Chinese – The Spoken and Written Language


You need to translate a marketing brochure into Chinese. Your want to promote your product in Mainland China and you know that Mandarin is the spoken language, but when you call the translation bureau, they tell you that they will translate your brochure into Chinese Simplified.


The answer is that the translation bureau is concerned with the printed word and the corresponding character set to Mandarin is Chinese Simplified, just as the corresponding character set to Cantonese is Traditional Chinese.

The distinction between the characters sets identified as Traditional and Simplified was created after the Chinese Civil War, when the People’s Republic of China officially implemented the simplification of the Chinese characters. The first time in 1956 and then again in 1964.

The reason was as much political as grammatical. You see, the Chinese Civil War, which started in 1926, pitted the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party; KMT) of General Chiang Kai-shek against the Communist Party of China (CPC). As we know now, Chiang Kai-shek was defeated and the CPC took control of the mainland. The Kuomintang was forced out of the region into Taiwan and several of the outlying Fujianese islands. Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October of 1949 and, in December of that same year, Chiang Kai-shek proclaimed Taipei (Taiwan), the temporary capital of the Republic of China (ROC).

While character simplification in mainland China is commonly attributed to the Cultural Revolution, the concept actually dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, during the Kuomintang Government, when many Chinese intellectuals believed that character simplification would help to promote literacy.

In addition to knowing the corresponding character sets to Mandarin and Cantonese, for example, software developers and webmasters need to become familiar with the related character encoded systems.

The following is a look-up table intended to shed some light into the subject of Chinese characters and their proper encoding:

Character  Where used Character encoded systems (Codesets)
Chinese Simplified Mainland China (PRC), Singapore and Malaysia GB2312
UTF-8 *
Chinese Traditional Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and most overseas communities Big Five/Big Five Plus
UTF-8 *

*Selecting UTF-8 as the default character set, avoids the need to use different codesets for XML Javascripts and other applications. Most browsers handle UTF-8.
The spoken languages of China also pose challenges. For example, if you want to localize a video. (Note: To localize is to adapt the message to the cultural characteristics of the target market. In other words, you do not just convert one language into another, but you want the message to read or sound as if it had originated from the target locale.)

As we know, Mandarin, spoken in mainland China is the Chinese language with the most speakers. It is and it is prevalent also in Taiwan. However, Cantonese is the language spoken in Taiwan and the overseas communities where Chinese migrants have settled. It was spoken widely in Hong Kong, until the held the 99-year lease held by Great Britain expired in June of 1997.

Most linguists classify the variations of Chinese under the Sino-Tibetan language family, one of the largest in terms of speakers and second only to the Indo-European family of languages. The seven main groups of Chinese languages are: Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu, Xiang, Gan, Hakka, and Min. The following table provides more information about these languages:

Mandarin, (北方话), aka Putonghua 普通话, (mainland dialect), and Guoyu 國語 has about 870 million speakers and is spoken in Mainland China (PRC), Taiwan (ROC), Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and various Chinese communities around the world. Interestingly, “Mandarin” is not a Chinese word. It was actually used to “designate an official in the imperial Chinese court. and it has roots in the Portuguese “mandarim”, the Malay “menteri”, the Sanskrit mantrin “counsel”, from mantrah “counsel, prayer, hymn.”

Cantonese / Yue (粤语) has approximately 66 million speakers in Taiwan (ROC), Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Macau, and communities around the world, such as those in Canada, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Panama, the Netherlands and other European countries where Cantonese speaking migrants have settled.

Wu (吴语), with approximately 77 million speakers, is spoken in China (PRC) Taiwan (ROC), Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and communities in countries where Wu Chinese migrants have settled.

Hakka (客家话), with approximately 34 million speakers, is spoken in China (PRC) Taiwan (ROC), Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and communities in countries where Hakka Chinese migrants have settled.

Min (閩方言) (pinyin: min3 fang1 yan2), with approximately 20 million speakers, is the general term used to designate a group of dialects spoken in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian and migrants from this province who settled in Taiwan, Guangdong, Hainan as well as in two counties in southern Zhejiang and Zhoushan archipelago off Ningbo. There are many Min speakers in Southeast Asia and in Ming communities around the world.

Hopefully,this information will be useful and has answered some of the questions that might arise during your next translation project. However, if you are unsure about which version of spoken or written Chinese you need, please do not hesitate to contact us. One of our knowledgeable project managers will gladly answer any questions that you might have.