clear distinction between Standard Mandarin and the Beijing dialect, there are aspects of Beijing dialect that have made it into the official standard. Standard Mandarin has a T-V distinction between the polite and informal versions of you, that comes from Beijing dialect. In addition there is a distinction between "znmen" (we including the listener) and "wŏmen" (we not including the listener). In practice, these distinctions are almost never used by most Chinese.

Standard Mandarin and other dialects

The national standard can be very different from a local Mandarin speech, to the point of being unintelligible. In addition, since standard Mandarin is taught as a second language across all China, it is also very common for two people who both believe themselves to be speaking standard Mandarin to require a translator. Nevertheless, efforts by the PRC, ROC, and Singapore to promote standard Mandarin as the standard tongue have greatly boosted the number of standard Mandarin speakers.

To the dismay of non-Mandarin speakers, the predominant role of standard Mandarin has led to the common misidentification of Mandarin as the only "Chinese language". Although both Mainland China and Taiwan use standard Mandarin as the official language and very much promote its nationwide use, there is hardly any official intent in either location to have standard Mandarin replace local dialect, and as a practical matter, standard Mandarin still does not supplant the local dialects that are in use in some locations, particularly in the southern provinces of Mainland China or on Taiwan. Speaking only standard Mandarin in these areas is sometimes regarded as a significant social handicap; many Chinese language speakers there, particularly the elderly, do not speak standard Mandarin very well. This situation appears to be changing, though, especially in large urban centers, as social changes, migrations, and urbanization take place.

In the predominantly Han areas in Mainland China, the interaction between standard Mandarin and the local Chinese dialects has generally not been controversial. Although the use of standard Mandarin is encouraged as the common working language, the People's Republic of China has attempted to be sensitive to the status of local dialects and has not discouraged their use. One example of this is Mao Zedong himself, who often spoke in Xiang, a category of Chinese that does not even fall within the wider category of regional Mandarin dialects. Many native speakers of Chinese find Mao's spoken language to be largely incomprehensible, even when speaking in formal occasions.

Standard Mandarin, however, is used very commonly for logistical reasons in that it is often the only means of communications between people from different areas. In many parts of southern China, the linguistic diversity is so large that even people from neighboring cities find it difficult to talk to each other in the local form of Chinese, thereby requiring the use of a lingua franca such as standard Mandarin. Curiously the use of standard Mandarin in the 20th century has supplanted the use of pidgin English which was used as a common language in some parts of southern China in the 18th and 19th century.

On Taiwan, the relationship between standard Mandarin and local dialects, particularly Taiwanese has been more heated. Until the 1980s the government discouraged the use of Taiwanese, even portraying it as inferior. This produced a backlash in the 1990s. Although some more extreme supporters of Taiwan independence tend to be opposed to standard Mandarin in favor of Taiwanese, efforts to replace standard Mandarin either with Taiwanese or with a multi-lingual standard have remained stalled.

Note that while the term Hnyǔ (漢語; simplified: 汉语), or "the Han Chinese language", is sometimes used to refer to just standard Mandarin, it is more precisely used to refer to all variants of Chinese, since they are, after all, all spoken by Han Chinese. Some speakers of Hakka, for example, object that their own dialect should carry the name Hanyu, as its grammar is closer to that of ancient texts.

See also:


Most Chinese (Beijingers included) speak Standard Mandarin with elements of their own dialects (i.e. their "accents") mixed in.

For example, natives of Beijing, add a final "er" () — commonly used as a diminutive — sound to vocabulary items that other speakers would leave unadorned (兒音/儿音; pinyin: ryīn).

On the other hand, speakers from northeastern or southern China often mix up zh ch sh and z c s, because their own home dialects often do not make these distinctions.

See List of Chinese dialects for a list of articles on individual Chinese dialects and how their features differ from Standard Mandarin.

Role of standard Mandarin

From an official point of view, standard Mandarin is theoretically something like a lingua franca — a way for Han Chinese and non-Han ethnic groups speaking a wide variety of mutually unintelligible of languages to communicate with each other. The very name of "Putonghua", or "ordinary speech", reinforces this idea. In implementation, however, standard Mandarin is sometimes given the aura of the "only right language", and other languages or dialects, both Chinese and non-Chinese, have shown signs of greatly losing ground to standard Mandarin, to the chagrin of many local culture proponents.

On Taiwan, Guoyu (national language) continues to be the official term for standard Mandarin. The term Guoyu is rarely used in Mainland China, because declaring a Beijing dialect based standard to be the national language would be deemed unfair to other Chinese dialects and ethnic minorities. The term Putonghua (ordinary speech), on the contrary, implies nothing more than the notion of a lingua franca. Some in Taiwan, especially proponents of Taiwan independence, also object to the term Guoyu to refer to standardized Mandarin, on the grounds that the "nation" referred to in the name of the language is China and that Taiwan is or should be independent. They prefer to refer to Mandarin with the terms "Beijing dialect" or Zhongwen (writing of China). As with most things political in Taiwan, some support the name for precisely the same reasons that others oppose them.

In December 2004, the first survey of language use in the People's Republic of China revealed that only 53% of its population could communicate in Standard Mandarin. (China Daily) (

See also

Chinese: spoken varieties

Mandarin | Jin | Wu | Hui | Xiang | Gan | Hakka | Yue | Pinghua | Min
Danzhouhua | Shaozhou Tuhua | Xianghua

Subcategories of Min: Min Dong | Min Bei | Min Zhong | Pu Xian | Min Nan | Qiong Wen | Shao Jiang
Note: The above is only one classification scheme among many.
Comprehensive list of Chinese dialects
Official spoken varieties: Standard Mandarin | Standard Cantonese
Historical phonology: Old Chinese | Middle Chinese | Proto-Min | Proto-Mandarin | Haner
Chinese: written varieties
Official written varieties: Classical Chinese | Vernacular Chinese
Other varieties: Written Cantonese

Template:Bookbg:Мандарин da:Mandarin (sprog) de:Mandarin es:Chino mandarn fr:Mandarin he:מנדרינית תקנית id:Bahasa Mandarin it:Mandarino standard ja:普通話 la:Lingua_Sinensis_Mandarinica nl:Mandarijn (taal) pl:Putonghua hu:Mandarin nyelv pt:Mandarim simple:Mandarin language sv:Standardkinesiska th:ภาษาจีนกลาง zh:普通话


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