Apparently, both of these mean Chinese, and the Chinese language. I gather that 中文 is maybe more like "written Chinese," and 汉语 is "spoken Chinese." Is this correct?

I've often looked at BBC zhongwen, so it makes sense that that's "written". If a movie was in Chinese, would you say 汉语 for that?

Can you give more examples of each, particularly when you could only use one or the other? Are there any examples in which you could potentially use either, with a slightly different meaning?

  • 2
    Not exactly. Currently 中文 and 汉语 have the same meaning, we distinguish them only because of some wording is more preferred. We say 中文维基 but not 汉语维基. And a dictionary is called 现代汉语词典 but not 现代中文词典. If you say 这是一本中文书, I will consider this is a book written in Chinese; if 这是一本汉语书, then I will personally by default consider it's a textbook for learning Chinese. Except those conventional phrases, you don't have to focus on the distinction between them. Wiki wisely says "汉语,又称中文". It's even lazy to discuss this question XD
    – Stan
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 15:56
  • 1
    See also Etymology of 汉语 and What's the actual difference between 文 and 语?
    – 杨以轩
    Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 2:14
  • See my answer: chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/10411/#28025
    – xenophōn
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 11:31

5 Answers 5


I gather that 中文 is maybe more like "written Chinese," and 汉语 is "spoken Chinese."

This is correct as you would expect, however there are subtle nuances caused by the different spoken Chinese languages and issues of cultural identity, and that Mandarin is often considered the standard spoken Chinese language.

Before I digress here are some examples where you'd use one or the other:

  • Chinese subtitles = 中文字幕. When referring to only the written language, use 中文. Note that for practical reasons, you may need to disambiguate further: 简体字幕 or 繁体字幕.
  • Chinese dictionary = 汉语字典. For dictionaries, use 汉语 because they often relate to the entire language, both spoken and written, for example including pronunciation. To keep with convention though, all dictionaries use "汉语", even if they don't deal with the spoken form, for example an English-Chinese dictionary would be called a 英汉词典.
  • I can speak Chinese = 我会说中文/汉语. Here the two terms are interchangeable, if you are referring to Mandarin, which is confusing at first. This is because of the status of Mandarin as the standard Chinese spoken language. Sometimes you want to be more specific by referring to the specific Chinese language, e.g. 我会说普通话 or 我会说广东话. (I'm not sure here, but in situations where a spoken Chinese language other than Mandarin is standard, 中文 also means that language. For example in Hong Kong saying 我会说中文 could mean "I can speak Cantonese", especially if you were contrasting it with a non-Chinese language)
  • I can write Chinese = 我会写中文. It would be improper in this case to use "汉语". You can also say "I can write Chinese characters" though, by unambiguously saying 我会写汉字.

Here's some background information:

There is "one" Chinese written language, and "many" Chinese spoken languages

The reason I've used scare quotes is that the answer varies depending on how strict you are or what your political/ideological views are. The Wikipedia article explains all, but here are the basics:

  • Linguistically, there are many Chinese spoken languages as they are mutually unintelligible. This is different from most other languages, where dialects are intelligible, but what's translated as Chinese "dialects" or 方言 can range from easily understood (between 北京话 and 东北话) to completely unintelligible (e.g. 客家話).
  • Despite this, many Chinese prefer to treat the different spoken languages as "dialects" of one language. This is due to a shared cultural identity; China experienced prolonged unified rule, in other words, many Chinese are historically accustomed to speaking mutually unintelligible languages but still being part of the same national identity. Do note that this is a politically charged topic though.
  • There are two scripts used for written Chinese, Simplified and Traditional (简体 and 繁体). Some Chinese "dialects" even have their own unique characters (e.g. 冇 and 係) and grammars which are considered informal or archaic and you don't often encounter them in formal written contexts. For practical reasons though, you can consider there to be only one written Chinese language. This is also a controversial topic though, which I would rather only acknowledge without exploring further.

They are quite equivalent to each other as Stan suggested in the comment. For most people, 中文 = 汉语. But I want to give you some interesting facts:

First of all, there are 56 ethnic groups within the Chinese people and the majority ethnic group is the "汉"(Han). The 中文 literally means the language of Chinese people. The 汉语 literally means the language of "Han" people. So as you know now that the Chinese people are not all Han people, then you might think that 汉语 is a subset of 中文. Yes, the minority ethnic groups of Chinese have their own language, which is not 汉语.

