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Mandarin (官話; 官话; Guānhuà; speech of officials) is a group of related varieties of Chinese spoken across most of northern and southwestern China. The group includes the Beijing dialect, the basis of Standard Mandarin or Standard Chinese. Because most Mandarin dialects are found in the north, the group is sometimes referred to as the Northern dialects (Template:Zh). Many local Mandarin varieties are not mutually intelligible. Nevertheless, Mandarin is often placed first in lists of languages by number of native speakers (with nearly a billion).

Mandarin is by far the largest of the seven or ten Chinese dialect groups, spoken by 70 percent of all Chinese speakers over a large geographical area, stretching from Yunnan in the southwest to Xinjiang in the northwest and Heilongjiang in the northeast. This is generally attributed to the greater ease of travel and communication in the North China Plain compared to the more mountainous south, combined with the relatively recent spread of Mandarin to frontier areas.

Most Mandarin varieties have four tones. The final stops of Middle Chinese have disappeared in most of these varieties, but some have merged them as a final glottal stop. Many Mandarin varieties, including the Beijing dialect, retain retroflex initial consonants, which have been lost in southern dialect groups.

The capital has been within the Mandarin area for most of the last millennium, making these dialects very influential. Some form of Mandarin has served as a national lingua franca since the 14th century. In the early 20th century, a standard form based on the Beijing dialect, with elements from other Mandarin dialects, was adopted as the national language. Standard Chinese is the official language of the People's Republic of China[1] and Taiwan[2] and one of the four official languages of Singapore. It is used as one of the working languages of the United Nations.[3] It is also one of the most frequently used varieties of Chinese among Chinese diaspora communities internationally.


The English word "mandarin" (from Portuguese mandarim, from Malay menteri, from Sanskrit mantrin, meaning "minister or counsellor") originally meant an official of the Ming and Qing empires.[4][5]Template:Efn Since their native varieties were often mutually unintelligible, these officials communicated using a Koiné language based on various northern varieties. When Jesuit missionaries learned this standard language in the 16th century, they called it "Mandarin", from its Chinese name Guānhuà (Template:Lang), or "language of the officials".Template:Sfnp

In everyday English, "Mandarin" refers to Standard Chinese, which is often called simply "Chinese". Standard Chinese is based on the particular Mandarin dialect spoken in Beijing, with some lexical and syntactic influence from other Mandarin dialects. It is the official spoken language of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the de facto official language of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan), and one of the four official languages of the Republic of Singapore. It also functions as the language of instruction in Mainland China and in Taiwan. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, under the name "Chinese". Chinese speakers refer to the modern standard language as

  • Pǔtōnghuà (Template:Lang, literally "common speech") in Mainland China,
  • Guóyǔ (Template:Lang, literally "national language") in Taiwan, or
  • Huáyǔ (Template:Lang, literally "Hua language/Chinese language") in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines,

but not as Guānhuà.Template:Sfnp

Linguists use the term "Mandarin" to refer to the diverse group of dialects spoken in northern and southwestern China, which Chinese linguists call Guānhuà. The alternative term Běifānghuà (Template:Lang), or "Northern dialects", is used less and less among Chinese linguists. By extension, the term "Old Mandarin" or "Early Mandarin" is used by linguists to refer to the northern dialects recorded in materials from the Yuan dynasty.

Native speakers who are not academic linguists may not recognize that the variants they speak are classified in linguistics as members of "Mandarin" (or so-called "Northern dialects") in a broader sense. Within Chinese social or cultural discourse, there is not a common "Mandarin" identity based on language; rather, there are strong regional identities centred on individual dialects because of the wide geographical distribution and cultural diversity of their speakers. Speakers of forms of Mandarin other than the standard typically refer to the variety they speak by a geographic name—for example Sichuan dialect, Hebei dialect or Northeastern dialect, all being regarded as distinct from the standard language.


The hundreds of modern local varieties of Chinese developed from regional variants of Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. Traditionally, seven major groups of dialects have been recognized. Aside from Mandarin, the other six are Wu, Gan and Xiang in central China, and Min, Hakka and Yue on the southeast coast.Template:Sfnp The Language Atlas of China (1987) distinguishes three further groups: Jin (split from Mandarin), Huizhou in the Huizhou region of Anhui and Zhejiang, and Pinghua in Guangxi and Yunnan.Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp

Old Mandarin[]

Main article: Old Mandarin
File:Mengu Ziyun xia 24b.jpg

A page of the Menggu Ziyun, covering the syllables tsim to lim

After the fall of the Northern Song (959–1126) and during the reign of the Jin (1115–1234) and Yuan (Mongol) dynasties in northern China, a common speech developed based on the dialects of the North China Plain around the capital, a language referred to as Old Mandarin. New genres of vernacular literature were based on this language, including verse, drama and story forms, such as the qu and sanqu poetry.Template:Sfnp

