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What’s so standard about Standard Chinese?

Standard Chinese
China is home to hundreds of languages.

By Dr. Chen Szu-Wei

When linguists mention “Standard Chinese”, they may be referring to the national language (guóyǔ), common language (pǔtōnghuà), Mandarin (huáyǔ), or even modern standard Han speech (xiàndài biāozhǔn hànyǔ).

But how did Standard Chinese acquire its status as the official language following the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the emergence of China as a republic? Of course, after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, this split into the Republic of China on Taiwan and the far larger People’s Republic of China.

As legend goes, Standard Chinese was chosen through a vote. However, this was not through an election in which people chose one version among several candidates.

The origins of Standard Chinese actually go back to Imperial China. In 1902, the dean of academic affairs of Imperial University (Jīngshī dà xuétáng zǒng jiàoxí), Wu Rulun, ventured on a mission to Japan to investigate its educational system. He was amazed at how the adoption of a national Japanese language as the medium of instruction in schools had contributed to the spread of education. Upon returning to China, Wu advocated for the use of a national language.

This idea caught on, even though China had hundreds of languages and dialects. In 1909, the Qing government formally proclaimed “official speech” (guānhuà) as the “national language” and, in 1911, promulgated the National Language Unification Act. This was the first time that the term “national language” appeared in law.

It’s worth noting that the term “official speech” denoted the common spoken language of the literati and officialdom. The phonological basis is rooted mainly in Beijing Mandarin from the Qing dynasty.

The concept of a “national language”—promoted for general use throughout the country—was borrowed from Japan. Moreover, the term itself was derived from Japanese, similar to many other “Japanese-made Chinese words” in use since the mid-19th century. They included economy (jīngjì), telephone (diànhuà), and element (yuánsù).

Vote held on Chinese characters

Soon after the Republic of China was founded in 1912, officials convened the Conference for the Unification of Pronunciation (Dúyīn tǒngyī húi) in Beijing. In 1913, it brought together linguistic experts and representatives from all the provinces.

Here, delegates decided on the national standard pronunciation of each of approximately 6,500 Chinese characters by a majority vote. This necessitated reaching a compromise between Beijing Mandarin and other dialects from southern provinces. For the first time in history, the pronunciation of Chinese characters was determined at an official conference.

Six years later, the Ministry of Education established the Preparatory Commission for National Language Unification (Guóyǔ tǒngyī chóubèi huì). The following year in 1920, the ministry published the Dictionary of National Pronunciation (Guóyīn zìdiǎn).

However, this pieced-together compromise proved to be impractical because of its uneven quality. As a result, officials proposed that rather than proceeding with an artificial synthesis, the country should simply adopt the phonology of Beijing Mandarin. Therefore, in 1923 a committee was formed to review the pronunciation determined in the 1913 conference.

In the end, the committee settled upon Beijing Mandarin as a viable alternative. It became the phonological basis for national pronunciation. To promote this new standard, the committee drafted a Revised Dictionary of National Pronunciation.

That’s not the end of the story. In 1932, the Vocabulary of National Pronunciation for Everyday Use (Guóyīn Chángyòng Zìhuì) was published, replacing the old Dictionary of National Pronunciation. The previous standard—established in 1913 for the phonology of standard Chinese—was henceforth referred to as “old national pronunciation” (lǎo guóyīn), while the revised standard became known as “new national pronunciation” (xin guóyīn).

Whether you speak guóyǔ, pǔtōnghuà, or huáyǔ, now you know how the national standard was established. However, despite Standard Chinese being the norm for almost a century since its official recognition, ongoing changes persist—in particular after the split of China following the civil war.

As a result, multiple standards, along with some regional variation in vocabulary and pronunciation, exist across different Chinese-speaking communities.

Chen Szu-Wei is former Assistant Professor of the Graduate Institute of Musicology and Director of NTU Center for the Arts at the National Taiwan University. He currently works as an independent curator and scholar.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.