An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Chinese Language (Mandarin)

Mar 25, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Chinese language is one of the most important languages of the world. It is, if seen as one single language, also the language most often used, with 1.5 billion speakers. It is spoken as the national standard language by the inhabitants of the People's Republic of China, of Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and by the many Chinese Overseas communities in Asia and around the world. Chinese is now also the language of one of the world's largest economical powers. And finally, it is a language with a three-thousand years old literary tradition. Some people might even say it is the only surviving language of the ancient cultures of the wolds (the others, Old Egypt, the Mesopotamian cultures, and the Indus culture, having died out since long).

The standard idiom of the Chinese language is the so-called Mandarin language (guanhua 官話) of Beijing that was in use by the state officials (by Westerners called "mandarins") serving in the capital during the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods. During the early Republican period (1911-1949), the Mandarin language was defined as the national standard language (guoyu 國語) of China. In the People's Republic, the national standard language is called "common language" (putonghua 普通話), in Singapore and Malaysia "Chinese" (Huayu 華語). The term guoyu is used in Taiwan.

The oldest evidence of the Chinese language dates from the late Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), when divination texts were incised into tortoise plastrons or other bones. This language, called Early Archaic Chinese, is very different in grammar from the modern Chinese, but still recognizable as Chinese. The pronunciation also considerably changed over time. The pronunciation of Mandarin is, compared to the phonetics of ancient Chinese, relatively simple.

The National Language

The trend to establish one idiom as the national language began in the the late Qing period. During the previous centuries, state officials from all parts of the country had come to the capital Beijing and had to orally communicate in a common language. The idiom (or dialect) of Beijing served as a model for the "language of the mandarins, the state officials" (guanhua 官話), yet the idiom itself was it was not adopted as a standard. The catchword of the scholars supporting the creation of a standard language was not only to unify the dialects of China (guoyu tongyi 國語統一), but at the same time to "unify the vernacular with the written language" (yu wen yi zhi 語文一致). The vernacular language was called baihua 白話 "plain language", and the movement was accordingly given the name baihua yundong 白話運動 "movement for the use of vernacular language [in literature]".

The first person using the word guoyu 國語 "national language" was Wu Rulun 吳汝綸 (1840-1903). He had been impressed by the Japanese efforts to make the idom of Tōkyō the national language, and suggested similar language policy for China. Wu cooperated with Wang Zhao 王照 (1859-1933), who had created a kind of alphabet for the language of Beijing (see qieyin alphabets 切音).

In 1909, the Qing government founded a Commitee for the Establishment and Research of a National Language (Guoyu biancha weiyuanhui 國語編查委員會), and two years later a Conference for [General] Education in China (Zhongguo jiaoyu huiyi 中國教育會議) was held, which was reestablished after the foundation of the Republic in 1911. The first task of this conference was to determine the correct phonetic range and system of the National language. In 1913 a Conference for the Unification of Pronunciation (duyin tongyi hui 讀音統一會) was held which fixed the correct pronunciation of characters in the national language.

At the same time an alphabet was created for the national language, known as the Zhuyin alphabet 注音 "commenting on pronunciation". After a long hesitation by the government in Beijing, the Research Society for the National Language of the Republic of China (Zhonghua minguo guoyu yanjiu hui 中華民國國語研究會) was opened in 1916 which had the task to investigate all topolects and dialects of China, to fix a standard language, to compile a standard dictionary and grammar, to compile text books for elementary schools, and to publish magazins promoting the national language.

In November 1918, the Zhuyin alphabet was issued as the official transcription for the national language. In the same year, the newspaper Xinqingnian 新青年 started writing in the vernacular language. In 1919 finally, the Beijing government opened the Preparatory Committee for Standardizing the National Language (Guoyu tongyi choubei hui 國語統一籌備會). The Zhuyin alphabet was revised and to be used concurrently with the Gwoyeu Romatzyh transcription 國語羅馬字 which uses the Latin alphabet. While the Zhuyin alphabet was to be used by pupils in China, the Gwoyeu Romatzyh alphabet was thought as a means for internationalization. The use of the latter was officially promulgated in 1928.

In 1919, the dictionary Guoyin zidian 國音字典 was published (revised edition 1923) which fixed the pronuncation of characters according to the national language. In 1932, an official list of the correct pronuncation of the most important characters was published, the Guoyin changyong zihui 國音常用字彙. The Ministry of Education started publishing a series of journals and newspapers written in the "new" national language, like Guoyu yuekan 國語月刊, Minguo ribao 民國日報, Shibao 時報, Shenbao 申報, or Shanghai qingnian 上海青年.

In 1949, the People's Republic adopted the Guoyu as the national language yet changed the name to Putonghua 普通話. The Guoyu used in Taiwan and the Putonghua used in the People's Republic are basically identical, barring some exceptions. In the past 60 years there occurred, nevertheless, changes in the tone pitches of words and the pronunciation of some characters, and the two language have partially a different lexicon (like the word for "bicylce", jiaotache 腳踏車 in Taiwan, but zixingche 自行車 in the PRC, or "taxi", which is jichengche 計程車 in Taiwan but chuzuqiche 出租汽車 in the PRC).


The phonetics of the Mandarin language can be divided into three aspects, namely the initial consonants (shengmu 聲母), finals (yunmu 韻母), and the tone pitches (shengdiao 聲調). If the tone pitches are part of the final syllable or a separate phenomenon, depends on the viewpoint.

There are syllables (yinjie 音節) with or without initial consonant (fuyin 輔音). Some finals include an interstitial semi-vowel (jieyin 介音). The syllable endings (yunwei 韻尾) can be an open vowel (yuanyin yunwei 元音韻尾) or bear a final closing consonant (fuyin yunwei 輔音韻尾). Since about 2,000 years, Chinese linguist scholars operate with the concept of initials and finals, for example, to describe the sound of other words (in the fanqie 反切 "cut rhymes" system), or for the lexical arrangement of words and characters (see she rhymes 攝 and Guangyun rhymes 廣韻). The method to divide syllables into initial sounds and final sounds has been perpetuated in the Zhuyin zimu system 注音字母, a kind of alphabet for the transcription of the national language created in the first decade of the Republic.

Table 1. Parts of a Chinese syllable
consonant initial interstitial vowel final
[an] an
[ban] b- -an
[la] l- -a
[ljɛn] l- -i- -an
[lωan] l- -u- -an

The Mandarin language knows 22 consonant initials, 3 interstitial semi-vowels ([(ʝ)i], [(ω)u] and [(ʝ)y] ) and 2 consonant endings ([n] and [ŋ]). Syllables include in any case a vowel (yuanyin 元音). There are, as a particular feature of the northern idioms of China, two groups of syllables that replace the vowel by a "hummed" continuation of the initial sound. These are the syllables with initial consonants [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ] and [ʐ], as well as [dz], [tsʰ] and [s]. Another peculiar sound of the Mandarin language is the retroflex approximant [ɑɻ] that is used as a syllable, but also as a suffix to monosyllabic words. In the Taiwanese national language, the [ɑɻ] is rarely used as a suffix. The word for "here", for example is called [dʐɛ-ɻ] by the Beijing standard, but [dʐə-li] in Southern China and Taiwan, and therefore also written differently, namely 這兒, and 這裏, respectively.

The Mandarin language knows four tone pitches (sisheng 四聲): the high-level tone (yinpingsheng 陰平聲, diyisheng 第一聲), the raising tone pitch (yanpingsheng 陽平聲, diersheng 第二聲), the falling-raising tone pitch (shangsheng 上聲, disansheng 第三聲), and the falling tone pitch (qusheng 去聲, disisheng 第四聲).

Table 2. The four tone pitches (sisheng 四聲) in Mandarin Chinese
1st tone ˥ high-level pitch yinpingsheng 陰平聲 mā [ma˥] [ma55]
2nd tone ˧˥ raising pitch yanpingsheng 陽平聲 má [ma˧˥] [ma35]
3rd tone ˨˩˦ falling-raising pitch shangsheng 上聲 mǎ [ma˨˩˦] [ma214]
4th tone ˥˩ falling pitch qusheng 去聲 mà [ma˥˩] [ma51]

The tone pitch can change, depending on the following syllable. In a word with two syllables of the falling-raising tone pitch, for example, the first syllable is spoken in the raising tone. In general, the third, falling-raising tone is spoken just low-level, without executing the full movement. This phenomenon is called tone sandhi (biandiao 變調) by linguists, sandhi being a Sanskrit word. The word yǔsǎn 雨傘 "umbrella", for example, changes to yúsǎn. The words bu 不, and the numbers yi 一, ba 八 and qi 七 also change their tone pitches according to the following syllable.

Table 3. Special tone sandhis in certain words
不 "not" is read before a falling tone (e.g. bú dùi 不對 "not correct")
一 "one" is read before a falling tone (e.g. yíbàn 一半 " a half"), and before a level, rising or falling-rising tone (e.g. yìtiān 一天 "one day", yìnián 一年 "one year", yìdiǎn 一點 "a little")
七 "seven" is read before a falling tone (e.g. qíyuè 七月 "July")
八 "eight" is read before a falling tone (e.g. báyuè 八月 "August")

In many words the tone pitch of the second syllable is shortened and pronounced with a "light" or unstressed tone (qingsheng 輕聲), like in 頭髮 (tóufa° instead of tóufà) or 關係 (guānxi° instead of guānxì). The IPA symbols for the four tone pitches are ˥ for the high tone, ˧˥ for the raising tone, ˨˩˦ for the falling-raising tone, ˥˩ for the falling tone, and ˨ for the light tone. In the modern Hanyu pinyin transcription system 漢語拼音, the tone pitches are indicated by the accent symbols ˉ , ´ , ˇ , and ` , looking like ā á ǎ à , ē é ě è , ê̄ ế ê̌ ề , ī í ǐ ì , ō ó ǒ ò , ū ú ǔ ù , ǖ ǘ ǚ ǜ.

The tone pitches have been discribed by Chinese linguists by a system of numbers referring to the height of the voice, 1 being the lowest, and 5 the highest. The first or high level tone is designated as 55 (from high to high), the second or raising tone as 35 (from middle to high), the third or falling-raising tone as 214 (from relatively low to deeper and raising again), the fourth or falling tone pitch as 51 (from highest to lowest). Example: yu35san214.

