What is the Mandarin word for ‘Mandarin’? (a rant about Chinese language politics)

What is the English word for the English language? It is ‘English’ of course. And this is so in all of the Anglophone countries. That is simple.

English also has a single word for the language ‘Mandarin’. If I’m talking in English, and I want to refer to the Mandarin language, I can just say ‘Mandarin’ without thinking too hard about it.

Ah, if only it were so simple when I’m actually talking in Mandarin.

You see, there are many names for the Mandarin language in the Mandarin language. I could just pick my favorite name, and use it all the time – except different names for Mandarin have different connotations, particularly political connotations. And there is no name which is completely politically neutral, so if I want to refer to Mandarin in Mandarin, I have to take some kind of political position.

My position is usually ‘I don’t want to argue with you about language politics’. Thus, if possible, I will try to figure out what the other speaker’s preferred name for ‘Mandarin’ is and just mirror them. However, if I cannot do that, or if I’m not thinking too hard, my default is to use the name ‘Zhōng​wén’ which is far from ideal, but closer to being politically neutral than any other term. Even if it’s not the other speaker’s preferred term, I am unlikely to offend anybody by referring to Mandarin as ‘Zhōng​wén’.

‘Zhōng​wén’ roughly means ‘middle language’ as in ‘language of the middle country’ i.e. the language of China. But wait, not all forms of Chinese are Mandarin. Whatever, I’m probably trying to carry out a conversation about something other than Chinese language politics, and don’t want to get into a digression, and even if Chinese is not just Mandarin, Mandarin is definitely Chinese.

Where did the English name ‘Mandarin’ come from? The British called the government officials of the Qing Empire ‘mandarins’ and the language which those officials spoke also became known as ‘Mandarin’. In other words, ‘Mandarin’ is a translation of the Mandarin term ‘Guān​huà​’ which means ‘bureaucratese / officials’ language / Mandarin’. However, this is a very old-fashioned term which nobody uses in everyday conversation anymore unless they are being ironic or quirky. And I can’t be quirky, because if I drop words like ‘Guān​huà​’ into conversation, people won’t think that I am being quirky, or expressing an opinion on language politics, they will just think I am bad at speaking Mandarin.

Another name for Mandarin is ‘Pǔ​tōng​huà​’ which means ‘common language’ in Mandarin. Sounds like it would be a pretty neutral term, right? Wrong. First of all, it is a term which is strongly associated with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). If I hear someone referring to ‘Pǔ​tōng​huà​’ I guess that they are either from the PRC, or they learned Mandarin in the PRC. It also implies at least tacit support for the PRC’s language policies, which is to get people to speak Mandarin more and use other languages less (not that this policy is universally successful).

And then there is ‘Guó​yǔ​’ which means ‘national language’ in Mandarin. Now this is a more overtly political term. It is associated with the Nationalist Party (KMT) which, ummm, without getting into a political history of China and Taiwan, let us just say that anything which is associated with the KMT is going to be politically loaded. The KMT, like the Communist Party which runs the PRC, is very much into getting everybody to use Mandarin and abandon other languages, and they have historically been willing to use government powers to coerce people to abandon other languages and use Mandarin. In Taiwan, there are still many people who grew up when the KMT controlled the media and the schools, so they are used to saying the word ‘Guó​yǔ​’ even if they are not entirely sympathetic to the KMT. I have also heard some Hong Kongers use the term ‘Guó​yǔ​’ and I don’t know why they use that term.

And there is the term ‘Huá​yǔ​’ which means ‘language of the Hua’ in Mandarin. ‘Huá​’ roughly means ‘Chinese’ but in an ethnic sense, not a national sense (yes, I know there is more nuance to it than that, don’t shoot me, I’m not delving into what ‘Huá​’ really means because I’m trying to avoid that digression). It is the name for Mandarin favored by Singaporeans. I don’t know nearly as much about Singaporean politics as Taiwanese politics, but I do know a little. Singapore presents itself as a multi-ethnic state, not just a state for ‘Huá​’ people, so the powers that control Singapore don’t want to refer to Mandarin as a ‘common’ or ‘national’ language. However, most of the ‘Huá​’ people in Singapore historically spoke Hokkien, Cantonese, or Teochew – not Mandarin. For some reason, the powers that be in Singapore don’t like this, so they encourage all ‘Huá​’ people to speak Mandarin instead of Hokkien/Cantonese/Teochew, My guess is they refer to Mandarin as ‘Huá​yǔ​’ because it is considered the appropriate language for all ‘Huá​’ people (but not Malay people, or Tamil people, or various other ethnic groups in Singapore).

