Is Mandarin a Chinese Word?

Oct 12, 2009 at 21:00 | Posted in Language 语言 | 1 Comment
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Is Mandarin a Chinese Word?
(This page’s link is
Initial posting October 12, 2009; Last revision March 4, 2010
By Song White

Years ago when I was asked if I speak Mandarin, I was puzzled. What’s Mandarin? I later learned that “Mandarin” means the official spoken Chinese language. I am not alone – much of my Chinese friends have the same confusion. That’s because we don’t call it “Mandarin” in China. Instead, it’s “Putonghua”, meaning “common spoken language”.

In China, the Chinese language goes by “Hanyu” (汉语). “Han”, the largest ethnic group in China, accounts for 92% of the population. “Yu” means “language”. Hanyu, the Han Language, is known as “Chinese” today. College Chinese classes are Han Language classes, instead of “Chinese classes” (中文课). For example, Chinese language curriculum offers Classical Han Language (古代汉语), Modern Han Language (现代汉语), etc. There are 50+ ethnic groups in China; many have their own languages, such as Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongol, Sawcuengh (Zhuangyu), and Manchu. “Hanyu” is used to differentiate itself from these languages. The most often used Chinese document, the Chinese currency Renminbi, has five different languages printed in the back as shown in the image below: Hanyu (in Pinyin), Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongol, and Zhuangyu.

Chinese currency renminbi 10yuan 1999 edition back 5 languages-Hanyu (in Pinyin), Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongol, and Zhuangyu

The word “Chinese” (中文) is seldom used unless it is in the context of comparing with foreign languages such as with English or French.

When Chinese refer to the spoken languages or the dialects among groups distinguished by geographical locations in China, it’s typically a compound word: the location plus the word for spoken language, “hua”(话). For example, Guangdonghua (Cantonese) for Guangdong dialect, Beijinghua for Beijing dialect, and Shanghaihua for Shanghai dialect. For the standard spoken language used in all locations, the word again is Putonghua. “Mandarin” (国语, 官话) is unpopular and sounds old fashioned.

Why is there such a word as “Mandarin”? The ruling ethnic group of China in the 17th and 18th centuries is Manchu. Coming from northeast, the Manchu conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty around 1645. The Qing is also called the Manqing or the Manqing Empire, and it was ended in 1911. During its 260-year ruling, Manchus stayed in political power and were the most privileged class (Mongols were next, and Hans were below them). However, the Manchu language education didn’t come to match its political expansion. Being the official language of Manqing, Manchu language wasn’t popularly used among the ruled. Instead, Hanyu sustained and became one of the official languages. Most bureau names and signs in the Forbidden City, the heart of the Manqing, are in both Han characters and Manchu. The same held true in other Manqing’s palaces, resorts, mansions, royal tombs, and cemeteries, though most of them forbad access to the Hans.

While the Han was losing power during the 17th and 18th centuries, Manchu enriched the Han Language in the northeast cities including the capital, Beijing (north in Chinese is “bei”; Beijing means the “northern capital”). For example, a dessert, “saqima” (萨其马), is Manchu’s “sacima”; “blah” is “xiabai”(瞎掰) with “bai” from Manchu’s “baibi”. Hanyu with the Manchu influence spread southward. In 1728, Emperor Yongzheng issued a decree ordering the officials in two southern provinces, Fujian and Guangdong,  to conduct business in Mandarin (Guanhua官话) ( In the late 18th and early 19th, the governments of Manqing and later the Republic of China made the Beijing dialect the official national standard spoken language. I reason the word “Mandarin” being the translation to represent the official spoken language of China during that time.

An Internet finding is different – Encyclopædia Britannica states that “Mandarin” “comes through the Portuguese mandarim from Malay mantri, a counselor or minister of state; the ultimate origin of the word is the Sanskrit root man- meaning ‘to think.’” ( The Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511 when China was under Han’s Ming Dynasty. Ended in 1644 by the Manchu, the Ming Dynasty had Nanjinghua as its official spoken language. That means there were about 133 years, from 1511 to 1644, when the so-called “Mandarin” was actually Nanjinghua. A city in south China and the first capital of the Ming, Nanjing dialect is different in many ways from that of Beijing. Was “mantri” in Malay used to name the language, Nanjinghua, spoken by the Chinese during the Ming Dynasty? Did “mantri” later refer to another spoken language, Beijinghua, during the Manqing Empire? Or, does it mean any official national standard spoken language of China, regardless being Nanjinghua or Beijinghua? I hope the experts of Portuguese or Malay can help with this.

Is “Mandarin” a Chinese word then? It’s not if the word comes through the Portuguese mandarim from Malay mantri. If it is a translated word based on the Manqing by the Manchus, it may be a Chinese word if you believe Manchu is an ethnic group of China; it goes the other way if you think otherwise.

By the way, nearly one hundred years after the end of the Manqing Empire, Manchu today can be found in written form next to Han characters on the name boards of many buildings from the Manqing time as I noted earlier. There is one and the only one Manchu elementary school in the country, in Sanjiazitun near Qiqihar in Heilongjiang Province ( Large volumes of Manqing documents in Manchu are stored in libraries in Beijing and in the northeast provinces in China, and there are few people capable of reading them. There are Government funded machine translation projects in progress attempting to automatically translate the archives (

The article “In China, the Forgotten Manchu Seek to Rekindle Their Glory” on Wall Street Journal (10/3/09 triggered me to research more and write it down in this journal.

[Revised based on the modified version for Translorial submitted March 3, 2010.]


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