The initial consonants have been grouped according to the place and method of pronunciation. This was first done for the arrangment of the she rhyme syllables and later systematically done in the Zhuyin transcription system. The order is:

Table 4. Types of initial consonants
labials chun yin 唇音 [b][pʰ][m][f]
blade-alveolar sounds shejian zhong yin 舌尖中音 [d][tʰ][n][l]
velars shegen yin 舌根音 or shemian hou yin 舌面後音 [g][kʰ][x]
dorsals shemian qian yin 舌面前音 [dʝ][tɕʰ][ɕ]
blade-palatals shejian hou yin 舌尖後音 [dʐ][tʂʰ][ʂ][ʐ]
dentals shejian qian yin 舌尖前音 [dz][tsʰ][s]

There is no consensus about the plosives [b], [d] and [g]. In the Hanyu pinyin transcription they are written like presented here (b p, d t, g k). Yet there were originally three different series of plosives, namely voiced (zhuoyin 濁音), voiceless (qingyin 清音) and semi-voiced (qingzhuoyin 清濁音). In some Mandarin dialects in the lower Yangtze area, the voiced plosives are still existing. Many linguists interprete the plosives of Mandarin as semi-voiced and as voiceless, and therefore write [p][pʰ], [t][tʰ] and [k][kʰ]. I think that although this might be correct it is yet misleading for most laypersons, and therefore I will consistently use the symbols indicated in the listing above.

The use of the interstitial semi-vowels or vowel-heads [i] and [u] depends on the tone pitch, the surrounding words, but also on the dialect. The word 應 might therefore be pronounded ['iŋ] as well as [ʝiŋ], yet barely with the initial voiced pharyngeal fricative [ʕ].

The following table gives an overview of the range of syllables in Mandarin, with combinations of initials (columns) and finals (rows). It can be seen that many initial-final combinations are not possible. For means of simplicity, the functional IPA brackets [] are left out.

Table 5. Sound combinations in Mandarin
finals b pʰ m f d tʰ n l g kʰ x dʝ tɕʰ ɕ dʐ tʂʰ ʂ ʐ dz tsʰ s
-- dʐ tʂʰ ʂ ʐ dz tsʰ s
a ba pʰa ma fa da tʰa na la ga kʰa xa dʐa tʂʰa ʂa - dza tsʰa sa
aɪ̯ baɪ̯ pʰaɪ̯ maɪ̯ - daɪ̯ tʰaɪ̯ naɪ̯ laɪ̯ gaɪ̯ kʰaɪ̯ xaɪ̯ dʐaɪ̯ tʂʰaɪ̯ ʂaɪ̯ - dzaɪ̯ tsʰaɪ̯ saɪ̯
an ban pʰan man fan dan tʰan nan lan gan kʰan xan dʐan tʂʰan ʂan ʐan dzan tsʰan san
baŋ pʰaŋ maŋ faŋ daŋ tʰaŋ naŋ laŋ gaŋ kʰaŋ xaŋ dʐaŋ tʂʰaŋ ʂaŋ ʐaŋ dzaŋ tsʰaŋ saŋ
ɑʊ̯ bɑʊ̯ pʰɑʊ̯ mɑʊ̯ - dɑʊ̯ tʰɑʊ̯ nɑʊ̯ lɑʊ̯ gɑʊ̯ kʰɑʊ̯ xɑʊ̯ dʐɑʊ̯ tʂʰɑʊ̯ ʂɑʊ̯ ʐɑʊ̯ dzɑʊ̯ tsʰɑʊ̯ sɑʊ̯
ə - - mə - də tʰə nə lə gə kʰə xə dʐə tʂʰə ʂə ʐə dzə tsʰə sə
ən bən pʰən mən fən - - nən - gən kʰən xən dʐən tʂʰən ʂən ʐən dzən tsʰən sən
əŋ bəŋ pʰəŋ məŋ fəŋ dəŋ tʰəŋ nəŋ ləŋ gəŋ kʰəŋ xəŋ dʐəŋ tʂʰəŋ ʂəŋ ʐəŋ dzəŋ tsʰəŋ səŋ
eɪ̯ beɪ̯ pʰeɪ̯ meɪ̯ feɪ̯ deɪ̯ tʰeɪ̯ neɪ̯ leɪ̯ geɪ̯ - xeɪ̯ dʐeɪ̯ tʂʰeɪ̯ ʂeɪ̯ - dzeɪ̯ tsʰeɪ̯ -
ʝi bi pʰi mi - di tʰi ni li dʝi tɕʰi ɕi
ʝia - - - lia dʝia tɕʰia ɕia
ʝiɑʊ̯ biɑʊ̯ pʰiɑʊ̯ miɑʊ̯ - diɑʊ̯ tʰiɑʊ̯ niɑʊ̯ liɑʊ̯ dʝiɑʊ̯ tɕʰiɑʊ̯ ɕiɑʊ̯
ʝiɛ biɛ pʰiɛ miɛ - diɛ tʰiɛ niɛ - dʝiɛ tɕʰiɛ ɕiɛ
ʝiɛn biɛn pʰiɛn miɛn - diɛn tʰiɛn niɛn liɛn dʝiɛn tɕʰiɛn ɕiɛn
ʝiaŋ - - niaŋ liaŋ dʝiaŋ tɕʰiaŋ ɕiaŋ
ʝin bin pʰin min - - - nin lin dʝin tɕʰin ɕin
ʝiŋ biŋ pʰiŋ miŋ - diŋ tʰiŋ niŋ liŋ dʝiŋ tɕʰiŋ ɕiŋ
ʝioʊ̯ - - mioʊ̯ - dioʊ̯ - nioʊ̯ lioʊ̯ dʝioʊ̯ tɕʰioʊ̯ ɕioʊ̯
oʊ̯ - pʰoʊ̯ moʊ̯ foʊ̯ doʊ̯ tʰoʊ̯ - loʊ̯ goʊ̯ kʰoʊ̯ xoʊ̯ dʐoʊ̯ tʂʰoʊ̯ ʂoʊ̯ ʐoʊ̯ dzoʊ̯ tsʰoʊ̯ soʊ̯
ωu bu pʰu mu fu du tʰu nu lu gu kʰu xu dʐu tʂʰu ʂu ʐu dzu tsʰu su
ωa gωa kʰωa xωa dʐωa tʂʰωa - -
ωaɪ̯ gωaɪ̯ kʰωaɪ̯ xωaɪ̯ dʐωaɪ̯ tʂʰωaɪ̯ ʂωaɪ̯ -
ωan dωan tʰωan nωan lωan gωan kʰωan xωan dʐωan tʂʰωan ʂωan ʐωan - tsʰωan sωan
ωaŋ gωaŋ kʰωaŋ xωaŋ dʐωaŋ tʂʰωaŋ ʂωaŋ -
ωeɪ̯ dωeɪ̯ tʰωeɪ̯ - - gωeɪ̯ kʰωeɪ̯ xωeɪ̯ dʐωeɪ̯ tʂʰωeɪ̯ ʂωeɪ̯ ʐωeɪ̯ dzωeɪ̯ tsʰωeɪ̯ sωeɪ̯
dun tʰun - lun gun kʰun xun dʐun tʂʰun ʂun ʐun dzun tsʰun sun
dʊŋ tʰʊŋ nʊŋ lʊŋ gʊŋ kʰʊŋ xʊŋ dʐʊŋ tʂʰʊŋ - ʐʊŋ dzʊŋ tsʰʊŋ sʊŋ
bɔ pʰɔ mɔ fɔ dωɔ tʰωɔ nωɔ lωɔ gωɔ kʰωɔ xωɔ dʐωɔ tʂʰωɔ ʂωɔ ʐωɔ dzωɔ tsʰωɔ sωɔ
ʝy - - nyly dʝy tɕʰy ɕy
ʝyɛ - - nyɛlyɛ dʝyɛ tɕʰyɛ ɕyɛ
ʝyɛn dʝyɛn tɕʰyɛn ɕyɛn
ʝyn dʝyn tɕʰyn ɕyn
ʝiʊŋ dʝiʊŋ tɕʰiʊŋ ɕiʊŋ

The most important features of the phonetic system of Chinese is the simplicity of the sound structure of syllables, as well as the tone pitches. There are syllables with only one vowel, but also syllables with several vowels ([aɪ̯], [ɑʊ̯], [eɪ̯], [oʊ̯]). The semi-vowels [(ʝ)i], [(ω)u] and [(ʝ)y] can serve as interstitial sounds. In modern Chinese, only the consonants [n] and [ŋ] can serve as consonant finals. There are no consonant clusters in modern Chinese.

Linguists distinguish consonant initials (shengmu 聲母), finals (yunmu 韻母) and the tone pitch (shengdiao 聲調) to discribe a syllable. Most syllables have a consonant initial, but there are also syllables without it. The finals can be divided into the the central vowel (yunfu 韻腹), the head vowel (yuntou 韻頭), which consists of interstitial semi-vowels [i], [u] and [y], and the final ending (yunwei 韻尾), consisting of a vowel and/or of the two consonants [n] and [ŋ].

Each syllable has a tone pitch. Modern Chinese has four tone pitches. In colloquial speech, the tone pitches are not always expressively pronounced, and there are some words where the tone pitch of the second syllable is not pronounced. Such syllables are spoken in the so-called "light" (qingsheng 輕聲) or "zero-tone" (qingsheng 零聲), like in dōngxi° 東西 "things", zǒule° 走了 "go", fángzi° 房子 "room", tóufa° 頭髮 "hair" or guānxi° 關係 "relations").

Words can be distinguished by the tone pitch, but there are also lots of words bearing the same tone pitch. This is less a problem for most disyllabic syllables in modern Chinese, but speaking the monosyllabical Classical Chinese makes mutual understanding much more difficult. The four tone pitches are not used for all syllables. There are, for example, no words with the sounds [faɪ̯], [dən], [nia], [ʂʰωa], [gi], [kiaŋ], [dzy] or [ɕωeɪ̯].

In different dialects the same words may have a different tone pitch. The tone pitches of many words modern Chinese have even changed in the past 100 years. Mandarin knowns 21 consonants and 36 finals, making a theoretical pool of 756 sounds, multiplied with the number of tones, a pool of 3,024 different syllables. This is indeed not very much, and in practice, not all consonant initials are combined with all finals. [ga] 噶, [kʰə] 可, [xωan] 喚, for instance, all bear "dark" vowels, yet [dʝi] 幾, [tɕʰiɛn] 前, [ɕyɛ] 學, all have "light" vowels. In fact, there are only about 1,200 syllables used. This means that there is a tremendous amount of homophones (tongyinci 同音詞) in modern Chinese, like shùmù 樹木 "tree" and shùmù 數目 "number".

Table 6. Examples for homophones (tongyinzi 同音字) pronouned [ʝi˧˥] ()
to fit, to be appropriate
to mow; to root out; Yi Barbarians
cheek; to shepherd
to leave back; to loose; leftovers
outside; conduct; tool, instrument
to move; to change
to doubt; uncertain
to present; to leave back

In the idiom of Beijing and other northern regions there is the phenomenon of the suffixation of the retroflex sound [ɑɻ] (in Chinese called erhua 兒化 "r-ization") to nouns, adjectives and some verbs. The rhyme ending is in such cases slurred, like [gωɑɻ] from [gωan] and [ɑɻ]. In southern idioms the retroflex suffix changes into the sound [n] or [ŋ].

