So you may have heard some of these words bandied about, and you’re wondering to yourself, what’s going on here? Why is it so complicated? Is Chinese that complicated?
Languages are not unchanging, they’re a fluid body of knowledge, and that is never more clear than with the Chinese language.
Once upon a time, in the very beginning, or however you want to call it, Chinese looked very, very different to the way it looks today, in all of its forms. The Chinese language, like the civilisation, has been around for a very long time, after all.
They started off with pictographs, which is a fancy way of saying they drew pictures as text. Lots of different languages got their start this way. Later on, to be able to communicate more complex things, the pictograph set was edited, added to, and we arrive at what’s known as Old Chinese (also known as Archaic Chinese.) This was a very long time ago, popularly used during the Zhou Dynasty (1,122 BCE – 256 BCE) so it’s not like we remember first-hand or anything. But we are talking old, like Oracle bones (characters being written onto animal bones!) kind of old. (Check out our earlier post Memory Centre: 日 (rì) and 月 (yuè) that shows how these two characters have morphed throughout the ages.)
However, there were different sets of characters being used throughout China, something the first Emperor sought to change. After conquering the six other states making up China, a unified writing system was established. While a singular writing system was in place, each region still pronounced each character differently! These are known as Chinese dialects, with Cantonese being one of the most wide-spread and popular, even to this day. Unfortunately, regional dialect use meant that people on one side of China couldn’t understand what people on the other side were saying, but it would take a lot more time before anything terribly useful was done about it.
Slowly, Old Chinese morphed into Middle Chinese, which starts to look more like the Chinese characters we all know and love today, in use until the 900s CE (did we mention Chinese has a very long history?) We still have a way to go.
The language continued changing, but even into the 1900s, the majority of people still spoke their regional dialect. The National Language Unification Commission, after many debates, settled on the Beijing dialect as the standard Chinese language in 1932.
The next big change would take place with the establishment of an elementary school education system that taught Modern Standard Chinese (Mandarin.) Because of this, Mandarin is spoken by virtually all people in mainland China and Taiwan, but not yet Hong Kong (though its influence is increasing.)
Since big changes are now in vogue, in the 1950s, the PRC promoted a new simplified character set, called 简体 (jiǎntǐ) Simplified Chinese, in a bid to increase literacy amongst the people. In truth, the Chinese language had a long history of the simplification of characters, but this was a very concerted effort to collect all the simplifications into a character set, which ended up looking very different to what was currently in place. Because of this, such a thing as 繁體 (fántǐ) Traditional Chinese had to be named, to differentiate it. No new characters or character substitutions have been added to 繁體 (fántǐ) Traditional Chinese since 1946, however, it is the character set still in use in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau today.
The next big step was to formalise a pronunciation key for Chinese, and in 1958 the 拼音 (pīnyīn) system was developed and later revised several times, based on earlier work on the romanisation of Chinese. It is useful in at least a couple of ways: to initially learn how to pronounce Chinese characters, and to input Chinese characters on a computer.
Regional dialects still persevere, however: children these days learn their dialect at home first, and then are taught Mandarin in school, so pretty much every Chinese person is bilingual without even breaking a sweat!
Of course, TL;DR: 繁體 (fántǐ) Traditional Chinese old, used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. 简体 (jiǎntǐ) Simplified Chinese new, used in mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia. The 拼音 (pīnyīn) system is a pronunciation key and computer-input romanisation of the Chinese language.
Yes, we know that was long, but hopefully you enjoyed the history of it all?
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