I was chatting with a Taiwanese student the other day and asked him what language they speak there. He just answered "Chinese" and didn't know about a dialect or variant of Mandarin. Even the words Mandarin or Cantonese didn't ring a bell. The answer I got was "Chinese, the same as in Beijing".

I'm curious to know if that's a widespread conception of the language in Taiwan or just him who skipped that part of the lesson at grade school :) If not from lack of knowledge, are there other cultural or political reasons why making the distinction is not encouraged there?

  • 3
    If you two talked in English, he probably simply don't know the English word mandarin and dialect. He didn't know how to put it in English, so he said "Chinese, the same as in Beijing". If that's the case, I assume what he meant was "he speaks mandarin".
    – dan
    Jul 29, 2018 at 5:17
  • 1
    I learned the word "Mandarin" from a Taiwanese a few decades ago, when I only knew it as "putonghua" before. If he did not skip his grade school lesson, then something in the political waters changed since then.
    – Nimrod
    Jul 29, 2018 at 8:42

6 Answers 6


As a Mandarin native speaker born and living in China, I hadn't even heard of the term 'Mandarin Chinese' when I was in school quite a amount of years ago. We mainland Chinese usually call the oral language that you're learning 'pu tong hua', likewise, Taiwanese call it 'guo yu' (literally, country language). I think, the term Mandarin Chinese becomes popular in recent years because of the dramatically increasing number of foreigner learning Chinese, and we don't want them to be confused when they hear other Chinese dialects.


Mandarin originally refers to the official language of Qing

By the end of the last dynasty in 19th century, the government KMT released some standard of 国语(national language), which is based on the 官话(mandarin) of the Qing dynasty. When KMT went to Taiwan, they took the standard there. On the other side, PRC made the standard 普通话(common language), which is based on the KMT's 国语.

So when you talk about the mandarin of Taiwan, it is 国语, in mainland, it is 普通话, however, 国语 and 普通话 are almost same, they are both based on mandarin of Qing and the dialect around Beijing.

Before I visited the English sites, I don't know mandarin too, I remember when I got the explaining from dictionaries, I was like wtf, 清朝官话? So what we speak is called the official language of Qing, fk me. I don't like the word, it always reminds me of the Manchu barbarians.


Some rumors say mandarin is from 满大人(man da ren), some other proofs show that it is used before the Qing dynasty.

This is written by Matteo Ricci in the Ming dynasty in Latin, which means high-ranking official used by Portuguese.

enter image description here


As a Taiwanese, I'd say most of the people here don't really think it through when being asked a question as such. For most of the Taiwanese (except those who study languages /history/culture in grad school I guess), the word "Chinese"(中文) is pretty much the same as "Mandarin" (國語) (Yeah, not "国语" or "普通话", that's how PRC people call it) At school, Our "Chinese" textbook is called "國文課本", and we call that "Chinese class"

We'd say we speak Chinese/Mandarin (講中文、說國語), and we use Traditional Chinese (繁體中文). Some people in Taiwan speak dialects like Taiwanese(台語、台灣話) and Hakka(客語、客家話), but we don't really relate these dialects with the word "Chinese", even though they are indeed dialects originated from Mainland China.

So I'd agree with Dan that he probably simply don't know the English word mandarin and dialect. And "Chinese(Mandarin)", "Taiwanese", and "Hakka" are the three main "languages" used in Taiwan -- That's how most of us would say. People don't really bother to differentiate between languages and dialects here.

If there's anything political, during the martial law period (1949-1987) Taiwanese-language was banned by the nationalist government -- Taiwanese songs, media, films were banned, and children who spoke Taiwanese in school were physically punished. People were forced to learn "Chinese"(Mandarin). Maybe that's why people here tend to think that Chinese and Taiwanese are two completely different "languages".


During the rule of ROC (Republic of China) government, scholars standardized Chinese dialects and called it 国语GuoYu. It is based on Northern dialects but also absorbed certain southern elements. This is the common root of Chinese at both sides.

Then after 1949, ROC government moved to Taiwan. 国语 is naturally the official language there since then (and even before, since the Chinese taking it back from Japanese rule).

