I knew a Chinese woman who taught me a lot about Chinese languages. One of them was about 汉语's etymology.

I was told that all parts of these characters had a meaning connected to the History of Chinese language. Well, the story was like this:

China was once divided into 5 parts, each one had an emperor. Each emperor had a single language spoken among his people. That's why it is easy to identify characters as five (五), mouth (口). It is also easy to identify the "language" character and the water prefix in the first character. So, when China was unified, only a single language was spoken by everyone.

Is this story true? If not, what's its etymology? How is it different from 中文?

  • Olá Gustavo! Eu corrigi a sua gramática e ortografia. Espero que não se importe.
    – Orion
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 5:57
  • @Slumpy Joe Pete gave a very good answer already. But just to add to this part specifically: "China was once divided into 5 parts, each one had an emperor. Each emperor had a single language spoken among his people. That's why it is easy to identify characters as five (五), mouth (口)." No, this is not true. 五 ("five") is used purely for its sound in 吾 ("I"), which is in turn used purely for its sound in 语 ("speech"). The 口 ("mouth") is also not being used for its meaning, but as an indicator that 五 is a phonetic loan; consider it a "say this sound" graph here.
    – Nimrod
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 10:10

4 Answers 4


Not sure about the story, but to answer the difference between "汉语" and "中文".

Literally, "汉语" means "the language of Han Chinese", while "中文" means "the language of China". As defined in Wikipedia, they are interchangeable terms.

"汉语" expresses the ethnic root of the language, as it may be created or first widely used by Han Chinese. There are other minor ethnic Chinese people, many have their own languages. E.g. 满语 is the language once widely used by 满族 people.

Meanwhile, the expression "中文" seems to be a direct conclusion that the main language of China is Han Chinese, which actually is true in many aspects.

Further discussions may have deeper roots in Chinese history and culture, e.g. how come the term of Han, or complex political implications, e.g. if you agree to consider 藏语 as one of the the languages in China or even one of the Chinese languages, or do you agree 藏族 people are one type of Chinese, etc.


Is this story true?

Sorry, but no. If it helps you remember how to write the characters, then knock yourself out. In fact, there is a whole book of such mnemonics (as well as an unfavorable review of said book, followed by a fascinating discussion in the comments)

If not, what's its etymology?

That depends on what you mean by etymology (a term often stretched to mean very different things in the context of Chinese). It seems that the story you were told was an attempt to explain the form of the characters, rather than the history of the word, so I'll stick with that. Let's call it character analysis.

  • Character formation

    Chinese characters can be grouped into several categories based on how they are constructed. By far the largest category is phonetic-semantic compounds. Each character in this category can be broken up into two simpler characters. One (called the radical) is a hint as to the meaning. The other part refers to the pronunciation. Unfortunately for those of us not living in Han-dynasty China, the phonetic elements often seem poorly chosen, due to the huge changes in pronunciation over the centuries ( = 'mo4' has the = 'hei1' phonetic).

  • Analysis of 漢

    is a phonetic-semantic compound.

    (the 3-dot water radical) is the radical. Besides referring to the Chinese ethnicity, also is used in a word for "galaxy" or "milky way": 雲漢. In this light, the choice of water radical makes more sense.*

    The right side of the character is the phonetic. It no longer exists as an independent character, but it shows up in the phonetics for these (rare) characters, which are also pronounced 'han4': and

  • Analysis of 語

    is also a phonetic-semantic compound.

    is the radical, meaning speech.

    is the phonetic (pronounced 'wu2').

How is it different from 中文?

As other people have explained, 汉语 means the language of the Han people, while 中文 means the script of China (the "middle" kingdom).

Chinese teachers will probably tell you that the former refers exclusively to the spoken language, and the latter exclusively to the written language. Heed not these pedants! You will find that 汉语 and 中文 are used pretty interchangeably by actual Chinese people.

* It's also possible that once made reference to an earthly river as well, but I can't find any good citations for that.


Not true. It's more like a tale other than history.

汉语 is just Han’s language. While 中文 is Chinese script(or language).

漢語 was already used in ancient China, while 中文 appeared in modern times.

  • I believe that the Chinese script has a much longer history than modern spoken Chinese language. We may take a look at the characters of 中文 and 漢語. The simplicity of "中文" suggests that it comes earlier in history. Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 3:14

The difference between 汉语 and 中文 is that, although both mean the chinese language, 语 clearly makes reference to the spoken language, because of the talk or speak radical (言) and 文 was originally an ideogram of a man's chest with a tattoo, denoting writing.

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