Historical phonology

Because the Chinese script is not phonetical but logographical, it is not possible to directly recognize the sound of a character. This is very problematic for the reconstruction of the sounds of ancient Chinese. The main source materials for the study of ancient Chinese phonology are poems, a literary genre using rhymes. Another source are ancient dictionaries whose entries are arranged in rhyme groups. Modern topolects with a phonetic system of a more archaic character can also serve to reconstruct the sounds of ancient Chinese. A fourth source are Chinese transcriptions of foreign names, like fotuo 佛陀 for "Buddha", in which it can be seen that the modern syllable fo formerly included a consonant final –t ([bʰĭuət dʰɑ]). The problem with the reconstruction of an ancient Chinese phonology is that also in ancient times, there were topolects and dialects, so that it is difficult to establish a "standard phonetic" of Early Archaic Chinese (shanggu Hanyu 上古漢語) or of Middle Chinese (zhonggu Hanyu 中古漢語).

The rhymes (yunjiao 韻腳) of the poems in the Classic Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs", as well as Chinese characters containing a phonetic element (xieshengzi 諧聲字) play an important role for the reconstruction of the phonetics of archaic Chinese. The basic elements have been worked out, but there is still dissens over many aspects.

There were some voiced or "soft" consonants ([b], [d], [g], [dz]) not any longer used in Mandarin (correctly, [p], [t], [k] and [ts]), but in some local idioms and a lot of topolects. There might have been initial consonant clusters, like [kl-] or [pl-]. This theory has been derived from the fact that some phonetic elements have two different series, like 各 [gə] serving for the series 格 [gə], 恪 [kə], 閣 [gə] or 客 [kə] and the series 洛 [lωɔ], 路 [lu], 賂 [lu] and 略 [lyɛ]. It is quite probable that the initial cluster [kl-] served for words that later were simplified to [l-] or for [k-].

There might also have been cluster finals, resulting in what is perceived as a long entering tone (see below) and a short entering tone in some topolects. The syllables of Archaic Chinese are grouped into 30 rhyme groups (yunbu 韻部). All words in one rhyme group have the same central vowel and final ending, the initial consonant and the head vowel may be different. Words in a rhyme group are divided into three sub-groups, namely that with a nasal consonant final [-m] [-n] [-ŋ] (yangsheng yun 陽聲韻), those without final consonant (yinsheng yun 陰聲韻), and those with the consonant endings [-p], [-t] and [-k] (rusheng yun 入聲韻, "entering tone", i.e. a syllable with a consonant ending [-p], [-t], or [-k] ). If only the central vowel was the same, all words of the same rhyme group could serve to pair rhymes. There are some endings, like [-an], [-aŋ], [-ən] and [-əŋ] that did not change during the last 3,000 years, but much more words of Archaic Chinese bare a totally different vowel than today.

About the tone pitches in Archaic Chinese, there is no common sense among specialists.

Middle Chinese is much easier to reconstruct because contemporary Chinese strated investigating the sounds of their own language. The most important of these researches is Lu Fayan's 陸法言 (fl. 601) rhyme dictionary Qieyun 切韻 from the Tang period 唐 (618-907). Based on this book, the Song period 宋 (960-1279) scholar Chen Pengnian 陳彭年 (961-1017) compiled the rhyme dictionary Guangyun 廣韻. In the Qieyun, 193 rhyme groups were used, in the Guangyun, 206 rhyme groups (called the Guangyun rhymes). It is not known upon which idiom these books are based as a standard language. Yet about half of the the 206 rhyme groups are syllables with different tone pitches, and not syllables with different rhymes. There were, therefore, only 90 real rhyme groups.

Quotation 1. Example for sound changes over time
This is the famous first sentence of the Lunyu, "Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?" The first line is archaic Chinese, in the reconstruction of Baxter & Sagart, the second line Middle Chinese according to Wang Li 王力, and the lowest line the Pinyin transcription of modern Chinese. Final consonants which have disappeared in Modern Chinese are marked in red. Tone pitches neglected.

The rhyme groups also included syllables with different head vowels, which were, when writings poems, apparently not considered as decisive. Yet this negligence makes it difficult to reconstruct the factual pronunciation of a character. If discerning syllables with different head vowel, there were 150 rhyme groups. Middle Chinese knew 36 initial consonants, yet these were not essential for the rhymes, and therefore all rhyme groups include words with many different consonant initials. There were only two interstitial or "head" vowels, namely [-i-] and [-u-], but there was probably a long [i:] and a short [i].

Compared with modern Chinese, there was a wider range of central (or proper) vowels in Middle Chinese. The final endings were divided into those with a nasal consonant final [-m], [n] and [-ŋ] (yangsheng yun), those without final consonant (yinsheng yun), and those with the consonant endings [-p], [-t] and [-k] (rusheng yun). According to the dictionary Qieyun, words of the yangsheng group could rhyme with such of the rusheng group ([-uŋ] with [-uk], [-an] with [-at], and [-am] with [-ap]).

The tone pitches were one criterion for the arrangement of the rhyme groups in Middle Chinese. The Qieyun, and all later rhyme dictionaries, discerns the four tones pitches of level tone (pingsheng 平聲), falling-raising tone (shangsheng 上聲), falling tone (qusheng 去聲) and entering tone (rusheng 入聲, syllables with consonant finals [-p], [-t] and [-k]). The yangsheng syllables (endings [-m] [n] [-ŋ]) with the rhymes [-uŋ], [-ĭuŋ], [-uk], and [-ĭuk], for example, are divided into the four rhyme groups 東 [tuŋ˥˩], 董 [tuŋ˥], 送 [suŋ˩˥] and 屋 [ʔuk], each bearing a different tone pitch. The yinsheng syllables (without final consonant) with the rhyme of [-ĭo], are divided into the three rhyme groups 魚 [ŋĭo˩], 語 [ŋĭo˥] and 御 [ŋĭo˩˥] because there is no word with the entering tone pitch among these syllables.

Syllables were also grouped according the initial consonants. Syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant (qingyin 清音) are divided into the tone groups yinping 陰平, yinshang 陰上, yinqu 陰去 and yinru 陰入, those beginning with a voiced consonant (zhuoyin 濁音) into the tone groups yangping 陽平, yangshang 陽上, yangqu 陽去 and yangru 陽入.

During the Song period, many rhyme groups of the Qieyun were already considered as obsolete, and therefore, late Song period scholars merged the obsolete rhyme groups with others, leading to a number of 106 rhyme groups. These are called the Pingshui rhymes (Pingshui yun 平水韻), named after the home town of the linguist Liu Yuan 劉淵. They were first used in a new edition of an earlier dictionary, the Renzi xinkan Libu yunlüe 壬子新刊禮部韻略.

The rhyme groups are named after the first group of homophones (xiaoyun 小韻) belonging to it, like 東 [tuŋ˥˩], 之 [tɕĭə˥˩], and 幽 [ʔiəu˥˩]. The homophone group of 【東 (德紅切 tuŋ˥˩)】, for intance, includes the words 菄, 鶇, 䍶, 𠍀, 倲, 𩜍, 𢘐, 涷, 蝀, 凍, 鯟, 𢔅, 崠, 埬, 𧓕, and 䰤 (many of which are today obsolete).

The oldest traces of a northern common language, the Mandarin language of Beijing, can be found in the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) rhyme dictionary Zhongyuan yinyun 中原音韻 by Zhou Deqing 周德清 (1277-1365). The rhyme group system of Early Modern Chinese (jingu hanyu 近古漢語) displayed this book is simpler than in the 700 years older Qieyun and resembles the modern language in many points. While the Qieyun and its Song period successor dictionaries are first arranged according to tone pitches, and only then in rhyme groups, the Zhongyuan yinyun prefers the latter to the former. It knows 20 consonant initials, which roughly corresponds to the modern initials.

The deepest change took place by the vanishing of the voiced consonants which totally changed into voiceless sounds. 步 [b] merged with 布 [p], 在 [dz] merged with 再 [ts], and 似 [z] merges with 四 [s]. The Zhongyuan yinyun knows 19 syllable endings, resp. rhyme groups, which are identified by two characterizing words, like 東鍾 [tʊŋ][tʂʊŋ], 江陽 [tɕʝaŋ][ʝiaŋ], 支思 [tʂi][si] etc. The real number of rhyme groups is 40, which is far less than in the Tang and Song period rhyme dictionaries. One reason for this is that the entering tone (rusheng) had disappeared, and the words originally bearing this tone pitch had become yinsheng syllables (without final consonant). Another reason for the shrinkage of rhyme groups is that several Middle-Chinese vowel heads had merged with the central vowel. The interstional semi-vowel head [-y-] only came up during the Ming period. The consonant syllable ending [-m] should disappear at the same time and merge with [-n].

The separation of the closed or "dark" syllables from the open or "light" syllables of the initial series [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ], [ʐ] and [dʝ], [tɕʰ], [ɕ] was a phenomenon having occurred in the last 200 years. Some of the "dark" syllable series even altogether dropped a vowel, without yet giving up the tone pitch. These are the "hummed" syllables [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ], [ʐ] and [dz], [tsʰ], [s]. This development coincides with the palatalisation of the guttural sounds [g] and [kʰ] which became [dʝ] and [tɕʰ] before open vowels beginning with [i] and [y].

The designation "Peking", for example can be traced back to the Early Modern Chinese pronunciation [peɪ̯ kiŋ] which has changed to [beɪ̯ dʝiŋ] during the 19th century. The river "Yangtze Kiang" was called [ʝaŋ dzə kʝaŋ] before it became the modern [ʝaŋ dz dʝaŋ] (actually only a designation for the upper course of the river).

The tone pitches of Early Modern Chinese were identical to the four known tones of Mandarin. The diminished set of sounds had even elevated the importance of the tone pitches. Many Middle Chinese words with the falling-raising tone pitch had changed to the falling tone pitch. Even from early modern Chinese to the modern Mandarin, changes in the tone pitches took place. Some idioms of Mandarin still today show traces of voiced initial consonants and of the entering tone.


Note: For the sake of legibility, the following examples are rendered in the modern Hanyu pinyin transcription. Characters are not really necessary, but are also a help to enhance readability.

Structure of words

In the Mandarin language, there are many monosyllabic words. These are mainly simple words for everyday use, like the words for "hand" (shou 手), "to wash" (xi 洗), or "and" (he 和). Yet the greatest part of verbs, adjectives and nouns is disyllabic. Monosyllabic morphemes can be combined to disyllabic or polysyllabic words, like the words for "street" ("horse lane" malu 馬路) or "washing machine" ("wash-clothes machine" xiyiji 洗衣機). Disyllabic words can be created by a juxtapositon (type binglieshi 並列式) of two nouns of two verbs that often have a similar meaning (jisuan 計算 "count-compute", renmin 人民 "person-people", daolu 道路 "way-street", shanggu 商賈 "merchant-trader", or xisheng 犧牲 "victim-sacrifice", kongpa 恐怕 "fear-be afraid"), but sometimes also are opposites (daxiao 大小 "large-small (size)", changduan 長短 "long-short (strengths)", or cunwang 存亡 "exist-perish (existence, survival)"), in which case only one syllable gives the meaning (chengbai 成敗 "accomplish-defeated" is "defeated", huanji 緩急 "relax-haste" means "to hurry").