The rhyming conventions of the new verse were codified in a rime dictionary called the Zhongyuan Yinyun (1324). A radical departure from the rime table tradition that had evolved over the previous centuries, this dictionary contains a wealth of information on the phonology of Old Mandarin. Further sources are the 'Phags-pa script based on the Tibetan alphabet, which was used to write several of the languages of the Mongol empire, including Chinese, and the Menggu Ziyun, a rime dictionary based on 'Phags-pa. The rime books differ in some details, but overall show many of the features characteristic of modern Mandarin dialects, such as the reduction and disappearance of final plosives and the reorganization of the Middle Chinese tones.Template:Sfnp

In Middle Chinese, initial stops and affricates showed a three-way contrast between tenuis, voiceless aspirated and voiced consonants. There were four tones, with the fourth, or "entering tone", a checked tone comprising syllables ending in plosives (-p, -t or -k). Syllables with voiced initials tended to be pronounced with a lower pitch, and by the late Tang dynasty, each of the tones had split into two registers conditioned by the initials. When voicing was lost in all languages except the Wu subfamily, this distinction became phonemic and the system of initials and tones was rearranged differently in each of the major groups.Template:Sfnp

The Zhongyuan Yinyun shows the typical Mandarin four-tone system resulting from a split of the "even" tone and loss of the entering tone, with its syllables distributed across the other tones (though their different origin is marked in the dictionary). Similarly, voiced plosives and affricates have become voiceless aspirates in the "even" tone and voiceless non-aspirates in others, another distinctive Mandarin development. However, the language still retained a final -m, which has merged with -n in modern dialects, and initial voiced fricatives. It also retained the distinction between velars and alveolar sibilants in palatal environments, which later merged in most Mandarin dialects to yield a palatal series (rendered j-, q- and x- in pinyin).Template:Sfnp

The flourishing vernacular literature of the period also shows distinctively Mandarin vocabulary and syntax, though some, such as the third-person pronoun (他), can be traced back to the Tang dynasty.Template:Sfnp

Vernacular literature[]

Until the early 20th century, formal writing and even much poetry and fiction was done in Literary Chinese, which was modeled on the classics of the Warring States period and the Han dynasty. Over time, the various spoken varieties diverged greatly from Literary Chinese, which was learned and composed as a special language. Preserved from the sound changes that affected the various spoken varieties, its economy of expression was greatly valued. For example, Template:Lang (yì, "wing") is unambiguous in written Chinese, but has over 75 homophones in Standard Chinese.

The literary language was less appropriate for recording materials that were meant to be reproduced in oral presentations, materials such as plays and grist for the professional story-teller's mill. From at least the Yuan dynasty, plays that recounted the subversive tales of China's Robin Hoods to the Ming dynasty novels such as Water Margin, on down to the Qing dynasty novel Dream of the Red Chamber and beyond, there developed a literature in written vernacular Chinese (白话/白話 báihuà). In many cases, this written language reflected Mandarin varieties, and since pronunciation differences were not conveyed in this written form, this tradition had a unifying force across all the Mandarin-speaking regions and beyond.Template:Sfnp

Hu Shih, a pivotal figure of the first half of the twentieth century, wrote an influential and perceptive study of this literary tradition, entitled Báihuà Wénxuéshǐ ("A History of Vernacular Literature").

Koiné of the Late Empire[]

Main article: Mandarin (late imperial lingua franca)

Zhongguo Guanhua (中國官話), or Medii Regni Communis Loquela ("Middle Kingdom's Common Speech"), used on the frontispiece of an early Chinese grammar published by Étienne Fourmont (with Arcadio Huang) in 1742[6]

Template:Quote frame

Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese people living in many parts of South China spoke only their local variety. As a practical measure, officials of the Ming and Qing dynasties carried out the administration of the empire using a common language based on Mandarin varieties, known as Guānhuà. Knowledge of this language was thus essential for an official career, but it was never formally defined.Template:Sfnp

Officials varied widely in their pronunciation; in 1728, the Yongzheng Emperor, unable to understand the accents of officials from Guangdong and Fujian, issued a decree requiring the governors of those provinces to provide for the teaching of proper pronunciation. Although the resulting Academies for Correct Pronunciation (Template:Lang, Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) were short-lived, the decree did spawn a number of textbooks that give some insight into the ideal pronunciation. Common features included:

  • loss of the Middle Chinese voiced initials except for v-
  • merger of -m finals with -n
  • the characteristic Mandarin four-tone system in open syllables, but retaining a final glottal stop in "entering tone" syllables
  • retention of the distinction between palatalized velars and dental affricates, the source of the spellings "Peking" and "Tientsin" for modern "Beijing" and "Tianjin".Template:Sfnp

