There are three articles in Wikipedia that disturb me.

Chinese language

Mandarin Chinese

Sinitic languages

Let's think about this for a moment. Mandarin Chinese is the official variety of China and Taiwán. And Sinitic languages are the whole family: Hakka, Mandarin, Cantonese. So what do you understand when you hear Chinese language? Mandarin or Sinitic languages.

Now, the Chinese government says that there's only Chinese right? And everything else is a dialect but strictly speaking, with linguistics definitions shouldn't Chinese language be more like, Chinese languages/Chinese family and Mandarin/Mandarin Chinese a language with those notes that clarifies saying something like "usually people saying Chinese refers to Mandarin but technically it refers to Sinitic languages/Chinese family".

  • 4
    Chinese is a language cluster, incorporating different languages (Mandarin, Wu, Yue…) and different topolects (Mandarin: Standard Mandarin, Tianjinese, Beijinghua; Wu: Shanghainese, Hangzhounese, Wenzhounese). It doesn't matter what the government stands in this issue on nationalist grounds, as it is a linguistic classification. Then again, written Chinese is fairly uniform across the cluster.
    – user4452
    Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 10:37
  • On the other side of the spectrum, there are languages that exist which would be linguistically classified as the same language but are politically classified as separate, such as Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian.
    – user5808
    Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 21:07
  • Let's not post comments on what disturbs us on Wikipedia, even when it is related to the Chinese language. Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 17:12

6 Answers 6

  1. The term Mandarin (普通话) denotes a dialect which is now the official spoken language of the People's Republic of China and used in most of the China mainland. But it was under heavy influence of the dialect of the Manchu People and not widely used before the Qing Dynasty.

  2. The term Chinese language (汉语) is a broader concept than Mandarin. All languages listed on this page can be considered Chinese language, but as you can see only a small branch of it is called Mandarin.

  3. Sinitic languages is a linguistic term denoting a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family(汉藏语系), which is possibly the broadest concept in this three according to this. Please also notice the infobox on the Wikipedia page which shows a classification like this:

      └Macro-Bai ?

  • 1
    "Sinitic language family" in English I believe usually denotes the family of varieties of Chinese, i.e. synonymous with the broadest construal of 汉语
    – Colin
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 18:58
  • 1
    @colin-zwanziger Sorry, I didn't notice the difference between Sinitic languages and Sino-Tibetan languages. I will update my answer. Thank you.
    – zypA13510
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 3:20
  • Good point about Bai
    – Colin
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 18:26
  • 1
    Not to further nitpick, but I think it would not be correct to say that Mandarin is a dialect of the Manchu people, who spoke their own language, Manchu. Mandarin is a Chinese language, although it was used by Qing officials.
    – Colin
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 18:29
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    Yes, standard Chinese consists of the spoken language (Mandarin) part and the written language (Simplified Chinese) part. But the word 普通话 means only the spoken language. 《国家通用语言文字法》第二条:“国家通用语言文字是普通话和规范汉字。”第三条:“国家推广普通话,推行规范汉字。” Note that 汉字 (Chinese characters) is not included in the 普通话 (PuTongHua/Mandarin) here. @DanielCheung
    – zypA13510
    Commented Feb 14, 2016 at 20:25

When one says that they understand the Chinese language, it is generally implied that they mean Mandarin Chinese, or 普通话 (pu tong hua), which is the official standard. Technically, yes, it is an umbrella term for a wide range of dialects of the language traditionally spoken by Han Chinese people. Hence, the Chinese Language as a whole, including all dialects, is referred to as 汉语 (han yu, or language of the Han).

Sinitic languages are a even larger group of related languages that encompass the languages spoken by some ethnic minorities in China, of which 汉语 is a part of.

Using English as an analogy:

When someone says they speak English, it's generally understood to be Standard American English or Standard English (Britain). However, English spoken in Ireland, New England, India, etc. are all slightly different in either vocabulary or pronunciation, yet they all fall into the category of English. English belongs to a larger group of Germanic Languages such as German, Danish, and Swedish

  • 2
    English does not belong to the group of Romance languages
    – user6065
    Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 19:43
  • 1
    Indeed. It is Germanic. Going furher up in the linguistic family tree, it is Indo-European, like all languages of Europe, with the very notable exceptions of Finnish and Hungarian.
    – MickG
    Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 21:03
  • 1
    include Estonian (close to Finnish), Sami (northern Norway, etc., also Finno-Ugric), Basque (language isolate), Turkish speakers in Bulgaria, Romania, Gagauzian (in Moldova, Turkic) Mordvinian (Finno-Ugric), Tatar, Chuvash (both Turkic) in European part of Russia, the northern part of the Caucasus being part of Europe there are more non-Indo-European languages of Europe
    – user6065
    Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 23:21
  • though physiographically a part of the continent of North America, Greenland has been politically and culturally associated with Europe (see Wikipedia), hence Greenlandic (Inuit, Eskimo-Aleut language family)
    – user6065
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 0:41
  • Ok guys, my mistake, but is there anything wrong with the answer besides that part? @user6065
    – theK_S
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 21:20

