I've seen them used interchangeably, but I was wondering if there is a significant difference.

  • 4
    Very simply put: 普通话 is Mandarin, while 汉语 is Chinese, which are not the same. Also, 普通话 is a modern concept, but 汉语 covers a historical period of several thousand years.
    – imrek
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 13:08
  • 3
    In addition, 普通话 is a PRC concept, outside of the Mainland, people will prefer 国语 to refer to the Mandarin variant of Chinese. 汉语 is an accepted word in all Chinese speaking countries and regions.
    – imrek
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 13:12

3 Answers 3


汉语” is a general scope of Chinese language, it is spoken in several countries including China. “普通话” is the modern name of “现代标准汉语”(Standard Chinese), it can be considered as the “official dialect” of “汉语”.

As you can see, the difference is the scope. Most Chinese speak “汉语”, but not all of them speak “普通话”.


中文 = 汉语 = (普通话 + other dialects of 汉语)

There 56 ethnic groups in China. 汉语 is the language of ethnic group 汉.

You ask a guy looks like a foreigner, "do you speak 汉语/中文?". Either is ok.

You ask a guy looks like from a different ethnic group, "do you speak 汉语?". Here 汉语 is more appropriate.

You ask a guy who looks really uneducated and speaks a weird dialect, "do you speak 普通话?"


Here's a pretty good rundown of the differences: https://www.yoyochinese.com/blog/Learn-Mandarin-Chinese-what%E2%80%99s-difference-between-zhongwen-hanyu-putonghua-guoyu-and-huayu

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