As the last two of these features indicate, this language was a koiné based on dialects spoken in the Nanjing area, though not identical to any single dialect.Template:Sfnp This form remained prestigious long after the capital moved to Beijing in 1421, though the speech of the new capital emerged as a rival standard. As late as 1815, Robert Morrison based the first English–Chinese dictionary on this koiné as the standard of the time, though he conceded that the Beijing dialect was gaining in influence.[7] By the middle of the 19th century, the Beijing dialect had become dominant and was essential for any business with the imperial court.Template:Sfnp

Standard Chinese[]

Main article: Standard Chinese

In the early years of the Republic of China, intellectuals of the New Culture Movement, such as Hu Shih and Chen Duxiu, successfully campaigned for the replacement of Literary Chinese as the written standard by written vernacular Chinese, which was based on northern dialects. A parallel priority was the definition of a standard national language (Template:Zh). After much dispute between proponents of northern and southern dialects and an abortive attempt at an artificial pronunciation, the National Language Unification Commission finally settled on the Beijing dialect in 1932. The People's Republic, founded in 1949, retained this standard, calling it pǔtōnghuà (Template:Zh).Template:Sfnp Some 54% of speakers of Mandarin varieties could understand the standard language in the early 1950s, rising to 91% in 1984. Nationally, the proportion understanding the standard rose from 41% to 90% over the same period.Template:Sfnp

The national language is now used in education, the media and formal occasions in both the PRC and the ROC but not in Hong Kong and Macau. This standard can now be spoken intelligibly by most younger people in Mainland China and Taiwan with various regional accents. In Hong Kong and Macau, because of their colonial and linguistic history, the sole language of education, the media, formal speech and everyday life remains the local Cantonese. Mandarin is now common and taught in many schoolsTemplate:Sfnp but still has yet to gain traction with the local population. In Mandarin-speaking areas such as Sichuan and Chongqing, the local dialect is the native tongue of most of the population.Template:Clarify The era of mass education in Standard Chinese has not erased these regional differences, and people may be either diglossic or speak the standard language with a notable accent.

From an official point of view, the PRC and ROC governments maintain their own forms of the standard under different names. Technically, both Pǔtōnghuà and Guóyǔ base their phonology on the Beijing accent, though Pǔtōnghuà also takes some elements from other sources. Comparison of dictionaries produced in the two areas will show that there are few substantial differences. However, both versions of "school-standard" Chinese are often quite different from the Mandarin varieties that are spoken in accordance with regional habits, and neither is wholly identical to the Beijing dialect. Pǔtōnghuà and Guóyǔ also have some differences from the Beijing dialect in vocabulary, grammar, and pragmatics.

The written forms of Standard Chinese are also essentially equivalent, although simplified characters are used in China, Singapore and Malaysia, while people in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan generally use traditional characters.

Geographic distribution and dialects[]

Template:See also

File:Mandarin subgroups and Jin group.png

Distribution of the eight subgroups of Mandarin plus Jin Chinese, which many linguists include as part of Mandarin, according to the Language Atlas of China (1987)Template:Sfnp

Most Han Chinese living in northern and southwestern China are native speakers of a dialect of Mandarin. The North China Plain provided few barriers to migration, leading to relative linguistic homogeneity over a wide area in northern China. In contrast, the mountains and rivers of southern China have spawned the other six major groups of Chinese varieties, with great internal diversity, particularly in Fujian.Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp

However, the varieties of Mandarin cover a huge area containing nearly a billion people. As a result, there are pronounced regional variations in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar, and many Mandarin varieties are not mutually intelligible.Template:Efn

Most of northeastern China, except for Liaoning, did not receive significant settlements by Han Chinese until the 18th century,Template:Sfnp and as a result the Northeastern Mandarin dialects spoken there differ little from the Beijing dialect.Template:Sfnp The Manchu people of the area now speak these dialects exclusively; their native language is only maintained in northwestern Xinjiang, where Xibe, a modern dialect, is spoken.Template:Sfnp

The frontier areas of Northwest China were colonized by speakers of Mandarin dialects at the same time, and the dialects in those areas similarly closely resemble their relatives in the core Mandarin area.Template:Sfnp The Southwest was settled early, but the population fell dramatically for obscure reasons in the 13th century, and did not recover until the 17th century.Template:Sfnp The dialects in this area are now relatively uniform.Template:Sfnp However, long-established cities even very close to Beijing, such as Tianjin, Baoding, Shenyang, and Dalian, have markedly different dialects.