However since the population of Han people is over 90% in China and minority ethnic groups of Chinese speak 汉语 more and more(the sad fact is that some of them forget how to speak their own language), 汉语 is equal to 中文 nowadays.

If your are interested in the ethnic groups in China, you can visit:

List of ethnic groups in China

The Han Chinese

  • 3
    Worth noting that although 汉语 literally means the 'language of Han', in most actual usages it refers to the collection of all Sinitic languages. Whether the languages of non-Han ethnic groups are considered 汉语 is still being debated and often forcibly prescribed for political reasons.
    – NS.X.
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 20:23
  • The languages of non-Han ethnic groups are definitely not 汉语 because they use different written,spoken and grama system. Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 13:41
  • 1
    As I said it's debatable. Authoritative references for both sides are plenty. E.g. Wikipedia has it: "漢語作為一個語種是普通话/国语、粵語、吳語、閩南語、客家語等語言的統稱。" zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – NS.X.
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 1:45
  • @NS.X. yes the people who speak 粵語、吳語、閩南語、客家語 are also Han people. What I suggest is like the 满语(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchu_language) and the 纳西(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dongba_symbols). They use totally different symbols and grammar while 普通话/国语、粵語、吳語、閩南語、客家語 has the same written symbols and grammar. Be ware that there are different ethnic group in China for a very long time. Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 13:09
  • Oh I see what you mean now. I agree the languages that use a different character system are definitely not 汉语. I was debating about those dialects that share the same Hanzi writing system but are unintelligible by Mandarin speaker, some of which are exclusively used by non-Han ethnic groups.
    – NS.X.
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 18:25

There is no difference. -文 sounds more formal than -语. Taiwanese mandarin prefers `-文' such as 英文, 法文, 德文 (English, French, German), while the mainland mandarin seems to use 英语, 法语, 德语 much more commonly; but both Taiwanese and mainland mandarin tend to say 拉丁文 (latin), I didn't really see 拉丁语 often.

  • Maybe it's connected to @congusbongus 's explanation that 语 includes spoken language while 文 does not? There isn't much spoken Latin today. Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 16:15
  • Definitely not equivalent to me.
    – joehua
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 3:00

There is no word to represent "language" meaning in Sinitic, we have only "literal language" 文 and "verbal language" 語/話. Thus, "講中文" is a very contradicting phrase : "speak Chinese literal language", what is it ? 文 and 語 indicate it is literal or verbal form. There is no grey area.


There are a lot of words that basically means Chinese (language) and can usually be used interchangeably but do convey subtle differences in meaning and situations.

1.中文 (Chinese language)

The most popular one. Can be used in almost any situation.

  • 中文听起来真好听。
  • 新加坡说中文吗?
  • 中文难写难认。

2.汉语 (Han Chinese language)

Prominent in academic and formal circumstances. Also used by people who prefer a more formal style.

  • 汉语音韵悦耳。
  • 新加坡使用汉语吗?
  • 古代汉语
  • X古代中文
  • 学汉语,要听说读写兼顾。

But it is focused on the spoken part. When you are specifically referring to the written script, 汉字(Chinese characters) is used instead.

  • 汉字难写难认。
  • X汉语难写难认。

汉字 as a form of writing is also used in some other languages. In this sense, do not use 中文.

  • 传统上,日语、朝鲜语和越南语也部分使用汉字书写。
  • X传统上,日语、朝鲜语和越南语也部分使用中文书写。

3.国语 (National language), 华语 (Hua language), 普通话 (Common Tongue)

All the same thing, namely Mandarin (官话), but used by different people. 国语 is used in the Republic of China (Taiwan), 华语 in Southeast Asia by ethnic Chinese immigrants, and 普通话 in the Republic of China (mainland China). They are as different as Received Pronunciation and General American Accent are.

On the other hand, 中文 and 汉语 includes 粤语 (Cantonese) and other dialects of Chinese(some would say they are languages in the Chinese language family).

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