Meanwhile in mainland, PRC (People's Republic of China) government made some modifications to it and called it 普通话 PuTongHua. The difference is really minor, mostly about choosing a standard among allophones like being 鹏 Peng or Pong.

After years of developing, except for certain (or let's say many) conventions of word-usage, nothing much has diverged. It's like the difference between underground and subway.

Compared to any other dialects of Chinese (Shanghainese, Cantonese, etc), 普通话PuTongHua and 国语GuoYu are the most close. Even 普通话 spoken in Southern Provinces is not as close and comprehensible as 国语GuoYu to me, a Northern Chinese with Fujian origin.

Well in fact, I cannot think of anything other than political reasons why making the distinction is encouraged there.


As history is seldom written to tell the absolute truth, (if such a creature exist at all), the history or historicity, (defining the latter as a "quality of being historically authentic"), of the languages spoken in the vast continent of what is now politically defined as "China" would include or rather needed to include elements from areas beyond the academic insularity of liquistics.

So to answer the question "Do many Taiwanese self identify as Mandarin speakers and if not, why?" would require a mini thesis of sorts simply because it involves a clash of the divergent politics of national identity between the Mainland and Taiwan, (perhaps even saying "...between the Mainland and Taiwan" is itself controversial)

Added into the witches brew is the "contribution" from Western scholars and diplomats who did just as much to shape what the Chinese themselves call what they speak.

For a start, the word "mandarin" to mean the "mandarin" as a language is itself a Western invention, and having gained so much scholastic mileage that it gained a life of its own in Western writings.

It is therefore not surprising that the Taiwanese, (i.e. those who were not exposed to any substantial amount of Western writings), were confused. After all why would the literarily meticulous Chinese call their language after a mere senior court official? The Westerners who had the initial contacts with the 17th / 18th Chinese did not know what to call the language spoken in the Chinese court, and so simply called it the language of the senior court official -- "mandarin" (Like the way we say, "just google it") Heck, even the word "China" is a Western invention.

And so why would the Taiwanese, past, present or future, "self identify as Mandarin speakers", even if the "Chinese" that they spoke is more or less the same as mandarin as we know it?

As for 普通话 "PuTongHua", there is nothing 普通, (ordinary / common), about it. It is based on what we would loosely refer to as "mandarin chinese", which just 50 years ago would be unintelligible to, my opinion, about 70% of the population who historically spoke their own dialects. It was a tool, (ala Shi Huang Ti), to engineer a politically united China, and the ordinary / common part is just so as not to step on any dialectical toes in the politically fragile environment of post-revolutionary China.


In short answer, yes.

Ok. The word Mandarin itself is a long story. Umm, it starts with the Ming dymasty, with the official governor in orange. They are thus called mandarin (meaning orange colour) and also, Mandarin Chinese refers to the dialect they spoke (官話 guan1 hua4, the official's speak). And base on that, in 1913, the Republic of China formulated a new (constructed) dialect which was called 國語 (Extended Pinyin: guo5 yu3, in which the 5 tone represents 入聲, literally "national language.") The Ming, Qing and said Mandarin was based on the Mandarin dialect in Nanjing. The said standard language was obsolete in either region of China, and hence refers to as 老國音 (in 老國音: lao3 guo5 in1, literally: "Old National Pronunciation, ONP.") In 1932, the Republic of China publicised the dictionary 國音常用字彙, (in ONS: guo5 in1 zhang2 yung4 z4 huei4, in contemporary standard: guo2 yin1 chang2 yong4 zi4 hui4, literally "Commonly Used Words in National Pronunciation") in representative of a new dialect based on Beijing dialect, which is now called 新國音 (xin1 guo2 yin1, literally "New National Pronunciation, NNP") and the standard (not the book itself though) is now still used in Taiwan, so Taiwanese people still call the Lingua Franca 國語. After Liberation of People's Republic of China, in 1950's they changed the name of the Lingua Franca into 普通話 (pu3 tong1 hua4, literally "general language") in ordee to make other race learn the language. The standard pronunciation have been altered little though, so we can communicate without any problem.

So the matter is, we identify ourself as Mandarin (國語) speakers, but not as Mandarin (普通話) or Mandarin (官話) speakers.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.