Unlike their compatriots on the southeast coast, few Mandarin speakers engaged in overseas emigration until the late 20th century, but there are now significant communities of them in cities across the world.Template:Sfnp


Template:Refimprove section The classification of Chinese dialects evolved during the 20th century, and many points remain unsettled. Early classifications tended to follow provincial boundaries or major geographical features.Template:Sfnp In 1936, Wang Li produced the first classification based on phonetic criteria, principally the evolution of Middle Chinese voiced initials. His Mandarin group included dialects of northern and southwestern China, as well as those of Hunan and northern Jiangxi.Template:Sfnp Li Fang-Kuei's classification of 1937 distinguished the latter two groups as Xiang and Gan, while splitting the remaining Mandarin dialects between Northern, Lower Yangtze and Southwestern Mandarin groups.Template:Sfnp The widely accepted seven-group classification of Yuan Jiahua in 1960 kept Xiang and Gan separate, with Mandarin divided into Northern, Northwestern, Southwestern and Jiang–Huai (Lower Yangtze) subgroups.Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp

Of Yuan's four Mandarin subgroups, the Northwestern dialects are the most diverse, particularly in the province of Shanxi.Template:Sfnp The linguist Li Rong proposed that the northwestern dialects of Shanxi and neighbouring areas that retain a final glottal stop in the Middle Chinese entering tone (plosive-final) category should constitute a separate top-level group called Jin.Template:Sfnp He used this classification in the Language Atlas of China (1987).Template:Sfnp Many other linguists continue to include these dialects in the Mandarin group, pointing out that the Lower Yangtze dialects also retain the glottal stop.Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp

The southern boundary of the Mandarin area, with the central Wu, Gan and Xiang groups, is weakly defined due to centuries of diffusion of northern features. Many border varieties have a mixture of features that make them difficult to classify. The boundary between Southwestern Mandarin and Xiang is particularly weak,Template:Sfnp and in many early classifications the two were not separated.Template:Sfnp Zhou Zhenhe and You Rujie include the New Xiang dialects within Southwestern Mandarin, treating only the more conservative Old Xiang dialects as a separate group.Template:Sfnp The Huizhou dialects have features of both Mandarin and Wu, and have been assigned to one or other of these groups or treated as separate by various authors. Li Rong and the Language Atlas of China treated it as a separate top-level group, but this remains controversial.Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp

The Language Atlas of China calls the remainder of Mandarin a "supergroup", divided into eight dialect groups distinguished by their treatment of the Middle Chinese entering tone (see Tones below):Template:Sfnp

  • Northeastern Mandarin, spoken in Manchuria except the Liaodong Peninsula.Template:Sfnp This dialect is closely related to Standard Chinese, with little variation in lexicon and very few tonal differences.
  • Beijing Mandarin in Beijing and environs such as Chengde and northern Hebei, as well as some areas of recent large-scale immigration, such as northern Xinjiang.Template:Sfnp The Beijing dialect forms the basis of Standard Chinese.
  • Jilu Mandarin, spoken in Hebei ("Ji") and Shandong ("Lu") provinces except the Shandong Peninsula, including Tianjin dialect.Template:Sfnp Tones and vocabulary are markedly different. In general, there is substantial intelligibility with Beijing Mandarin.
  • Jiaoliao Mandarin, spoken in Shandong (Jiaodong) and Liaodong Peninsulas.Template:Sfnp Very noticeable tonal changes, different in "flavour" from Ji–Lu Mandarin, but with more variance. There is moderate intelligibility with Beijing.
  • Central Plains Mandarin, spoken in Henan province, the central parts of Shaanxi in the Yellow River valley, eastern Gansu and southern Xinjiang.Template:Sfnp There are significant phonological differences, with partial intelligibility with Beijing. The Dungan language spoken in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan belongs to this group. Dungan speakers such as the poet Iasyr Shivaza have reported being understood by speakers of the Beijing dialect, but not vice versa.Template:Sfnp
  • Lanyin Mandarin, spoken in central and western Gansu province (with capital Lanzhou) and Ningxia autonomous region (with capital Yinchuan), as well as northern Xinjiang.Template:Sfnp
  • Lower Yangtze Mandarin (or Jiang–Huai), spoken in the parts of Jiangsu and Anhui on the north bank of the Yangtze, as well as some areas on the south bank, such as Nanjing in Jiangsu, Jiujiang in Jiangxi, etc.Template:Sfnp There are significant phonological and lexical changes to varying degrees, and intelligibility with Beijing is limited. Lower Yangtze Mandarin has been significantly influenced by Wu Chinese.
  • Southwestern Mandarin, spoken in the provinces of Hubei, Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan, and the Mandarin-speaking areas of Hunan, Guangxi and southern Shaanxi.Template:Sfnp There are sharp phonological, lexical, and tonal changes, and intelligibility with Beijing is limited to varying degrees.Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp

The Atlas also includes several unclassified Mandarin dialects spoken in scattered pockets across southeastern China, such as Nanping in Fujian and Dongfang on Hainan,Template:Sfnp Another Mandarin variety of uncertain classification is apparently Gyami, recorded in the 19th century in the Tibetan foothills, who the Chinese apparently did not recognize as Chinese.Template:Sfnp


Template:See also Template:Refimprove section

Syllables consist maximally of an initial consonant, a glide, a vowel, a final, and tone. Not every syllable that is possible according to this rule actually exists in Mandarin, as there are rules prohibiting certain phonemes from appearing with others, and in practice there are only a few hundred distinct syllables.