And then there is ‘Běi​jīng​huà​’ which is Mandarin for ‘language of Beijing’. Instead of presenting Mandarin as the universal language of the Chinese nation, or the Chinese ethnic group, it presents Mandarin as a language spoken by people from a particular region, which is not necessarily better than the language of any other region. As you can imagine, this is a term for Mandarin favored by people who want to promote Chinese languages ~other~ than Mandarin, such as Cantonese or Hokkien. If someone uses the term ‘Běi​jīng​huà​’ in Taiwan, the connotation is ‘Mandarin is a foreign language brought to Taiwan by outsiders after World War II, the real language of Taiwan is Hokkien (and maybe also Hakka), because people in Taiwan spoke Hokkien (and Hakka) long before World War II’.

As I said before, my position is usually ‘I don’t want to argue with you about Chinese language politics’. I am willing to use ANY term for Mandarin, whatever the political connotations, if it will make the people I’m speaking to feel more comfortable. Thus, every term I have listed in this blog post (except ‘Guān​huà​’) has come out of my mouth in casual conversation, depending on who I am talking to.

I wish I did not have to think so hard whenever I want to refer to Mandarin when I am speaking Mandarin, but I also know that there is not going to be a consensus on the word for Mandarin in Mandarin in my lifetime unless one political party takes over all Mandarin-speaking communities in the world and cracks down so hard on everyone who disagrees with that political party’s particular language policies that nobody dares use any other word to refer to the Mandarin language, and I don’t want that to happen. So from that perspective, I accept the diversity of Mandarin names for the Mandarin language.

7 thoughts on “What is the Mandarin word for ‘Mandarin’? (a rant about Chinese language politics)

  1. Great post! You had me at the title. I’d never thought of it quite so concisely. What a can of worms!

    “What is the X (language) word for ‘X language’” seems fairly unproblematic for most other languages I can think of, with the slight exception of Spanish, which is sometimes called Castilian to contrast with other languages spoken in Spain (Galician, Basque, Asturian, Catalan, etc.).


    Also, in your list of possible candidates for ‘Mandarin’ in Mandarin, you might have mentioned the term “Hànyǔ”, which I guess is a bit like ‘Zhòngwén’ and ‘Huàyǔ’ in that it would seem to refer to all Chinese spoken languages, not just Mandarin.

    Tricky stuff!

    And then I look up ‘Mandarin’, vaguely wondering if this colonial-era Portuguese-Sanskrit term in English could be seen as politically incorrect (answer: I hope not! but some day we may all have to just say ‘putonghua’ in English for the language formerly know as Mandarin…), and I am reminded that: “Many local Mandarin varieties are not mutually intelligible.”!

    So really we are talking about Modern Standard Mandarin, also called ‘Standard Chinese’…


    • I also left out the term 白話, mainly because a) I have never heard it in conversation, and thus do not consider using it in conversation myself b) I think I already listed enough names for ‘Mandarin’ in Mandarin to get my point across, I did not need to discuss ~ every ~ single ~ name.

      Also good point about not all types of ‘Mandarin’ being mutually intelligible (though ‘Běi​jīng​huà​’ does not necessarily mean the most standard dialect of Mandarin).

  2. Interesting! When I was living in Hong Kong, I just got used to saying “Putonghua” because it’s what everyone else was saying. I had no idea there were so many other terms or that they were so politically loaded!

    • In Hong Kong (I was there for about two weeks), I heard ‘guó​yǔ’ just as often as ‘pǔ​tōng​huà​’, though I cannot explain why (I know the Nationalists have some influence in Hong Kong, but I don’t think their influence in Hong Kong is enough to explain it). I suppose it’s possible that, since the Mandarin I speak is (mostly) ‘Taiwanese Mandarin’, astute Hong Kongers might be picking up on that and using the term ‘guó​yǔ’ to try to mirror what they think I’m used to, just as I try to mirror other speakers.

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