Confused about Chinese, Mandarin, Putonghua and Simplified/Traditional characters?

Do you require Chinese, Mandarin or Cantonese? Should you use traditional or simplified characters? What’s the difference between them all? Many clients do not know the answers to these questions, which is fair enough. You can’t be expected to know everything. That’s hopefully where specialists like ourselves come in.

When one client asked about the best nomenclature to use when talking Chinese translation, we sent him a summary. We are sure he’s not the only one who needs some clarification, so we are sharing this summary, which has been edited and expanded, below. We’ve split it up into spoken and written Chinese, and the key points are in bold.

Written Chinese:

Chinese speaking communities around the world basically share the same written language – standard Chinese.

Mainland China, Malaysia, and Singapore use the simplified character set.

Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and many overseas communities use the traditional character set.

However, each place uses different character variations, words and expressions. So in general, we still need to localise our documents separately for each region, using local linguists. You can’t just convert the characters and go!

Only rarely is Chinese written in dialect voice that reflects the grammar and punctuation of a spoken dialect (it would be something equivalent to Irvine Welsh’s Scots dialect in Trainspotting). This might be used in very locally targeted advertising, fiction, social media and online messaging and so on, and it would probably be used to convey a local flavour. There is no standard way to write any of China’s dialects, however.

Spoken Chinese:

Chinese has a large number of dialects/languages – let’s call them variants in the Chinese language family.

Standard Mandarin is the lingua franca spoken across Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. It is the most commonly spoken variant of Chinese, and within that group you find many accents like Sichuan, Northeastern, Singapore, Taiwanese and so on. All of these dialects are mutually intelligible.

In Mainland China, there is a standardised version of this dialect called Putonghua, literally ‘common language’. This is a somewhat artificial dialect based on the Northeastern version of standard Mandarin, promoted by the Chinese government to enable people across the mainland to communicate. The pronunciation and tones of words are mostly standardised and therefore there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Many people cannot speak Putonghua without an accent; but to be a presenter on national TV or radio, you must pass a test certifying you can speak Putonghua to a certain level. Nowadays, everybody learns Mandarin at school, and this is the variant that should be used in classrooms across China.

Beyond this there is also a range of mutually unintelligible dialects/languages, such as Cantonese, Min, Gan, Wu etc, which many people actually speak as their first language. These dialects will be used at home and locally, but people will be able to understand, and to varying degrees speak Putonghua.

Hong Kong is different, as Hong Kong uses Cantonese (the language of Guangdong in south China) as its primary spoken language. The situation is the same in Macao.

A variety of dialects are spoken in Malaysia, but Mandarin is becoming the most prevalent.

Overseas communities traditionally use Cantonese, as many earlier migrants came from southern China. As immigration from Mainland China increases, we find that standard Mandarin is becoming more widely used.

Feel free to get in touch if you are not sure which variant of Chinese you should be using.

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