Phonological features that are generally shared by the Mandarin dialects include:

  • the palatalization of velar consonants and alveolar sibilants when they occur before palatal glides;
  • one syllable contains maximum four phonemes (maximum three vowels and no consonant cluster)
  • the disappearance of final stop consonants and /-m/ (although in many Lower Yangtze Mandarin and Jin Chinese dialects, an echo of the final stops is preserved as a glottal stop);
  • the presence of retroflex consonants (although these are absent in many Southwestern and Northeastern Mandarin dialects);
  • the historical devoicing of stops and sibilants (also common to most non-Mandarin varieties).


The maximal inventory of initials of a Mandarin dialect is as follows, with bracketed pinyin spellings given for those present in the standard language:Template:Sfnp

Labial Apical Retroflex Palatal Velar
Stops Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket
Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket
Nasals Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA    
Affricates Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket
Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket
Fricatives Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket
Sonorants Template:IPA     Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA Template:Angle bracket Template:IPA    
  • Most Mandarin-speaking areas distinguish between the retroflex initials Template:IPA from the apical sibilants Template:IPA, though they often have a different distribution than in the standard language. In most dialects of the southeast and southwest the retroflex initials have merged with the alveolar sibilants, so that zhi becomes zi, chi becomes ci, and shi becomes si.Template:Sfnp
  • The alveolo-palatal sibilants Template:IPA are the result of merger between the historical palatalized velars Template:IPA and palatalized alveolar sibilants Template:IPA.Template:Sfnp In about 20% of dialects, the alveolar sibilants failed to palatalize, remaining separate from the alveolo-palatal initials. (The unique pronunciation used in Peking opera falls into this category.) On the other side, in some dialects of eastern Shandong, the velar initials have failed to palatalize.
  • Many southwestern Mandarin dialects mix Template:IPA and Template:IPA, substituting one for the other in some or all cases.Template:Sfnp For example, fei Template:IPA "to fly" and hui Template:IPA "dust" may be merged in these areas.
  • In some dialects, initial Template:IPA and Template:IPA are not distinguished. In Southwestern Mandarin, these sounds usually merge to Template:IPA; in Lower Yangtze Mandarin, they usually merge to Template:IPA.Template:Sfnp
  • People in many Mandarin-speaking areas may use different initial sounds where Beijing uses initial r- Template:IPA. Common variants include Template:IPA, Template:IPA, Template:IPA and Template:IPA.Template:Sfnp
  • Some dialects have initial Template:IPA corresponding to the zero initial of the standard language.Template:Sfnp This initial is the result of a merger of the Middle Chinese zero initial with Template:IPA and Template:IPA.
  • Many dialects of Northwestern and Central Plains Mandarin have Template:IPA where Beijing has Template:IPA.Template:Sfnp Examples include Template:IPA "pig" for standard zhū Template:Linktext Template:IPA, Template:IPA "water" for standard shuǐ Template:Linktext Template:IPA, Template:IPA "soft" for standard ruǎn Template:Linktext Template:IPA.


Most Mandarin dialects have three medial glides, Template:IPA, Template:IPA and Template:IPA (spelled i, u and ü in pinyin), though their incidence varies. The medial Template:IPA, is lost after apical initials in several areas.Template:Sfnp Thus Southwestern Mandarin has Template:IPA "right" where the standard language has dui Template:IPA. Southwestern Mandarin also has Template:IPA in some words where the standard has jie qie xie Template:IPA. This is a stereotypical feature of southwestern Mandarin, since it is so easily noticeable. E.g. hai "shoe" for standard xie, gai "street" for standard jie.

Mandarin dialects typically have relatively few vowels. Syllabic fricatives, as in standard zi and zhi, are common in Mandarin dialects, though they also occur elsewhere.Template:Sfnp The Middle Chinese off-glides Template:IPA and Template:IPA are generally preserved in Mandarin dialects, yielding several diphthongs and triphthongs in contrast to the larger sets of monophthongs common in other dialect groups (and some widely scattered Mandarin dialects).Template:Sfnp

The Middle Chinese coda Template:IPA was still present in Old Mandarin, but has merged with Template:IPA in the modern dialects.Template:Sfnp In some areas (especially the southwest) final Template:IPA has also merged with Template:IPA. This is especially prevalent in the rhyme pairs -en/-eng Template:IPA and -in/-ing Template:IPA. As a result, jīn "gold" and jīng "capital" merge in those dialects.

