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History of Chinese Mandarin
Quick Reference
  ·  Official Language
China
  ·  Common 2nd language of
Taiwan and South East Asia
  ·  Number of Speakers
An estimated one billion
  ·  Origin
Origin unclear because it is so ancient
  ·  Alphabet & Scripts
Written Chinese is in characters called ideographs which bear no relation to the sound of a word. There are 40-50,000 characters in a Chinese dictionary.
Over 3,000 years old and the mother tongue of approximately one billion people, Chinese unites more human beings than any other language in the world.

The ancient empires of China rose originally from the great river valleys of the north-west centred on Ch'angan or modern Sian. Traces of an early Chinese script dating from around 1,500BC were discovered inscribed on bone and research has since shown that this script was originally recorded during the Shang dynasty.

Of the 2,000 ideographs recorded at the time, 1,300 have been identified as early forms of characters used in the Chinese language today. The language of the classical period at the time of Confucius (550-480 BC) is called Archaic Chinese, and this form developed into Ancient Chinese which was the precursor of Modern Chinese. Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan group of languages.

Like other languages, spoken Chinese diverged more and more from the written language until at last the language developed a unique literary style that became known as Wenyan, which was used for writing only.

Wenyan differs from common speech in both grammar and vocabulary. It is also studded with literary, mythical and historical allusions and really requires well-educated readers. From the 6th Century AD onwards, Wenyan was a powerful medium and in theory mastery of Wenyan ensured a successful career.

Wenyan enjoyed an important linguistic position for many years until young Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th Century began to argue for modernisation. When Mao Tse-tung came to power as leader of the Communists, language reform was an integral part of his transformation of China.

He wanted to make Chinese more accessible to the ordinary person and as a result advocated the simplification of characters and Romanization.

Simplification essentially means reducing the number of strokes in a character (there can be as many as 33!). This process started in China in 1956 and has largely been completed today. The Linguaphone text is printed in simplified characters.

The Roman alphabet was also adopted in the 1950's and this Romanized version is known as Pinyin. After January 1979, Pinyin completely replaced all other systems of Romanizations. The Linguaphone course also uses Pinyin.

The language reformers then wanted all of China to speak the same dialect; the natural choice for a universal dialect was the pure Peking (Beijing) dialect known in the west as Mandarin but called Putonghua (common speech) on the mainland today.

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Did you know?
CHINESE ranks FIRST in the world's league table of languages, with an estimated 1.3 Billion native speakers.
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