Another group of disyllabic words consists of a noun and a modifier (noun adjunct, type pianzhengshi 偏正式), like pifu 匹夫 "single man", menren 門人 "gate man (retainer)", shengmin 生民 "living people (populace)", or fuyong 附庸 "appendage servant (vassal)", or a verb and a modifier (an adverbial adjunct), like huiyi 回憶 " to recollect back (to recall, to call to mind)", houhui 後悔 "to regret back (to regret)" or mixin 迷信 "to believe confused (superstition, blind faith)".

A third group of composita are predicate–object constructions, like chuxi 出席 "to come out on one's seat (to be present)", danxin 擔心 "to carry the heart (to feel anxious)", or xiaolao 效勞 "to bring labour into effect (to work for)". Very seldom are subject–predicate constructions, like dongzhi 冬至 "winter has arrived (Winter Solistice)", danqie 膽怯 "to be cowardly in the guts" (timid)" or juti 具體 "an objects takes shape (concrete)".

There are very few prefixes (qianzhui 前綴) in Chinese. A very old prefix is you 有 "there is" which is introducing the name of a family or a dynasty, like Youxia 有夏 or Youzhou 有周, or a region, like Youbei 有北. Similar, virtually meaningless prefixes in archaic Chinese are yan 言, yue 曰, yu 聿, and yu 于 (all of them are proncounced very similarly). A more modern prefix used for personal names is a 阿, which is still used today, especially in the southeastern region. It is used as a prefix for real names, but also for terms of family relationship, like axiong 阿兄 "older brother" or ama 阿嬤 "amah" (a Chinese domestic servant or housemaid of foreigners).

Suffixes (houzhui 後綴) are mainly positioned after adjectives and adverbial adjuncts, like ran 然, er 爾, er 而, ruo 若 and ru 如. Of these, only ran has survived until today, as seen in the words ouran 偶然 "by accident", ziran 自然 "natural", guoran 果然 "really, as expected", and so on. The common suffixes zi 子, er 兒 and tou 頭 have a long history (for instance, dizi 弟子 "disciple", penr 盆兒 "small pot",or 木頭 mutou "wood"). Zi was already used as a suffix during the Han period 漢 (206 BE-220 CE), the suffix tou appeared during the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420~589), and er came up during the Tang period 唐 (618-907).

There are also some disyllabic words that can not be dissolved in two morphemes. One of the two used as a single word would make no sense, like "embarrassed, in a dilemma" ganga 尷尬 or "irregular, uneven" cenci 參差. Words of this type are often beginning with the same consonant or ending with the same phoneme. In modern Mandarin, far the largest part of the words, regardless if verbs or nouns, is disyllabic.

Types of words

Like in all other Chinese topolects, there is no suffix or infix indicating a grammatical function of the words, nor is there any flection of words. Many words can serve as nouns, adjectives and verbs. The function in the sentence depends on the position relative to other words. The basic sequence of main function words in a sentence is subject – predicate – object. Adjuncts are always placed before the related word, both simple adjectives or nouns and also long and complicated sentences. The position of a word in a phrase is the definitive criterion for its grammatical function and its therefore its meaning. For example, shu gao 樹高 means "the trees are tall/the tree is tall", gao shu 高樹 means "tall trees/a tall tree".

The following example may give in idea of this multifunctional character of Chinese words:

Quotation 1. Examples for changing word classes
這兒很乾淨。 Zher hen ganjing "It is very clean here." (ganjing as an adjective predicate)
乾淨衣服 ganjing yifu "clean clothes" (as an adjective adjunct)
洗乾淨 xi ganjing "to wash clean" (as a complement of result)
乾淨最要緊。 Ganjing zui yaojin "Cleanness is most important." (as a subject)
他不愛乾淨。 Ta bu ai ganjing "He does not love cleanness." (as an object)

In these examples, the word ganjing can be a noun, an adjective, and a predicate. The shape of the word remains unchanged in all functional positions in a sentence.

In incomplete sentences it is often not clear as which part of the speech the words serve. The phrase chuzu qiche 出租汽車 "taxi", for example, can mean "a car to hire" (adjunct noun and kernel), or "to hire a car" (predicate and object). The word is, by the way, commonly abbreviated as chuzuche 出租車, and it Taiwan known as jichengche 計程車 "distance-measuring car". Like in English, the same word can serve as a noun as well as a verb (travel, to travel; game, to game), but this does not mean that all words can be used for every grammatical function, or, as often said about the Chinese language in earlier times, that Chinese has no grammar.

There are, like in other languages, pronouns and conjunctions, and syntactical rules for the composition of a sentence.

Although not discernible by formal criteria, Chinese words can be categorized in different lexical categories or word classes. Some words can be put into several categories because they can take over different parts of speech. The first distinction is therefore whether a word is a notional word (shici 實詞) or a functional word (xuci 虛詞). Notional words can be divided into seven categories, funtional words into six, of which the last three are very small.

Table 7. Word classes in Chinese
notional words (shici 實詞)
word class sub-class and notes examples
nouns (mingci 名詞) proper nouns ...
directional nouns (fangweici 方位詞) 上, 前, 以下, 以後, 之前
verbs (dongci 動詞) proper verbs ...
directional verbs (quxiang dongci 趨向動詞) 來, 去, 起來, 下去, 進來, 出去
defining words or copulae (panduanci 判斷詞) 是, 非
auxiliary verbs (zhudongci 助動詞) 能, 要, 敢, 會, 肯, 許, 可以, 應該, 必須
adjectives (xingrongci 形容詞) can also serve as adjective predicate 大, 小, 高, 熱, 偉大, 認真, 雪白
non-verbal adjectives (feiyu xingrongci 非謂形容詞), acting as noun adjuncts 小型, 初級, 共同
numerals (shuci 數詞) definite 一, 五, 千, 萬, 半, 零
indefinite 幾, 數, 若干, 百, 萬, 諸
numerative measure words (liangci 量詞) object numeratives (wuliangci 物量詞) 個, 輛, 匹, 只, 條, 座, 張, 斤, 升
activity numeratives (dongliangci 動量詞) 次, 遍, 場, 趟
sentence adjuncts (fuci 副詞) 很, 已經, 不, 也, 親自(地), 大力(地)
pronouns (daici 代詞) personal pronouns (rencheng daici 人稱代詞) 我, 你, 他, 她, 它, 我們, 咱們, 大家, 自己, 吾, 爾, 朕, 伊
demonstrative pronouns (zhishi daici 指示代詞) 這, 那, 是, 此, 斯
interrogative pronoun (yiwen daici 疑問代詞) 誰, 甚麼, 何以, 怎麼, 為何, 哪裏, 幾
functional words (xuci 虛詞)
conjunctions (lianci 連詞) 和, 與, 及, 跟, 或, 不但, 而且, 因為, 所以, 即使, 若
"prepositions" (jieci 介詞) acting as coverbs 把, 被, 從, 對於, 關於, 依照, 根據, 比, 憑
particles (zhuci 助詞) structural particles (jiegou zhuci 結構助詞) 的, 地, 得, 者
aspect particles (shitai zhuci 時態助詞) 了, 著 (着), 過
modal particles (yuqici 語氣詞) at the end of a phrase 的, 了, 吧, 啊, 呢, 嗎
interjections or exclamations (tanci 嘆詞) 欸, 唉, 呀, 哎唷
onomatopoetic words (xiangshengci 象聲詞) 乒乓, 嘩啦, 叮噹

Although it is quite normal that words change their meaning or their function in the course of centuries, it can be seen that the modal particles (yuqici) and "prepositions" (jieci, actually coverbs) used in Classical Chinese have totally changed to new ones in modern Chinese.

The amount of "prepositions" was relatively small in Classical Chinese, the most important are yu 於 "in, on, at", yi 以 "with", wei 為 "for" and yu 與 "to, with". Yu 於 is in modern Chinese superseded by the words zai 在, xiang 向 and gei 給; yi 以 is superseded by yong 用 and ba 把; wei 為 is superseded by bei 被, dui 對 and ti 替; and yu 與 is superseded by he 和, gen 跟 and tong 同. The history of these words can be very interesing. Bei 被, for instance, originally meant (and still means, as beizi 被子) "cover". During the Han period it was used with the meaning of "to be subjected to, to be treated with", and soon became a particle expressing a passive clause. The original meaning of ba 把 was "to control, to handle, to hold" (like modern bawo 把握), but later on it became a particle expressing an object shifted in front of the verb (ba ta sha si 把他殺死 instead of sha si ta 殺死他). Most of these particles have lost their original function as verbs, but there are also others that can also be used as full verbs, like zai 在 "to be present", dui 對 "to be right", gei 給 "to give" or bi 比 "to compare".

Modal particles are used at the end of a sentence. In Classical Chinese there are several important particles like the explanative particles ye 也, yi 矣, yan 焉 or er 爾 (also written 耳); the question particles hu 乎 (interchangeable with yu 於 or yu 于), xie 邪 (also written 耶), zai 哉 or yu 歟 (also written 與); the sighing particles zai 哉, fu 夫 and ye 也; and the imperative particles yi 矣, ye 也 and hu 乎. In many cases, these particles can be combined. Some of them can also be used at the end of a clause, as a kind of period marker, especially the particle ye 也.

In modern Chinese, the particle de 的 expresses reliability. The particle le 了 indicates a change in the situation, with new circumstances and conditions. It stands after a modified verb. The other modal particles are used at the end of a sentence. ma 嗎 is a question marker (the modern counterpart to the classical hu 乎); ne 呢 marks a rhetorical question asking for confirmation, or a this-or-that question; ba 吧 asks even more for confirmation by conversational partners, but also indicates an imperative; there are lots of other modal particles at the end of sentences, like a 啊, ya 呀, and so on. Some particles can be used in combination.

There are lots of personal pronouns in Chinese, some of them variants of one and the same word. In Classical Chinese, the first person is called wo 我, wu 吾, yu 予, yu 余, yi 台 (rare), yi 卬 (rare) or zhen 朕 (only to be used by the emperor). The second person is addressed as ru 汝 (sometimes simplified to 女), er 爾 or nai 乃. The third person is addressed as bi 彼, fu 夫, yi 伊 or qi 其. Much more common in Classical Chinese is the use of functions as personal pronoun. A minister is calling himself chen 臣 "[your] minister/servant", a wife herself qie 妾 "[your] wife", a friend is addressed as zi 子 "[you] prince", the emperor is addressed as bixia 陛下 "below the steps" (second person) or shang 上 "that above" (third person). Classical Chinese abstains from a regular use of subjects, and if the context is clear, the personal pronoun as a subject is often left out, especially that of the third person.