The Middle Chinese final stops have undergone a variety of developments in different Mandarin dialects (see Tones below). In Lower Yangtze dialects and some north-western dialects they have merged as a final glottal stop. In other dialects they have been lost, with varying effects on the vowel.Template:Sfnp As a result, Beijing Mandarin and Northeastern Mandarin underwent more vowel mergers than many other varieties of Mandarin. For example:

Character Meaning Standard
Beijing, Harbin
(Central Plains)
(Lower Yangtze)
Middle Chinese
Pinyin IPA
Template:Lang lesson Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA
Template:Lang guest Template:IPATemplate:Efn Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA
Template:Lang fruit guǒ Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA
Template:Lang country guó Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA

R-coloring, a characteristic feature of Mandarin, works quite differently in the southwest. Whereas Beijing dialect generally removes only a final Template:IPA or Template:IPA when adding the rhotic final -r Template:IPA, in the southwest the -r replaces nearly the entire rhyme.


File:Mandarin tones in musical notation.svg

Four tones of Modern Standard Mandarin Chinese, using musical notation.

In general, no two Mandarin-speaking areas have exactly the same set of tone values, but most Mandarin-speaking areas have very similar tone distribution. For example, the dialects of Jinan, Chengdu, Xi'an and so on all have four tones that correspond quite well to the Beijing dialect tones of Template:IPA (55), Template:IPA (35), Template:IPA (214), and Template:IPA (51). The exception to this rule lies in the distribution of syllables formerly ending in a stop consonant, which are treated differently in different dialects of Mandarin.Template:Sfnp

Middle Chinese stops and affricates had a three-way distinction between tenuis, voiceless aspirate and voiced (or breathy voiced) consonants. In Mandarin dialects the voicing is generally lost, yielding voiceless aspirates in syllables with a Middle Chinese level tone and non-aspirates in other syllables.Template:Sfnp Of the four tones of Middle Chinese, the level, rising and departing tones have also developed into four modern tones in a uniform way across Mandarin dialects: the Middle Chinese level tone has split into two registers, conditioned on voicing of the Middle Chinese initial, while rising tone syllables with voiced obstruent initials have shifted to the departing tone.Template:Sfnp The following examples from the standard language illustrate the regular development common to Mandarin dialects (recall that pinyin d denotes a non-aspirate Template:IPA, while t denotes an aspirate Template:IPA):

Reflexes of Middle Chinese initials and tones in modern Mandarin
Middle Chinese tone "level tone"
(píng 平)
"rising tone"
(shǎng 上)
"departing tone"
( 去)
Example Template:Linktext Template:Linktext Template:Linktext Template:Linktext Template:Linktext Template:Linktext Template:Linktext Template:Linktext Template:Linktext Template:Linktext Template:Linktext Template:Linktext
Middle Chinese tan tʰan lan dan tan tʰan lan dan tan tʰan lan dan
Standard Chinese dān tān lán tán dǎn tǎn lǎn dàn dàn tàn làn dàn
Modern Mandarin tone 1 (yīn píng) 2 (yáng píng) 3 (shǎng) 4 ()

In traditional Chinese phonology, syllables that ended in a stop in Middle Chinese (i.e. /p/, /t/ or /k/) were considered to belong to a special category known as the "entering tone". These final stops have disappeared in most Mandarin dialects, with the syllables distributed over the other four modern tones in different ways in the various Mandarin subgroups.

In the Beijing dialect that underlies the standard language, syllables beginning with original voiceless consonants were redistributed across the four tones in a completely random pattern.Template:Sfnp For example, the three characters Template:LinktextTemplate:LinktextTemplate:Linktext, all tsjek in Middle Chinese (William H. Baxter's transcription), are now pronounced , and respectively. Older dictionaries such as Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary mark characters whose pronunciation formerly ended with a stop with a superscript 5; however, this tone number is more commonly used for syllables that always have a neutral tone (see below).

In Lower Yangtze dialects, a minority of Southwestern dialects (e.g. Minjiang) and Jin Chinese (sometimes considered non-Mandarin), former final stops were not deleted entirely, but were reduced to a glottal stop Template:IPA.Template:Sfnp (This includes the dialect of Nanjing on which the Postal Romanization was based; it transcribes the glottal stop as a trailing h.) This development is shared with Wu Chinese and is thought to represent the pronunciation of Old Mandarin. In line with traditional Chinese phonology, dialects such as Lower Yangtze and Minjiang are thus said to have five tones instead of four. However, modern linguistics considers these syllables as having no phonemic tone at all.

