This is driving me crazy.

I've always thought that Mandarin was the common language of China and Putonghua was the term use to express this language spoken with standard pronunciation.

I've often heard speakers of Mandarin tell me that they can't really speak Putonghua. So they tell me in Mandarin that they can't speak Putonghua. So Putonghua is one version of Mandarin right. If this is so then Mandarin is not 普通话 in Chinese. What is Mandarin Chinese in Chinese.

It would clarify a lot if the following could be translated into Chinese.

  1. Chinese is not a language as such but a family of languages.

  2. Mandarin and Cantonese are two of the many Chinese languages.

  3. Standard Mandarin is called Putonghua.

I've seen explanations online for Chinese, Mandarin, Putonghua but there always seems to be overlap.

  • Doesn't the list already answers your doubts? What are you asking about? Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 15:56
  • @炸鱼薯条德里克 I want someone to translate the list of 3 sentences into Chinese. Can you do that for me ?
    – Kantura
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 17:54

7 Answers 7


TL;DR - linguistically Mandarin is equivalent to 官话, but be careful when using the concept with Chinese people. 北方话 is more widely understood, but even then... caveats abound. "Standard Chinese" is equivalent to the standards embodied by 普通话/国语/华语, and "Standard Mandarin" is an alternative name for this in the West, but this term has no cognate or calque in the Sinosphere (note that non-Chinese Eastern perspectives are different again).

There are several issues here:

  • language vs 语言 vs dialect vs 方言 / topolect
  • Mandarin vs Standard Mandarin vs 普通话/国语/华语 vs 官话 vs 北方话
  • approach to speech varieties: labelling by social construct (Mandarin, 官话 and 普通话/国语) vs by locality (北方话) vs by classification through linguistic features (also "Mandarin", but also "Yue" 粤语).

I would recommend doing some research into each of these separately, and to see how popular perceptions are in China and outside, and how linguistic research uses terms carefully to describe each of these aspects. A good bit of research into the history of Standard Chinese would be of use to you.

The level of linguistic knowledge required by someone working in northeastern Fujian to know that the topolect of Fuqing 福清话 and that of Fuzhou 福州话 are closely related won't require that person to be aware that this is classified into the Min Dong 闽东话 family. Similarly with the situation in the north; a Northeasterner 东北人 from Shenyang 沈阳 might have had to adopt speech patterns and listening skills to work in Jinan 济南, Shandong, but knowledge that these two are separate branches of sensu stricto "Mandarin" 官话 would not be necessary. That person would acknowledge that both were 北方话, though.

These linguistic branches are "not really a thing" in the popular culture of China, whereas "Standard Mandarin" is in the (intellectual) life of the West, as it is taught as such in Western classes of standard Chinese. It is similar to the 字 vs 词 issue: these labels do not map to the same linguistic reality as letter vs word.


On the basic level:

  • Putonghua = Mandarin = Standard Mandarin Chinese

In the way Chinese is spoken of in common terms, these all mean the same thing.

The Wikipedia page for Standard Chinese puts this pretty plainly:

Standard Chinese, also known as Modern Standard Mandarin, Standard Mandarin, Modern Standard Mandarin Chinese (MSMC), or simply Mandarin, is a standard variety of Chinese that is the sole official language of China, a national language of Taiwan and one of the four official languages of Singapore.


There are two standardised forms of the language, namely Putonghua in Mainland China and Guoyu in Taiwan.

Many speakers have their own dialects and believe that their spoken "Chinese" is not standard this is why they tell you that they cannot speak Mandarin or Putonghua or whatever.


"PuTongHua" (普通话, sorry, can't easy type tone mark right now) is the same as "Standard Chinese" and "Standard Mandarin Chinese". "PuTongHua Mandarin Chinese" is somewhat rendundant; so don't use it. Literally, the phrase 普通话 means something like "Universal Connecting Language" (think "getting through" on the telephone, the verb 通 is used to describe this), which is a good description of its function in the Chinese society, because it provides a common language with which speakers of localized Chinese language-forms can use to communicate with each other with in lieu of knowing each others' respective ones so long as they know it, and it is taught widely.

The English term "Mandarin" on its own, however, which is a weird jaunted-through-India borrowing-translation of the Chinese name 管话 (GuanHua, or "officials' language") technically refers to a larger "language" (语) that comprises not just the standard, but also various deviant forms such as Sichuanese Mandarin (四川话), spoken in the Sichuan Province and quite different (though not so different as, say, Cantonese, which is considered a part of a separate 语, called 粤语 (YueYu, "Yue language").).

Nonetheless, in common usage when most people say the term "Mandarin" in English, 普通话 is what is meant and not a more regionalized form like 四川话.


From a perspective of a foreigner who lived in China. A lot of the people I spoke to didn't really distinguish (at least in a verbal sense) between "Mandarin [being] the common language of China and Putonghua [as a means to] use to express this language spoken with standard pronunciation." Where I lived (Xi'an) a lot of people especially those over approx. 40 spoke Shaanxihua, as their native and primary dialect, and some don't even speak Mandarin or Putonghua altogether. So this distinction blends in casual speech, as they referred to it synonymously.

As for a more formal understanding @Michaelyus hit it right on the nose.


The official body for language reform set up by the Republic of China proposed that a standard spoken Chinese be adopted. It was called Guoyu ‘National Language’ and was based on the pronunciation of the Beijing (Peking ) dialect. The People’s Republic of China adopted the standard pronunciation, although the name was changed to Putonghua ‘Common Speech’. In this book I use Standard Chinese (SC) to refer to Guoyu (a term still used in Taiwan) or Putonghua. In Singapore, SC is called Huayu ‘Chinese Language’. Other terms for SC are Beijing Mandarin , Standard Mandarin, Mandarin Chinese, or simply Mandarin.

  • Phonology of Standard Chinese

Standard Chinese, in linguistics known as Standard Northern Mandarin, Standard Beijing Mandarin or simply Mandarin, is a dialect of Mandarin that emerged as the lingua franca among the speakers of various Mandarin and other varieties of Chinese (Hokkien, Cantonese and beyond).

Among linguists, it is known as Standard Northern Mandarin or Standard Beijing Mandarin. Colloquially, it is imprecisely referred simply as Mandarin, though "Mandarin" may refer to the standard dialect, the Mandarin dialect group as a whole, or its historic standard such as Imperial Mandarin. The name "Modern Standard Mandarin" is used to distinguish its historic standard.


It would clarify a lot if the following could be translated into Chinese.

1.Chinese is not a language as such but a family of languages. --中国话不是一种语言而是许许多多的语言。

2.Mandarin and Cantonese are two of the many Chinese languages. --普通话和广东话是很多中国语言中的两种

3.Standard Mandarin is called Putonghua --标准普通话(标准中国话)叫做普通话。


Mandarin is an English concept with no direct equivalent in Chinese. Chinese (living in China) do not use this word or have such a concept. The English word 'Madarin' losely corresponds to a group of dialects including 北京话(Beijing Dialect), 四川话(Sichuan dialect),东北话(North Eastern dialect etc.).

  • I think if you take a linguistics class in China (in Chinese), you will find out that there are words for this concept. 官话 is usually used in technical contexts, but the average person is more likely to know the more colloquial word 北方话. Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 20:40

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