I'm travelling in Taiwan right now and I'm curious about the Chinese writing situation. Verbal announcements in all public transport are repeated in Mandarin, Hokkien and Hakka, but I only ever see one version of text written, and I assume that it is intended to be pronounced in Mandarin. Are the varieties of Chinese close enough so that speakers of other varieties can read the sentences written in Mandarin and correctly and unambiguously pronounce them in Hokkien and Hakka?

It looks like you never see a written form of Hokkien and Hakka on official signs. This seems very different from other multilingual countries that similarly try to keep local languages alive: for example, in Ireland you would see Irish on all official signs even though few people speak it.

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    In the mainland of China, there is a law on the standard spoken and written languages. According to the law, standardized Chinese characters should be used on official signs. If the varieties of characters are not among the standardized characters, they should not be used in public services. I think it's the same in Taiwan.
    – ElpieKay
    Commented Feb 23 at 9:51

3 Answers 3


This is an interesting question, and is one a bit unique to chinese, due to its diglossia ((written language is not 100% matched to spoken language)).

I'll start with answering your question, then explain the answer: No one educated in chinese will have any issue reading that single chinese text, called standard written chinese, native or second language or whatever.

Now for why: Way back in the day, all the areas of china had their own languages and dialects and stuff going on, maybe even two villages within a days distance will have trouble communicating. Opposite ends of the country would have no chance to succeed in communication at all.

So how was china running successfully for so many thousands of years in this situation? Because it had one unified writing system, used by the literate and government, to communicate. If I was a villager in the south, the chance the local government leader who came from the north speaks my language is negative. However, I could pool my savings with some neighbors, and pay a literate scholar to help us turn the local language into an officially written letter, which we could send to that govenrnment official to report our problems to be investigated. Thats a completely arbitrary example scenario, but hopefully it paints a clear picture of how this diglossia came to be.

Back then that standard was classical chinese, and things have changed a lot since then. Literary chinese replaced classical chinese, and modern standard written chinese replaced literary standard. The basic concept is the same though.

Theoretically, you could have someone only literate in classical and not modern standard, or only literate in their spoken language written down-- they would NOT be able to read standard written chinese. Thats super unlikely though, cause standard written chinese is standard, you wouldn't really get educate to read in anything else. We've now come full circle, and hopefully my initial sentence makes perfect sense now.

As a side note, standard written chinese is NOT the same as spoken mandarin, although it is very heavily inspired by it and much much closer to it than to any other type, by far. So a native speaker of a local mandarin like that will probably be able to read the basic message of the standard text in the above scenario of only using local tongue. Any local tongue not mutually intelligible with standard mandarin, not so much (^ν^)


Read my answer to a similar question

  • We do have written Cantonese beside SWC and Written Mandarin. But it is only used in casual content like comics, gossip columns, or web chats. For official documents and formal text like news reports or homework, we all use SWC

  • We can read the same text in either Mandarin with Pinyin or Cantonese with Jyping. The same applies to other dialects


(Written Mandarin): 我是中國人 (pinyin)/wo3 shi4 zhong1 guo2 ren2/

(SWC): 我是中國人 (Jyping)/ngo5 si6 zung1 gwok3 jan4/

(Written Cantonese): 我係中國人 (Jyping)/ngo5 hai6 zung1 gwok3 jan4/

  • In this example the sentence structure is exactly the same in Mandarin and Cantonese, and the only difference is how to pronounce each character. But is it always the same? Different languages sometimes have different word order or additional words added. So can you always read a SWC sentence unambiguously in Cantonese with the exact same word order? Commented Feb 22 at 23:32
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    Yes, all SWC sentences can be read in Cantonese or Mandarin. only colloquial Cantonese often use different word order than Mandarin
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Feb 23 at 2:57

There is only one written form of Chinese, although there are many spoken dialects. That's how people from all over the country can read things such as road signs and notices.

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    this isn't correct. while its correct that standard written chinese is used so people from all over can read the same text, you could write in colloquial cantonese a harbin speaker will never understand, or write in a colloquial mandarin that a hongkonger will never understand, even with the same swc education. plus classical or literary or even nushu without chinese characters, there are many ways to write in chinese.
    – zagrycha
    Commented Feb 25 at 2:48
  • That isn't the question. The question is about reading Mandarin text. Therefore Cantonese isn't in question here. Furthermore, Mandarin is "official Chinese," not any local form of writing. Commented Feb 26 at 2:14
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    you are still mistaken-- op said written mandarin, but clearly they meant standard written chinese, which is not the same as colloquially written mandarin. Standard written chinese is the same no matter what chinese you read it out loud in. SWC is not the only way to write chinese. The one taught in school and used formally in daily life does not equal the only. It doesn't make any sense to say that.
    – zagrycha
    Commented Feb 26 at 2:37
  • You even admitted that the OP is "standard written chinese" and not anything local or colloquial. Which is exactly my answer. Commented Feb 26 at 3:27
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    are you intentionally or accidentally circling? you say in your answer that swc is the only way to write chinese, which is factually very incorrect. it was never a problem of whether op is talking about swc themselves.
    – zagrycha
    Commented Feb 28 at 22:53

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