The term Mandarin, in my opinion, is a rather confusing term to non-Chinese speakers, as it is not obvious as for why this would be any different of a classification like Cantonese is. However, the word Mandarin in Chinese is 普通话, which strictly speaking means "the common language" and is the official language used for politics and the official media. Many countries don't need to differentiate between an official language and the one they speak daily. But in a country as vast as China such a standardizing measure is obviously needed for communication.

Secondly, for the term Chinese Language can not directly be translated nor explained to the word 汉语, since this only would be accepted by the mainland. However, since 中国大陆 (China Mainland) is not the only country or place which uses the Chinese language. And thereby this becomes a political question. For example in Taiwan they use the word 国语 instead of 汉语. And the rest of the Chinese-speaking world mostly uses the term 华语, which I believe comes closest to the word Chinese Language.

And lastly, the word Sinitic Languages simply is a linguistic term to classify the languages spoken in the region. This will furthermore include all dialects and variations of 华语, but also all the dialects spoken by all minority groups and the people of 新疆 and Tibet. (Which, if you ever heard someone form 新疆 speak Chinese, doesn't often sound like Chinese anymore.)

  • In the mainland, 国语 means 普通话 (as opposed to 粤语)
    – zypA13510
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 8:57
  • Strictly speaking 國語 doesn't equal to 普通話. They have a small amount of differences, like how characters are pronounced. Commented Feb 14, 2016 at 15:08
  • Yes thats correct. As I wrote above, 国语 corresponds to the term 'Chinese Language' in the view of the Taiwanese and Mandarin is the official language of the state. But in my oppinion this is also a problem of the mainland-taiwan issue and the history of all of china in the past 200 years.
    – coolpingu
    Commented Feb 14, 2016 at 15:25

How you understand 'Chinese language' really depends on your point of view.

If you consider it historically, maybe it should reference to the aggregate of dialects. Most 'Chinese' nowadays speak Mandarin, which is a political consequence. Before the 1900s, there was still no official Chinese pronunciation, and the Mandarin as a prevailing language was initiated to unite the whole country. Most Chinese people except those in Beijing were actually forced to change there original language to the northern version. In this way, Mandarin is just the official version.

But in daily life, I am more fond to think of 'Chinese language' as Mandarin, because 90% of Chinese speak Mandarin, just like for Python, 90% run Python 2.7, and when you use Python 3, you always want to claim that to get rid of homonyms.

Just my baloney, do care:) [?!?]


Usually when Chinese people refer to "the Chinese language" they refer to the Chinese languages. (This is not a tautology. )

The term "Chinese languages"

  1. includes non-Standard Mandarin Chinese languages (other Mandarin varieties, as well as Wu, Xiang, Gan, Hakka, Yue, Min languages, etc.);

  2. excludes non-Chinese Sinitic languages (Bai, Caijia, etc.).

In short:

Standard Mandarin ∈ Mandarin ⊆ Chinese languages ⊆ Sinitic languages ⊆ Sino-Tibetan languages


I believe it is important to make a firm distinction between what people commonly think is true, and what is actually true. While distinguishing them, both are useful and valid information to make note of.

Chinese is a group of multiple languages, just like the slavic language group or romance language group. Some places in the world have a Chinese language as an official language of the place: Mandarin and Cantonese are two off the top of my head chosen as official languages of areas. This is not different than English being the official language of some places, and spanish the official language of others.

Many people think that Chinese is synonynous with Mandarin: This is a valid observation, although what many people are thinking is incorrect.

Just as many people think that everyone in south america speaks spanish: all sorts of languages are spoken and portugese is very high up there in reality. Or how many people think of knights with swords in the middle ages and soldiers with guns post industrial revolution: guns were around in the middle ages too in reality.

The article notes a common misconception, which in itself is good information.

P.S. There is standard chinese as well, a written onpy form, used by most different chinese languages in mordern day. It is read out loud differently in each language but can be understood by all chinese speakers who have learned it. This is how you have those who don't know cantonese understand a text from hong kong etc. (For the record it is based on Standard Mandarin I believe, although it varies a little).

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