The forms of Chinese spoken in areas occupied by those of Chinese origin differ so widely from one another that many may be deemed to constitute languages in their own right. The principal dialects are Northern Chinese (Mandarin), Cantonese, Hakka, the Wu dialect of Suzhou, and the dialect of Min (Fukien). All of these, however, share a common written language consisting of thousands of separate ideographs or ‘characters’. The language traditionally used for the compilation of official documents is totally unlike the spoken language, as is the language in which the classic texts of Chinese literature are expressed. For these, also, the same script is used.
The structure of individual ideographs can sometimes be very complicated in script, involving the use of as many as twenty-eight separate strokes of the brush or pen. A code of simplified characters is in use on the mainland, but more traditional forms are found in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and areas beyond Chinese jurisdiction.
The language is monosyllabic, one ideograph representing a syllable. Each ideograph is pronounced in a particular inflection of voice, or ‘tone’. The National Language (the standard spoken form of modern Chinese) uses four separate tones, Cantonese, nine. The National Language is derived from the pronunciation of northern China (notably that of the Beijing area), which has traditionally been adopted for the transaction of official business—hence the term ‘Mandarin’, which is sometimes used to categorize it. Alternative names for it are putonghua (‘speech in common use’) or Kuo-yü (otherwise Guoyu, ‘National Language’).
The many thousand Chinese characters are traditionally written from top to bottom in vertical columns running right to left across the page, but nowadays, especially in mainland China, are printed in left-to-right lines like the Western alphabet. This has always been the practice when Chinese phrases are set within a Roman text.
Although the pronunciation of characters varies markedly from dialect to dialect (the surname pronounced Wu in Mandarin is Ng in Cantonese), romanization is normally based on Beijing (‘Mandarin’) usage. There are two main systems: Wade–Giles, formerly the norm in English-language publications, and Pinyin, the official transliteration in the People’s Republic. The name, in Wade–Giles, would be spelled P‘in-in. Wade–Giles gives forms such as T‘ien-tsin and Mao Tse-tung, whereas Pinyin gives Tianjin and Mao Zedong.
Wade–Giles separates the syllables of compounds with hyphens; Pinyin runs them together, with an apostrophe where the break would not be obvious (Xi’an = Wade–Giles Hsi-an, since Xian would be read as Wade–Giles Hsien). Wade–Giles distinguishes aspirated from unaspirated consonants with a Greek asper (‘), which is sometimes replaced by an opening quote or an apostrophe, and is often omitted in popular writing; Pinyin uses different letters. Wade–Giles uses ü more often than Pinyin, which requires it only in the syllables lü and nü; only Wade–Giles uses ê (e.g. jên = Pinyin ren) and ŭ (ssŭ = Pinyin si). Neither consistently indicates the syllabic tone, despite its importance; when they do so, Wade–Giles writes a superior figure after the syllable (i1 i2 i3 i4), Pinyin an accent on the vowel (yī yí yǐ yì; note the need to combine these with the umlaut).