In modern Chinese, the most common pronouns are wo 我 for the first person, ni 你 or nin 您 (more polite) for the second person, and ta 他 (general and for males), 她 (for females) and 它 (for objects), as well as za 咱 for the third person. The plural is indicated by the suffix -men 們, yet only for personal pronouns. It can also be used in salutations, like ge wei Huaren lükemen 各位華人旅客們 "dear tourists from China", but not in normal sentences.

Demonstrative pronouns in classical Chinese are ci 此, si 斯, shi 是, zi 茲 or zhi 之 for "this", and bi 彼, qi 其 and er 爾 for "that". In modern colloquial Chinese, zhe 這 "this" and na 那 "that" are the most common demonstrative particle.

Interrogative pronouns in Classical Chinese are sh(u)ei 誰 ("who") and shu 孰 ("who or which of both"), he 何, he 曷 and xi 奚 for things or circumstances, and e 惡, an 安 and yan 焉 expressing a doubt ("how can it be that", "this can hardly be"). In modern Chinese, the common question particles are shei 誰, shenme 甚麼, nali 哪裏 (in Beijing nar 哪兒) and zenme 怎麼. Question particles can also serve to express indefinites, like "whoever", "whatever".

In Classical Chinese, words can easily change word classes. The adjective gao 高, for example, can be a verb "to raise sth.". The noun mu 目 "eye" can become a verb "to eye so.". The noun lin 林 "forest" can become an adverb, "to appear like trees in a forest, to mushroom". In modern Chinese many words can be used both as a noun and as a verb. Fanwei 範圍, for instance, means "scope, limit, extent", but also "to set limits to sth.".

Quite a modern phenomenon is the use of numerative measure words (liangci 量詞). In Classical Chinese, numerals and nouns were simply put side by side. Measure words are rarely seen and were restricted to certain expressions, like ma san pi 馬三匹 "three horses". The number is added after the noun as a kind of complement. In modern Chinese there is an abundant sea of measure words, like zhi 只 for small animals, pi 匹 for large animals, tiao 條 for long objects (also fish), zhang 張 for flat objects, wei 位 for honoured persons, chang 場 for events (like a rain) or theatre plays, or hui 回 for "(three) times". Ge 個 is a kind of general measure word. The syntactic construction is also different in modern Chinese: In the expression san pi ma 三匹馬, "three animals" is seen as an adjunct to "horse", and the measure word is treated like an interstitional particle.

In modern Chinese, aspect particles (shitai zhuci 時態助詞) play an important role to modify verbs. The particle zhe 著 (着) was originally a verb with meaning "to attach to, to be attached". During the Han period, it became used as a kind of complement attached to the end of verbs and gradually lost its meaning. Today it expresses a state of action ("is doing sth."), like the English –ing suffix. The verb on which the particle le 了 is based, meant "to conclude, to finish". During the Tang period, it was already a particle attached to a verb in order to express a completion, often with the meaning of "after this was done, sth. else happened". The verb guo 過 "to pass, to trespass" still has this meaning, but attached to a verb it expresses an experience.

Structural particles (jiegou zhuci 結構助詞) serve to connect words with adjuncts and complements. The three particles are pronounced very similar and can easily be confounded, also by Chinese. The most simple is the particle de 的, the original meaning of which is "target" (compare the word mùdì 目的 "motif, objective"). From the Song period on, it became a particle connecting a noun and a noun adjuncts, and thus replaced the older particle zhi 之. It can be called a genetive particle, like "of" in English, "de" in French or no in Japanese.

The verb 得 means "to obtain, to get", and it is still used in modern Chinese (like the word dedao 得到 "to receive, to obtain"). As a particle, it connects a predicate with a complement, like chang de hao 唱得好 "[she] sings good". It came in use during the late Tang period. The particle de 地 (original meaning "earth" and pronounced ) is used to connect a phrasal adjunct with a predicate, like in the sentence hen gaoxing de huanying nin lai fangwen 很高興地歡迎您來訪問 "[We] very happily invite you to visit [us]." (hen gaoxing 很高興 being the adjunct, huanying 歡迎 the predicate).

Directional nouns (fangweici 方位詞) are positioned after the noun or phrase to be described. Structurally, the first noun or phrase is an adjunct to the directional noun (wuli屋裏 "(on) the inner side of the house", i. e. inside the house, guowai 國外 "outside of the country", kaihui qian 開會前 "before the opening of the meeting", literally "(the time) before of opening the session)".

Non-verbal adjectives (feiyu xingrongci 非謂形容詞) are mostly nouns, often with adjunct, acting as noun adjuncts to another noun. In most cases they can be signified by inserting the "possessive" particle de 的, like daxing (de) che 大型(的)車 "large car (car of great size)". The difference to adjective adjuncts is that adjectives can serve as adjective verbs (chezi hong 車子紅 "the cars are red"), while non-verbal adjectives can not. Adjective verbs do not need a copula ("is"), a phenomenon also known in Russian. Yet a copula has to be used to combine a subject and another noun, like Wo shi Meiguoren 我是美國人 "I am an American." (negation: bu shi 不是).

In Classical Chinese, there was mostly no copula. Instead, equations are expressed by the particle ye 也, like Kongzi, shengren ye 孔子聖人也 "Confucius was a Saint", yet for negation the verb fei 非 is used, Kongzi fei xiaoren 孔子非小人 "Confucius was not a vile person". Yet some early texts already make use of the copulas shi 是 or xi 係. The copula shi 是 in modern Chinese can also signify a relation of belonging, like ren shi yishang, ma shi an 人是衣裳, 馬是鞍 "Men wear clothes, horses bear a saddle."

Directional verbs (quxiang dongci 趨向動詞) are normal verbs that can also be used as complements of result at the end of other verbs or adjectives, like na lai 拿來 "to take here", ji chu 寄出 "to send out", re qi lai 熱起來 "to become hot". Auxiliary verbs are used as in other languages, and they are places before the main verb. "Prepositions" (jieci 介詞) can be seen as auxiliary verbs, as they, too, are placed before the main verb and originally were full verbs themselves.


The basic structure of a Chinese sentence is subject – predicate – object. Subject and predicate can be interrupted by an exclamation particle. The noun in the first position of a sentence is not necessarily the subject but can be a topic about which the sentence will speak (topicalization).

In Classical Chinese, a short object (a pronoun) can be positioned before the predicate (inversion) if the sentence is a question or a negation. In case of generalizations, inversion is also used in modern Chinese (Wo shenme dou zhidao 我甚麼都知道 "I know everything". Yi ge ren ye mei jiandao 一個人也沒見到 "Not a single person was to be seen."). In Classical Chinese, an inversion furthermore signifies a passive, like Handan wei 邯鄲圍 "Handan was encircled.", or Lü Buwei fei 呂不韋廢 "Lü Buwei was dismissed.". The actor is added by an auxiliary phrase including the verb wei 為 (like Handan wei Qin jun suo wei 邯鄲為秦軍所圍 "Handan was besieged by the army of Qin."), the verb yu 於 (like lüe ceng yu renbei 被, like in modern Chinese. The passive tense can also be expressed by the verb jian 見 (like Baixing bu jian bao 百姓不見保 "The ordinary people were not protected.") in Classical Chinese.

In regular sentences, objects can be brought forward by using the auxiliary verbs ba 把 or jiang 將.

Several verbal clauses in sequence are often not joined by conjunctions. The reader has to guess what logical relations the clauses have to each other, like "in order to", "yet still", or others. This also true for modern Chinese, a language that makes far less use of conjunctions than Western languages. For example, Wo fa dianyou cui ta hui lai 我發電郵催他回來 "I send him an e-mail urge him to come home.", or Ta rang wo liu xia lai zhengli jilu 他讓我留下來整理紀錄 "He told me to stay here in order to arrange the records.".

Nominalizations were a very common method in Classical Chinese to create nouns serving as subject and object. Verbal phrases are nominalized by the particle zhe 者. Yet zhe 者 also serves to indicate the topic of a sentence, like Liu Bang zhe, Han Gaozu ye 劉邦者,漢高祖也 "Liu Bang was nobody else than Emperor Gao of the Han.". In such equations both zhe 者 and ye 也 can be be left out.

The greatest problem of Chinese syntax is the division of a sentence into phrases and clauses. Even Chinese grammaticians and linguists could never really solve this problem.

Used after word constructions including an object (chang ge 唱歌 "to sing a song"), the verb is repeated, like in chang ge chang hen piaoliang 唱歌唱很漂亮 "(she) sings very beautiful". Complements can be whole sentences, like chang de dajia juede hen gaoxing 唱得大家覺得很高興 "(She) sings (so beautiful) that everyone feels happy.".

Complements are used as adjuncts to describe predicates. Very typical are qualitative complements indicating a possibility or non-possibility of action, like shuo de qing 說得清 "speaks clearly", shuo bu qing 說不清 "speaks not clearly", ting de dong 聽得懂 "has understood", ting bu dong 聽不懂 "has not understood", shuo de liao 說得了 "can be said", shuo bu liao 說不了 "can not be said", mai de qi 買得起 "can afford to buy", or mai bu dao 買不到 "can be bought nowhere".

A particular feature of predicates is that there is nothing like a copula in Chinese ("This is good."). Adjectives can serve as a verb, and only the position indicates that it is a predicate. The phrase hong chezi 紅車子 "a red car" becomes the full sentence chezi hong 車子紅 "The car is red." if turned around. There is also no indication of a plural, except for pronouns (我 "me", 我們 "we"), and no articles ("a car", "the car"). The last sentence could also mean "The cars are red.", or (theoretically) "cars are [generally] red".

Furthermore, as verbs are not conjugated, there is nothing like an infinitive, a finite verb or an expression of time like future, past tense, and so on. Time relations are indicated by time words, like "yesterday", or by auxiliary verbs "to go to do sth." (yao 要, jiang 將), "to pass the experience of doing sth." (guo 過).

Sentences can be introduced by a theme to speak about (huati 話題) and which does not function as the subject of the sentences, a phenomenon called topicalization.

Quotation 2. Examples for topicalization
Zhongguo, difang zhen da 中國,地方真大. "As respects China, her territory is really large."
Zhe ge ren, wo congqian jian guo ta 這個人,我從前見過他. "As to this person, I have seen him before."

Complements (buyu 補語) added to the end of predicates are an important instrument to express the mode by which something is done or which result a certain activity shows. In Western languages, this function is taken over by adverbial adjuncts or an adverbial clause. Complements can either be verbs or adjectives, but they can also be built up of whole phrases.