Reflexes of the Middle Chinese entering tone in Mandarin dialects[8]
subgroup Middle Chinese initial
voiceless voiced sonorant voiced obstruent
Beijing 1,3,4 4 2
Jiao–Liao 3
Ji–Lu 1
Central Plains 1
Lan–Yin 4
Southwestern 2
Lower Yangtze marked with final glottal stop ()

Although the system of tones is common across Mandarin dialects, their realization as tone contours varies widely:Template:Sfnp

Phonetic realization of Mandarin tones in principal dialects
Tone name 1 (yīn píng) 2 (yáng píng) 3 (shǎng) 4 () marked with
glottal stop ()
Beijing Beijing Template:IPA (55) Template:IPA (35) Template:IPA (214) Template:IPA (51)
Northeastern Harbin Template:IPA (44) Template:IPA (24) Template:IPA (213) Template:IPA (52)
Jiao–Liao Yantai Template:IPA (31) (Template:IPA (55)) Template:IPA (214) Template:IPA (55)
Ji–Lu Tianjin Template:IPA (21) Template:IPA (35) Template:IPA (113) Template:IPA (53)
Shijiazhuang Template:IPA (23) Template:IPA (53) Template:IPA (55) Template:IPA (31)
Central Plains Zhengzhou Template:IPA (24) Template:IPA (42) Template:IPA (53) Template:IPA (312)
Luoyang Template:IPA (34) Template:IPA (42) Template:IPA (54) Template:IPA (31)
Xi'an Template:IPA (21) Template:IPA (24) Template:IPA (53) Template:IPA (44)
Tianshui Template:IPA (13) Template:IPA (53) Template:IPA (24)
Lan–Yin Lanzhou Template:IPA (31) Template:IPA (53) Template:IPA (33) Template:IPA (24)
Yinchuan Template:IPA (44) Template:IPA (53) Template:IPA (13)
Southwestern Chengdu Template:IPA (44) Template:IPA (21) Template:IPA (53) Template:IPA (213)
Xichang Template:IPA (33) Template:IPA (52) Template:IPA (45) Template:IPA (213) Template:IPA (31)
Kunming Template:IPA (44) Template:IPA (31) Template:IPA (53) Template:IPA (212)
Wuhan Template:IPA (55) Template:IPA (213) Template:IPA (42) Template:IPA (35)
Liuzhou Template:IPA (44) Template:IPA (31) Template:IPA (53) Template:IPA (24)
Lower Yangtze Yangzhou Template:IPA (31) Template:IPA (35) Template:IPA (42) Template:IPA (55) Template:IPA (5)
Nantong Template:IPA (21) Template:IPA (35) Template:IPA (55) Template:IPA (42), Template:IPA (213)* Template:IPA (4), Template:IPA (5)*

* Dialects in and around the Nantong area typically have many more than 4 tones, due to influence from the neighbouring Wu dialects.

Mandarin dialects frequently employ neutral tones in the second syllables of words, creating syllables whose tone contour is so short and light that it is difficult or impossible to discriminate. These atonal syllables also occur in non-Mandarin dialects, but in many southern dialects the tones of all syllables are made clear.Template:Sfnp


There are more polysyllabic words in Mandarin than in all other major varieties of Chinese except ShanghaineseTemplate:Citation needed. This is partly because Mandarin has undergone many more sound changes than have southern varieties of Chinese, and has needed to deal with many more homophones. New words have been formed by adding affixes such as lao- (老), -zi (子), -(e)r (儿/兒), and -tou (头/頭), or by compounding, e.g. by combining two words of similar meaning as in cōngmáng (匆忙), made from elements meaning "hurried" and "busy". A distinctive feature of southwestern Mandarin is its frequent use of noun reduplication, which is hardly used in Beijing. In Sichuan, one hears bāobāo (包包) "handbag" where Beijing uses bāo'r (包儿). There are also a small number of words that have been polysyllabic since Old Chinese, such as húdié (蝴蝶) "butterfly".

The singular pronouns in Mandarin are (我) "I", (你 or 妳) "you", nín (您) "you (formal)", and (他, 她 or 它) "he/she/it", with -men (们們) added for the plural. Further, there is a distinction between the plural first-person pronoun zánmen (咱们/咱們), which is inclusive of the listener, and wǒmen (我们/我們), which may be exclusive of the listener. Dialects of Mandarin agree with each other quite consistently on these pronouns. While the first and second person singular pronouns are cognate with forms in other varieties of Chinese, the rest of the pronominal system is a Mandarin innovation (e.g., Shanghainese has non 侬/儂 "you" and yi 伊 "he/she").Template:Sfnp

Because of contact with Mongolian and Manchurian peoples, Mandarin (especially the Northeastern varieties) has some loanwords from these languages not present in other varieties of Chinese, such as hútòng (胡同) "alley". Southern Chinese varieties have borrowed from Tai,Template:Sfnp Austroasiatic,[9] and Austronesian languages.

