China is a vast and diverse country. The Simplified Chinese language is not actually a language as such – it’s a form of writing. However, the Chinese system of writing could be considered a language in its own right. Let me explain what I mean.
From the outside, one could be forgiven for thinking of China as a single country, with a single indigenous ethnic group. In fact, China has 56 ethnic groups, speaking a total of 297 languages – all of which are called “Chinese” by outsiders.
Most Chinese people consider these languages to be “dialects” – but they are actually so different as to be mutually unintelligible.
The different “dialects” are as similar as the Romance languages. Italian, French, and Spanish are three Romance languages – they are clearly not the same language. Chinese dialects vary to the same degree.
China started as many small countries – as time passed, the Han people conquered their neighbors and formed a vast empire. This empire is called China today.
Of course, all these countries had their own local culture, customs, and languages. The majority of these languages are still in use today. However, the Han tongue dominates, with over 92% of the people speaking it. And the majority of these people speak modern Mandarin (or “standard Chinese”).
As the empire grew, the huge range of languages became a serious problem. How can you govern people you can’t speak to? Clearly, it would be impossible for court officials to learn 297 languages. The solution came in the form of the written characters of the Han people – which is known as “traditional Chinese” today.
This system of writing uses characters to represent concepts. The characters translate into words that sound very different in each “dialect”. But people can understand each other well using characters, even if they can’t understand each other verbally.
To begin with, Chinese characters were very simple and quite pictographic – they looked very similar to the idea they expressed. Over time, the forms became more complex, and they were appreciated for their aesthetic quality in addition to their value as a written medium.
In the 1950s, China’s government decided to simplify the characters. They reduced the total number of characters used and made them easier to write. However, there are still places that use the traditional characters. They are:
In addition, many overseas communities prefer the traditional form.