History of Mandarin Chinese
Mandarin Chinese, also known as Huayu (華語“language of the Chinese”), Guoyu (國語 “national language”), or Putonghua (普通話”common language”), is the official language of mainland China (since 1982) and ROC Taiwan (since 1932). Mandarin is also one of the four official languages of Singapore, and one of the eight official languages of the United Nations.
From the time China became a nation state in 221 B.C. until the end of China’s last imperial dynasty in 1912, China did not have a single national language. Rather, the Chinese spoke many different languages and dialects that developed organically over the course of several millennia. By the early years of the 20th Century, most Chinese agreed that China needed a common language in order to facilitate national communication and to combat widespread illiteracy.
In February 1913, the newly established Republic of China (中華民國) convened a “Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation” (讀音統一會) in Beijing in order to develop a phonetic system and national language for China. The Commission included linguists and educators from each province of China, Tibet, Mongolia, and from overseas Chinese communities.
The Commission’s first task was to create a simple, easy to learn, phonetic system to help people learn the common Chinese language. Many different phonetic systems were proposed and tried, including a
fixed set of Chinese characters, newly created symbols, and the Roman alphabet. After years of
extensive research and debate, the Commission adopted the Zhuyin alphabet as China’s official alphabet in 1918, deeming it to be the most effective method of teaching Chinese pronunciation.
The Commission then turned to the task of standardizing the language that the new Zhuyin alphabet would represent. In 1920, the Commission published a Dictionary of National Pronunciation
(國音字典) that adopted a modification of Beijing’s phonology. Mandarin was not modeled after the actual speech of the majority of real early 20th century Beijing residents, but rather the way a hypothetical educated Beijing person would speak, as imagined by Mandarin's creators. The difference in China between Mandarin and common Beijing pronunciation is analogous to the difference in England between Received Pronunciation and Cockney.
In 1932 the Republic of China (中華民國) officially adopted the Commission’s product, known as Guoyu or Mandarin, as the national language of China and the first definitive dictionary of the Mandarin language was published in that year.
After 1949, the newly installed People’s Republic of China (中華人民共和國) began to promote Mandarin in earnest beginning in about 1958. In 1955, they changed the Chinese name of Mandarin from Guoyu to Putonghua. Guoyu, Putongua, and Huayu are simply different names for the identical language.
In 1982, the People’s Republic of China (中華人民共和國) amended their constitution making Mandarin the official language of China. The earlier 1932 law by the Republic of China (中華民國) making Mandarin China's official language, while effective today in Taiwan, has no current legal effect in mainland China.
When Mandarin was first officially adopted in 1932, its proponents' goal was that in a century's time, all Chinese would be able to speak proper Mandarin. Today, 79 years later, approximately 70% of Chinese people speak Mandarin fluently.
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