Quotation 3. Examples for complements
ting dong 聽董 "to hear and understand" (understanding as a result of hearing)
ran hong 染紅 "to dye red" (red as a result of dying)
chang de hen piaoliang 唱得很漂亮 "[she] was singing very beautifully"
de bu dao 得不到 "obtaining not to reach", i. e. "did not get"
shuo bu liao 說不了 "saying not to be able", i. e. "not able to say"
po huai le 破壞了 "shmashed so that it is broken"

The word le 了 can take over the function to express a result or a definite change. It this case it is a particle, and not a full verb. As a verb ("to be able"), the same character is read liao.


The Chinese lexicon includes a vast amount of words and expressions through all times (for example, the lexicon of the Han period), all regions (e.g. the lexicon of Guangzhou 廣州), of different levels of speech (for instance, language in letters) and of professional fields (like expressions of the merchant guilds). Chinese scholars even go so far to investigate the lexicon of particular works, like the famous novel Hongloumeng 紅樓夢.

Polysyllabic words

Because it covers so many fields, the whole lexicon of the Chinese language is tremendously vast. The words of the modern Chinese lexicon are composed of many monosyllabic words, but the largest amount is made of disyllabic words. There are, of course, also words with more syllables (like Mao Zedong sixiang 毛澤東思想 "Mao Zedong thoughts"). Polysyllabic words are always composed of other, monosyllabic words. This fact makes the creation of new words very easy, a feature in common with some Western languages like Greek or German. "Fire" is huo 火, "car" is che 車, and huoche 火車 "fire car" is train; zhan 站 is "station", and huochezhan 火車站 is "train station". Many disyllabic words are composed of two words of similar meaning, like shengchan 產生 "to produce", composed of chan 產 "to fabricate", and sheng 生 "to give birth to sth.".

In Mandarin, most verbs and nouns are disyllabic. Words longer than two syllables are therefore often abbreviated to two syllables, like Zhonggong 中共 for Zhongguo gongchandang 中國共產黨 "Communist Party of China", Chuanzhen 川震 for Sichuan dizhen 四川地震 "the earthquake of Sichuan", or Shengushi 深股市 for Shenzhen gufen shichang 深圳股份市場 "the stock market of Shenzhen". Place names are likely to be abbreviated, and there are some special words for Chinese cities and provinces (Chuan 川 is Sichuan 四川, yet Jin 晉 is Shanxi, and Hu 滬 is Shanghai), but also foreign countries (Mei 美 is the US).

In three-syllable words, the middle is often left out, yet for other abbreviations, there are no specific rules. Gaokao 高考, for example, is the abbreviation for Gaodeng xuexiao ruxue kaoshi 高等學校入學考試 "university entrance examination", waimao 外貿 for duiwai maoyi 對外貿易 "foreign trade", renda 人大 can be the abbreviation for Renmin daxue 人民大學 "Renmin University" or Quanguo renmin daibiao dahui 全國人民代表大會 "National People's Congress". Very common are abbreviations unifying two things, like zhong-xiaoxue 中小學 "elementary and middle schools", dong-zhiwu 動植物 (dongwu 動物 + zhiwu 植物) "animals and plants, or jin-chukou 進出口 (jinkou 進口 + chukou 出口) "entrance and exit".

In order to create disyllabic words, several methods were used. The commonest form is to add a word of similar meaning, like

Quotation 4. The creation of bisyllabic words by joining two nouns
牙齒 yachi "incisor-molars" teeth
嘴唇 zuichun "mouth-lips" lips
皮膚 pifu "skin-cutis" skin
牆壁 qiangbi "wall-breastwork" wall
窗戶 chuanghu "window-door" window
月亮 yueliang "moon-bright" moon

Another often-used method is to add a suffix, like

Quotation 5. The creation of bisyllabic words by adding suffixes
孩子 haizi child
鼻子 bizi nose
石頭 shitou stone
木頭 mutou wood
指頭 zhitou finger

Words can, if standing alone, not be classified. There is no functional part of words marking them as a noun, an adjective or a verb, like prefixes or suffixes. Only the relative position of words to each other in a sentence makes it possible to discern subject, predicate and object, as well as adjuncts and complements. Many words can function as a verb and also as a noun. As to words, it is often hard to say if two monosyllabic words are to be viewed as two separate words or as one word, especially if the combination is often used (for example, the often-used expression da zhang 打仗 "to fight" is not recorded as a word in dictionaries because it is viewed as a predicate – object construction, "to beat a fight", yet dajia 打架 "scuffle", literally "to beat a quarrel" is seen as a unified word).

The often-mentioned character of Classical Chinese as monosyllabic and modern Chinese as disyllabic is by no means true. There are many monosyllabic words in colloquial language (shou 手 "hand", tui 腿 "leg", wo 我 "I, me", gei 給 "to give, towards"), and also disyllabic words in Classical Chinese. Among the latter is a large amount of disyllabic words of which each syllable bears the same or a similar consonant initial or ending, the so-called vowel rhymes (lianmianci 聯緜詞). The syllables of many of these words can not be separated and used as monosyllabic words, like:

Quotation 6. Examples for bisyllabic words with alliterative initials
參差 cenci "irregular, uneven"
躊躇 chouchu "to hesitate; full of pride"
彷彿 (仿佛) fangfu "seemingly, as if, to be similar"
吩咐 fenfu "to tell, to order"
尷尬 ganga "embarrassed, in a dilemma"
玲瓏 linglong "exquisite; nimble and smart"
伶俐 lingli "clever, quick-wicked"
倜儻 titang "free and easy, unconventional"
鴛鴦 yuanyang "couple of mandarin ducks"
珠璣 zhuji "pearl; excellent writing"
珍珠 zhenzhu "pearl"

or the words

  • angzang 骯髒 "dirty; foul, sinister",
  • congrong 從容 "calm, leisurely; ample",
  • hutu 糊塗 "muddled; confusion; blurred", with the same or a similar ending (dieyunci 疊韻詞).
  • hundun 混沌 "chaos; innocent, simple-minded",
  • lingding 伶仃 "solitary; thin and weak",
  • meigui 玫瑰 "rose",
  • mili 迷離 "indistinct, blurred",
  • miantian 腼腆 "shy, bashful, diffident",
  • mingding 酩酊 "to be drunk",
  • qingting 蜻蜓 "dragonfly",
  • zhanglang 蟑螂 "cockroach", or

A very large amount of Chinese words includes syllables with slightly similar finals without being categorized as words with "internal rhyme", like shangchuang 上牀 "to go to bed", qingchun 青春 "green spring", i.e. "young age or youth" or qingchun 清純 "pretty and pure". In the narrowest sense, there are only a few words baring more or less the same initials and exactly the same endings (like fufu 夫婦 "husband and wife", jiejue 孑孓, or lulu 轆轤). There are also words including a repeated syllable, like yingying 盈盈 "clear; enchanting; full display; agile, nimble", chuchu 楚楚 "clear, tidy; graceful", zizi 孜孜 "diligent, industrious", or diedie 爹爹 "daddy".

In modern Chinese, the repetition of a verb (kankan 看看 "let's look", changchang ge 唱唱歌 "to sing along") or an adjective (jiejie baba 結結巴巴 "stammering, stuttering", qingqing chuchu 清清楚楚 "very clear, distinct") is a means to express intensification or attenuation (yanjiu yanjiu 研究研究 "go on investigating"). The repetition of disyllabic words can either be with the sequence AABB, or ABAB, or ABB (lü youyou 綠油油 "green and lush").

Proverbs and idioms

Chinese is famous for a particular category of what is often translated as "proverbs", namely the chengyu 成語 "accomplished expressions". Most of them are four words or characters long. There are much more proverb in Chinese than in any other language, and there are therefore specialized dictionaries, like Wang Tao 王濤 et al. (1986), Zhongguo chengyu da cidian 中國成語大辭典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe); or Huang Yen-kai (1964), A Dictionary of Chinese Idiomatic Expressions (Hong Kong: Eton). The chengyu idoms go back to a tradition to write prose texts in verses, which was very popular from the 3rd to the 7th centuries (a genre called pianwen 駢文). The verses were generally four syllables or words long. A lot of them have a background related to a story, like

  • yugong yishan 愚公移山 "the silly old man removes the mountain (spirit of perseverance)", or
  • bamiao zhuzhang 拔苗助長 "pulling out the shoots to help the rice growing (spoil things by a desire for quick success)".

Some proverbs can not be understood without knowing the story behind them. Yet not all chengyu are necessarily related to a story, most of them are just elegant expressions for everyday situations, like

  • tongqiang tiebi 銅牆鐵壁 "bronze wall and iron ramparts (impenetrable)",
  • fengmao qijiao 鳳毛麟角 "phoenix feathers and unicorn horns (very rare)",
  • cuzhi daye 粗枝大葉 "crude branches and large leaves (crude and careless; rough sketch)",
  • luoshui liuhua 落花流水 "fallen flowers carried away by the water (late spring; crushing defeat)",
  • wuhua bamen 五花八門 "five flowers and eight sciences (mulifarious, caleidoscopic)",
  • luanqi bazao 亂七八糟 "chaos in seven and eight in a mess (at sixes and sevens, in a mess)",
  • huahong liulü 花紅柳綠 "flowers are red and willows green (spring)",
  • mudeng koudai 目瞪口呆 "gape goggle-eyed and dumpstruck (be stupefied)".

As can be seen from these examples, the four words are arranged in a parallel way. Learners of Chinese have to deal with a lot of chengyu. Even in normal speech, four-character expressions are favoured, like jinxing diaocha 進行調查 "to conduct research", jiayi zhengdun 加以整頓 "to improve consolidation", huxiang maiyuan 互相埋怨 "to settle differences" or gongtong shiyong 共同使用 "shared use".

Foreign words and names

In consequence of the globalization, but also at earlier points of time, the Chinese language has accepted many foreign words. Yet the problem is that the Chinese script is made for the Chinese language, one character expressing one syllable and one distinctive idea (or word). Foreign loanwords could therefore only expressed by using characters that have already a distinctive meaning. This original meaning was to be neglected. Among the first foreign words coming to China were Buddhist terms of the language Sanskrit (fanyu 梵語, both the Middle Chinese and the modern pronunciation are rendered):

  • Buddha to [bʰĭuət dʰɑ] Fotuo 佛陀 or [bʰĭəu tʰu] Futu 浮圖 (later abbreviated to Fo 佛),
  • saṃgha "community" to [səŋ gʰĭɑ] sengjia 僧伽 (seng later meaning "monk"),
  • bhikṣuṇī "nun" to [pi kʰĭəu ɳi] biqiuni 比丘尼 (abbreviated to 尼),
  • thūpa "stupa" to [tʰɑp bʰuɑ] tapo 塔婆 (later abbreviated to ta 塔 "pagoda"),
  • dhyāna "meditation" to [ʑĭɛn nɑ] channa 禪那 (abbreviated to chan 禪, i. e. Chan Buddhism),

and so on (note that the Modern Chinese phonetic is considerably reduced to the richness of that of Middle Chinese). Some important terms were translated into Chinese, like nirvāṇa (transcribed as niri 泥日, niyue 泥曰, nihuan 泥洹, nipan 泥畔, niepan 涅槃, or niepanna 涅槃那) as fomie 佛滅 "the Buddhist extinction", yuanji 圓寂 "perfect quietness", anwen 安穩 "calmness", ji 寂 "quiescence", jimie 寂滅 "extinction in quietness", jijing 寂靜 "peaceful calmness", kong 空 "emptiness", or, somewhat more geared to the content of the concept, zhiyuanmie 智緣滅 "extinction in consequence of the perception of the reasons [for suffering and rebirth]".