There are also many Chinese words came from foreign languages such as gāo ěr fū (高尔夫) from golf; bǐ jī ní (比基尼) from bikini; hàn bǎo bāo (汉堡包) from hamburger.

In general, the greatest variation occurs in slang, in kinship terms, in names for common crops and domesticated animals, for common verbs and adjectives, and other such everyday terms. The least variation occurs in "formal" vocabulary—terms dealing with science, law, or government.


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Chinese varieties of all periods have traditionally been considered prime examples of analytic languages, relying on word order and particles instead of inflection or affixes to provide grammatical information such as person, number, tense, mood, or case. Although modern varieties, including the Mandarin dialects, use a small number of particles in a similar fashion to suffixes, they are still strongly analytic.Template:Sfnp

The basic word order of subject–verb–object is common across Chinese dialects, but there are variations in the order of the two objects of ditransitive sentences. In northern dialects the indirect object precedes the direct object (as in English), for example in the Standard Chinese sentence:

一本 书 。
gěi yìběn shū.
I give you a (one) book.

In southern dialects, as well as many southwestern and Lower Yangtze dialects, the objects occur in the reverse order.Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp

Most varieties of Chinese use post-verbal particles to indicate aspect, but the particles used vary. Most Mandarin dialects use the particle -le (了) to indicate the perfective aspect and -zhe (着/著) for the progressive aspect. Other Chinese varieties tend to use different particles, e.g. Cantonese zo2 咗 and gan2 紧/緊 respectively. The experiential aspect particle -guo (过/過) is used more widely, except in Southern Min.Template:Sfnp

The subordinative particle de (的) is characteristic of Mandarin dialects.Template:Sfnp Some southern dialects, and a few Lower Yangtze dialects, preserve an older pattern of subordination without a marking particle, while in others a classifier fulfils the role of the Mandarin particle.Template:Sfnp

Especially in conversational Chinese, sentence-final particles alter the inherent meaning of a sentence. Like much vocabulary, particles can vary a great deal with regards to the locale. For example, the particle ma (嘛), which is used in most northern dialects to denote obviousness or contention, is replaced by yo (哟) in southern usage.

Some characters in Mandarin can be combined with others to indicate a particular meaning just like prefix and suffix in English. For example, the suffix -er which means the person who is doing the action, e.g. teacher, person who teaches. In Mandarin the character 師 functions the same thing, it is combined with 教, which means teach, to form the word teacher.

List of Chinese prefix and suffix

Affix Pronunciation Meaning Example Meaning of Example
-們[们] men plural, same as -s, -es 學生們 [学生们]、朋友們 [朋友們] students, friends
可- same as -able 可信、可笑、可靠 trusty, laughable, reliable
重- chóng same as re-(again) 重做、重建、重新 redo, rebuild, renew
第- same as -th, -st, -nd 第二、第一 second, first
老- lǎo old, or show respect to a certain type of person 老头;老板、老师 old man; boss, teacher
-化 huà same as -ize, -en 公式化、制度化、強化 officialize, systemize, strengthen
-家 jiā same as -er or expert 作家、科學家[科学家]、藝術家[艺术家] writer, scientist, artist
-性 xìng same as -ness,_ -ability 可靠性、實用性[实用性]、可理解性 reliability, usability, understandability
-鬼 guǐ usually used in a disparaging way similar to –aholic 煙鬼、酒鬼、胆小鬼 smoker, alcoholic, coward
-匠 jiàng a technician in a certain field 花匠、油漆匠、木匠 gardener, painter, carpenter
-迷 an enthusiast 戲迷[戏迷]、球迷、歌迷 theater fan, sports fan, groupie of a musician
-師 [师] shī suffix for occupations 教師[教师]、厨師[厨师]、律師[律师] teacher, cook/chef, lawyer

See also[]


  • Chinese dictionary
  • Transcription into Chinese characters
  • Written Chinese
  • List of languages by number of native speakers




  1. Template:Cite web
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  4. China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Mathew Ricci.
  5. "mandarin", Template:Cite book
  6. Fourmont, Etienne (1742). Linguae Sinarum Mandarinicae hieroglyphicae grammatica duplex, latinè, & cum characteribus Sinensium.
  7. Template:Cite book
  8. Li Rong's 1985 article on Mandarin classification, quoted in Template:Harvp and Template:Harvp.
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Further reading[]


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  • Chen Zhangtai (陈章太), Li Xingjian (李行健). Putonghua Jichu Fangyan Jiben Cihuiji (1-5) (普通话基础方言基本词汇集, 'Mandarin basic dialects basic words collection'), Yuwen Press (语文出版社), 1996. Template:Zh icon


Historical Western language texts[]


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External links[]

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  • Tones in Mandarin Dialects : Comprehensive tone comparison charts for 523 Mandarin dialects. (Compiled by James Campbell) – Internet Archive mirror

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