For modern terms, mostly derived from English, there are similar methods to transform the original term into Chinese. English terms can be transcribed into Chinese, like:

  • ka 卡 for "car" or "card",
  • katong 卡通 for "cartoon",
  • kelong 克隆 for "clone",
  • kuake 夸克 for "quark" (elementary particle),
  • dishi (via Cantonese tiksi 的士 for "taxi",
  • maikefeng 麥克風 for "microphone",
  • shafa 沙發 for "sofa",
  • kafei 咖啡 for "coffee",
  • jita for 吉他 "guitar",
  • nilong 尼龍 for "nylon",
  • leida for 雷達 "radar",
  • youmo 幽默 for "humor", or
  • moter for 模特兒 "model".

Many transcribed words have no concrete meaning, but other have, like

  • leishe 雷射 "thunder shot" for "laser",
  • kele 可樂 "joyful" for "Cola",
  • xuebi (Cantonese syut pik) 雪碧 "ice green" for the beverage "Sprite",
  • bingqiling 冰淇淋 "frozen cream" for "ice cream" (qiling/kiling being a vague transcription for “cream”).

There are also mixed methods, like

  • pijiu 啤酒 "pi alcohol" for "beer",
  • zhaiyou 柴油 "zhai oil" for "Diesel",
  • gaoerfuqiu 高爾夫球 "gaorfu ball" for "golf", or
  • motoche 摩托車 "moto vehicle" for "motor-cycle".

Some words have been technically translated, like duo gongneng yingyin guangdie 多功能影音光碟 "multi-functional sound record digital disc" for "DVD", but in daily life, the English abbreviation is used ([di vi 'di:]). Similary, AIDS is called aizibing 艾滋病 "[aɪ̯dz] disease" in everyday use, instead of rendering the scientific translation (houtian mianyi quefa zhenghouqun 後天免疫缺乏症候群 "acquired immunodeficiency syndrom"). Words in technology and economy are virtually all translated into Chinese, like

  • ruanjian 軟件 "software",
  • saomiaoqi 掃描器 "scanner",
  • touyingji 投影機 "beamer",
  • youxiji 遊戲機 "game console",
  • shubiao 鼠標 "mouse",
  • jiqiang 機槍 "machine gun",
  • cuihuaji 催化劑 "catalyser",
  • huohuasai 火花塞 "sparkplug",
  • duichong jijin 對冲基金 "hedge fund",
  • wangluo yingxiao 網絡營銷 "internet marketing",
  • xiaoshou qudao 銷售渠道 "sales channel",
  • goumaili 購買力 "purchase power", but also
  • lanqiu 籃球 "basket ball",
  • mali 馬力 "horse-power",
  • qichuan 汽船 "steamboat",
  • biming 筆名 "pen name",
  • youeryuan 幼兒園 "kindergarten",
  • miyue 蜜月 "honeymoon",
  • chaoshi 超市 "supermarket",
  • shidai jingshen 時代精神 "zeitgeist - spirit of the times",
  • huanjing baohu 環境保護 "environmental protection", and so on.

The names of foreign countries have been created in the 18th and 19th centuries, like Ameiligia 阿美利加 for the US (abbreviated to Meiguo 美國 "the Mei country", or "beautiful country"), Falangxi 法郎西 for France (short Faguo 法國 "fa-land", or "country of law"), Putaoya 葡萄牙 for Portugal (the "grapes-ya" country), or Haidi 海地 for Haiti ("land in the sea"). The Soviet Union was abbreviated as Sulian 蘇聯 (instead of Suweiai shehuizhuyi hongheguo lianmeng 蘇維埃社會主義共和國聯盟).

Foreign enterprises like to use this method to give their company an emotional name, like

  • Baojie 寶潔 "Treasure-pure" for Procter and Gamble,
  • Gaosheng 高盛 "Lofty and prospering" for Goldman Sachs,
  • Bengchi 奔馳 "Running fast" for Mercedes-Benz,
  • Ximenzi 西門子 for Siemens ("Master Ximen", Ximen being a rare but famous Chinese surname),
  • Quechao 雀巢 "Sparrow nest" for Nestlé,
  • Luolishi 勞力士 "Master labour" for Rolex,
  • Oulaiya 歐萊雅 "Paradisiac elegance from Europe" (if lai can be seen as abbreviation of the eastern paradise Penglai 蓬萊) for L'Oréal.

The names Maikenxi 麥肯錫 for McKinsey, Maidanglao 麥當勞 for McDonald's, or Guchi 古馳 for Gucci are pure transcriptions, without any associations neither related to the business nor arousing any feelings towards the product or service or in general. The contrary is the literal translation of the company's name, like Weiruan 微軟 "Small soft" for Microsoft.

Historical development of the lexicon

Shang-period texts written in what is called Early Archaic Chinese, incised into animal bones serving for divination purposes, are highly specialized and have a consequently a quite narrow lexicon. A large part of the texts is made out by calendric dates and names of persons, places, or polities. The texts also includes words for the parts of the body, social activities, tools and instruments, animals and plants, and, most important for the aspect of religion, designations for family relations and social and political functions (shamans, diviners, ministers, craftsmen, slaves).

The thesaurus was vastly expanding during the middle Zhou period 周 (8th-5th centuries BCE). Besides of a large increase in adjectives, countless terms of the material culture are coming up, from words from agriculture like plants and tools to a lot of metal objects, music instruments, buildings, and also philosophical terms like piety, virtue, loyalty, trust, kindheartedness, bravery and shame. The number of personal pronouns and conjunctions has also substantially increased.

Already in this linguistic stage of the transition from Archaic Chinese to Classical Chinese, the amount of disyllabic words is considerable (like gaoyang 羔羊 "lamb", xuri 旭日 "rising sun", qinyi 寢衣 "pyjama", chizi 赤子 "baby", wugu 五榖 "the five grains", binke 賓客 "guests", daolu 道路 "way, street", juelu 爵祿 "rank of nobility", zhengfa 征伐 "to wage war against", libie 離別 "to part", shufu 束縛 "to tie up, to fetter", bianhua 變化 "change", or gongjing 恭敬 "respectfully", only to name a few). The literature of the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) is seen as the age of the standard Classical Chinese.

Between the Han period and the beginning of the Song period, the classical language is more and more interspersed with words and expressions of the vernacular language, which more and more differed from the classical written language. New words were invented not to be found in older texts, like

Quotation . Some vernacular words used in texts in the early 1st millennium CE
mi "to look for"
dian "place, shop"
tan "beach, river bank"
tou "to penetrate, to pass"
ying "hard"
pa "to fear"
nao "noise, to stip up trouble"
sheng "surplus, remnant"
ye "old man"
ge "older brother"

At the same time, the number of disyllabic words increased, also in the field of sentence adjuncts (adverbs) or conjunctions, like

Quotation . Some disyllabic words created in the early 1st millennium CE
往往 wangwang "often"
常常 changchang "usually"
一向 yixiang "earlier on, always"
從來 conglai "all along, always"
向來 xianglai "always, invariably, in the future"
隨時 suishi "at any time; whenever necessary"
畢竟 bijing "finally"
一齊 yiqi "all together"
非常 feichang "not ordinary, especially"
果然 guoran "really, indeed"
未必 weibi "not necessarily"
千萬 qianwan "in any case"
除非 chufei "except that"
因為 yinwei "because"
所以 suoyi "therefore"

不但 budan "not only"

During the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 (300~600), the suffixes zi 子, er 兒 and tou 頭 were for the first time used, likewise the prefixes lao 老 (like laoshu 老鼠 "rat, mouse" and laoya 老鴉 "crow") and a 阿. There are, especially in the field of religion, a lot of books written in vernacular language, which greatly helps to perceive the differences between the written and the spoken language. These are especially the Chan collections Zutangji 祖堂集 and Liuzu tanjing 六祖壇經, and the genre of the bianwen 變文 literature found in Dunhuang 敦煌.

While the amount of foreign loanwords in Chinese was still quite small during the Han period (some examples are the Tokharian word shizi 獅子 "lion", the Thai word jiang 江 "river" or the Xiongnu word luotuo 駱駝 "camel", but also binglang 檳榔 "betel nut", moli 茉莉 "jasmine", liuli 琉璃 "glass, glaze", hupo 琥珀 "amber", tadeng 毾㲪 "felt mattrass" or konghou 箜篌) "lute", the "Buddhist conquest of China" (Zürcher) has brought a huge treasure of Sanskrit terms into China, of which some are even used beyond the religious context. Words transcribed from Sanskrit were often abbreviated and used in newly created Chinese words, like

Quotation . Examples for Sanskrit-Chinese neologisms
僧徒 sengtu "monks, novices" (S. saṃ[gha] 僧 + C 徒 "fellow")
惡魔 emo devil (C 惡 "evil" + S. ma[ra] 魔)
禪師 chanshi "Dhyana master" or "Chan patriarch" (S. dhyā[na] 禪 + C. 師 "master")
尼庵 ni'an "nunnery" (S. [bhikṣu]ṇī 尼 + C. 庵 "hut")
寶塔 baota "pagoda" (C. 寶 "jewels/relics" + S. thū[pa] 塔)

Many Buddhist terms have been translated into Chinese and are used today in a context that has nothing to do with Buddhism, like

Quotation . Examples for Buddhist words used out of religious context
天堂 tiantang "heaven, paradise"
地獄 diyu "hell"
因果 yinguo "cause and effect"
圓滿 yuanman "satisfactory, perfect"
平等 pingdeng "equal"
方便 fangbian "convenient, appropriate"
煩惱 fannao "vexed, upset"
報應 baoying "retribution, judgment"

From the Song period on, with the gradual settlement of the miscellaneous influences on Chinese culture (which still kept on creeping into China during the Mongol and Manchu reigns) led to a specialized amplification of the lexicon, especially in the fields of economy, science, culture, arts and eruditeness.

Confucian philosophers, often scolded as conservative, were by no means inclined to the classical language. The Zhuzi yulei 朱子語類, a collection of discourses by Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), is written in vernacular language, at least partially. The creation of a lot of new terms in technology during the Song, Yuan 元 (1279-1368) and also the Ming periods, is due to the growing economy that stimulated a lot of inventions.

The interest of Chinese scholars for astronomy was first satified by Arabian and Persian experts, and during the Ming period by Jesuit missionaries. Some Jesuits wrote Chinese books on technology and thus contributed to the creation of new termini technici in China. The overseas trade with Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean brought foreign loan words into China. Only a small amount of these Arabian and Malay loanwords have survived, for example, suona 嗩吶, a kind of trumpet. Yuan period texts contain a lot of loanwords from Mongolian, of which only a few are still in use, like zhan 站 "station", dai 歹 "bad, evil", hutong 胡同 "quarter in a city", mogu 蘑菇 "mushroom", or talian 褡褳 "bag".

During the 19th century, with the self-strengening movement, a lot of foreign word came into China. Part of these words can not be recognized as foreign because they are Chinese neologisms made in Japan. Such words mainly cover the themes politics and economy, like

Quotation . Sino-Japanese words created in Japan
sōri 総理 zongli 總理 "government head"
seitō 政党 zhengdang 政黨 "ruling party"
shugi 主義 zhuyi 主義 "-ism"
senkyo 選挙 xuanju 選舉 "election"
ginkō 銀行 yinhang 銀行 "bank"
kigyō 企業 qiye 企業 "enterprise"
zettai 絶対 juedui 絕對 "absolute"
seinō 性能 xingneng 性能 "function"
kurappu 俱樂部 julebu 俱樂部 "club" (imitating the English word,
yet literally "all-are-happy party")

A quite recent trend is the use of more suffixes to create new words, like

Quotation . Examples for the creation of new word groups by suffixes
zhuyi 主義 "–ism"
民主主義 minzhuzhuyi "democracy" (minzhu 民主 "people's sovereignty")
樂觀主義 leguanzhuyi "optimism" (leguan 樂觀 "optimistic")
hua 化 "–ization" or "–ize"
綠化 lühua "forestation, to afforest" ( 綠 "green")
現代化 xiandaihua "modernization, to modernize" (xiandai 現代 "modern")
xing 性 to form nouns expressing a potency or attribute
可能性 kenengxing "possibility" (keneng 可能 "possible" )
全國性 quanguoxing "nationwide" (quanguo 全國 "the whole nation")
jia 家 expressing professions
作家 zuojia "writer" (zuo 作 "to create")
音樂家 yinyuejia "musician" (yinyue 音樂 "music")
yuan 員 to denote an person acting in a certain position
會員 huiyuan "member of a committee" (hui 會 "assembly")
售貨員 shouhuoyuan "shop assistant" (shouhuo 售貨 "to sell")
shi 士, shou 手, fu 夫 for persons of standing or professions
博士 boshi "erudite, doctor"
女士 nüshi "lady"
對手 duishou "opponent, rival"
水手 shuishou "seaman, boatsman"
懦夫 nuofu "coward, weakling"
腳夫 jiaofu "porter; someone hiring out his donkey and accompanying it on foot"


See comprehensive article on the Chinese Script

The Mandarin language is written with Chinese characters (zi 字 or hanzi 漢字). Chinese characters are not pictures, but ideas of meanings (an ideographic script), and in many cases a quite complicated method to write sounds. About two thirds of the Chinese characters include a phonetic component. Each character stands for one syllable, and not necessarily for one word. The same character might have several different pronunciations, depending on the meaning. Yet a character can also have different meanings without being pronounced in a different way. This ambiguity in pronunciation and meaning is in first place valid for the Classical Chinese, where much more characters are expressing single words. In modern Mandarin, where most words are bisyllabic, it is not so easily possible to confound different pronunciations or different meanings.

Many Chinese scholars perceived the shortcomings of a complicated script with characters. The characters are indeed not easy to learn, difficult to write, and can in modern times only be digitized with a tremendous effort. In order to overcome these difficulties, late Qing period and Republican scholars developed different alphabetic systems to transcribe the Chinese langage. The most important of these are the Ladingxua sin wenz, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, the Zhuyin zimu alphabet, and the Hanyu pinyin systems.

There were many textbooks, but also book to read, which were written in transcription systems without any single character. Yet these attempts were only short-lived.

The main strong point of the Chinese characters is that they can bridge time and space. The huge treasury of 3,000 years of Chinese literature can be read by those proficient in the use of Chinese characters. Furthermore, people from whole China can understand the meaning of characters, even if they do not know the national language but only speak a topolect. The pronunciation of Han-period Chinese was very different from the Mandarin language of today, and the phonetic range of most topolects – and even that of Mandarin dialects – is broader than that for the Mandarin language. A transcription of the latter is therefore, in spite of Mandarin being the national language, is not very convenient to serve as a tool for a transcription for many other idoms in China. The use of the national standard language Mandarin in the many provinces of China is only passive, and the population is not actively using it.

Instead of giving up the character script, it was decided to undergo a systematic simplification of the Chinese script. The simplified characters are only used in the People's Republic of China, and in Singapore. The simplification contributed to a substantial raise in literacy among China's peasant populations, but this might also have to do with a better education system. Literacy is not lower in Taiwan or Hong Kong because the Chinese living there use traditional characters. Yet instead of reducing the amount of characters, the simplification has created new ones which are also to be recorded in dictionaries. Common dictionaries in the People's Republic also list traditional characters, thus increasing the burden to pupils and learners, instead of reducing it.

Topolects and Dialects

There is a discrepancy in secondary literature about the translation of the Chinese term fangyan 方言, literally "the languages of the regions". Some, rather older, authors translate the term as "dialect", while newer scholars translate it as topolects (the neo-Greek equivalent of the word fangyan). The Mandarin language is used in China's north, the region north of the Yangtze River, and in the southwest through Hubei, Sichuan and down to Yunnan. The local idioms of these regions can be called dialects. The three main idioms are that of the northwest, that of the the Jiang-Huai region between the Yangtze and the Yellow River, and the sourthwestern Mandarin.

The most important topolects are Wu 吳, which is spoken in Shanghai, the southern part of the province of Jiangsu, and northern Zhejiang; Gan 贛, which is spoken in the province of Jiangxi; Xiang 湘, spoken in the provinces of Hunan and Guangxi; Yue 粵, better known as Cantonese and spoken in the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi; Min 閩, spoken in the province of Fujian, and in Taiwan; and Hakka 客家, spoken in many scattered places in Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, and in Taiwan. Cantonese and Hakka are also the main languages of Chinese Overseas.

The differences, in phonology, lexicon, and also in grammar, between the topolects and the Mandarin language are very great, so that it would indeed be appropriate to treat them as languages and not only as dialects. Min is divided into several sub-topolects (Minnanhua 閩南話, Minzhonghua 閩中話, Minbeihua 閩北話, and some more) that are so different from each other that the idoms of neighbouring villages can mutually not be understood.

The topolect of Wu, for example, has voiced sounds (zhuoyin 濁音) which are between the "soft" and the aspirated consonants. Cantonese has 4 consonantial syllable endings more than Mandarin, namely [p], [t], [k] and [m]. The Mandarin dialects of the lower Yangtze region have a voice-stop at the end of syllables, called the entering tone pitch (rusheng 入聲). Cantonese has 9 tone pitches, the Mandarin dialect of Yantai 煙台 on the Shandong Peninsula only three. The designations for the tone pitches are not equal in all topolects and dialects. In Beijing, the raising tone is called yangping, while in the dialect of Tianjin 天津, the yangping is a high level tone and in the dialect of Hankou 漢口 an inflected movement of the voice.

The most important different in the lexicon of the topolects can be seen in personal pronouns, grammatical particles like conjunctions or possessive particles (de 的 in Mandarin, ge 嘅 in Cantonese), the use of suffixes, word repetition (as a method to indicate intensification or mitigation). Bringing forward an object by using a coverbal phrase with the coverb ba 把, for example, is typical for Mandarin Chinese and does not occur in other topolects. A typical question pattern of Beijing Mandarin is the repetition of the predicate in a positive and a negative form (shi bu shi 是不是 "is [or] is not"), while in other dialects of Mandarin, in the lower Yangtze area and the southwest, questions are indicated by the auxiliary verb ke 可 "might [it be that]?", without a repetition of the verb.

Spoken Language and Written Language

In Mandarin there is also a difference between spoken language and the level of written language. The general tendency is that spoken language had a deep influence on written Mandarin, especially after the May Fourth Movement 五四運動, when writers started using the vernacular language (baihua 白話 "plain language") for writing instead of the classical written language (wenyan). Written Mandarin, nevertheless, still uses a lot of grammatic words and expressions in style that are directly derived from the ancient written language.

The written language has become frozen from the Tang and Song periods on (but was, of course, also influenced by the vernacular language, as can be seen in the writings of Han Yu 韓愈, 768-824, or Zhu Xi), while there were important changes in lexicon and grammar of the spoken language. The difference became even greater until the end of the imperial period. While texts, even that of the first newspapers, were written in Classical Chinese, the vernacular language was very different from the written language. After the May Fourth Movement the vernacular language (Mandarin) was also used for literature, newspapers and for official publications. The Classical Chinese has nevertheless still a deep influence on the written language of Mandarin. Many texts of the late 19th century were already written in a mixed style that is often hard to understand. The mixed style is still in use in many newspapers in Taiwan, Hong Kong and in the Chinese overseas communities.

Modern literature of the 20th century is also not written in pure vernacular language but takes over the style of late Qing novels (baihua xiaoshuo 白話小說) that were written in a mixed style. A very interesting aspect is the creation of new words in reaction to technical modernization and globalization. Neologisms were partially taken over from Japan (a large amount of technical, political [e.g. guojia/kokka 國家 "nation", "state"] and scientific expressions in Chinese were invented by Japanese in a procedure similar to neo-Latinisms and neo-Graecisms in Western languages) that was modernized somewhat earlier than China, and partially created in China, often imitating linguistic and mental concepts of English, in some cases even syntactical aspects. Many examples for this can be found in the works of Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936).

The classical language has still an influence on newspapers, government reports, legal texts, official documents, business contracts, and even on private letters. This influence can be seen in the language style, the lexicon, and certain expressions. The reason for this is in first place tradition (for example, forms of address or ceremoniousness, but also the more concise character of the classical language). In books and magazins, Classical Chinese is rarely used in the People's Republic of China, but it is to be found in many films picturizing the popular classical Chinese novels.

Very common examples for Classical Chinese words or expressions in written language are jiyu 給予 (instead of a simple gei 給), jiayi 加以 (instead of jia 加), or the words yu 與 and ji 及 (instead of the orally used he 和). The first two examples are still used because they are bisyllabic words and thus fit better in the flow of words in a sentence in modern Chinese, as well as in Classical Chinese.

In the aspect of grammar, sentences in the vernacular language as well as the classical language do not necessarily use a subject if the "actor" is clear. Yet under the influence of foreign languages the need for a subject became an imperative also for Mandarin.

Lin Tao 林燾 (1988). "Hanyu yuyin 漢語語音", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言•文字 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 183-189.
Yan Yiming 顏逸明 (1988). "Guoyu yundong 國語運動", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言•文字 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 123-124.
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