I’ll give you several guesses about our next language. It’s Sino-Tibetan, spoken by nearly 1/5 of the world, has the oldest modern writing system and uses 56,000 characters.
Hmm … what could it be? Duh, CHINESE!
I think anyone would be intimidated by this powerhouse. Like Hindi, I was worried that I wouldn’t accurately summarize not only the most widely spoken tongue on the globe but the history behind it. But here goes. I also decided to focus on the Mandarin dialect, because this is the officially used (and most widely spoken) variety in China.
REGIONAL HISTORY: China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, dating back to prehistoric times where fossils of the first humans can be found. The earliest dynasties, Xia and Shang were thought to be mythical until archaeologists dug up some evidence in the 19th century. The Zhou eventually took control and established their dynasty, although much of the China’s first millennium would be in a state of warfare. It would be around this time that teachings from a philosopher named Confucius would become widespread.
In 221 BC, the Qin Dynasty began, as the first of a series of emperors would rule until 1912. The Qin Dynasty was short lived, immediately followed by the Han Dynasty, which would last until the 3rd century AD. China gained territory but rule would be brutal during both dynasties. The Han dynasty also saw the arrival of Buddhism.
After this, China would diverge into a warlike state until the Sui and later Tang and Song Dynasties. The Tang period saw China’s only female ruler, Wu Zetian, and further expansion. The Song Dynasty brought art, culture and study of classical texts, which reformed China’s feudal system. The Song dynasty lasted until 1271, when it was overthrown by Mongol warlords. They would rule for about 100 years until the Ming dynasty began. But the losses would be great: Mongol conquest wiped out nearly half of China’s population. During the Ming dynasty, much of the Great Wall of China was built and the capital was relocated to Beijing.
The Qing Dynasy, China’s last, began in the 17th century, although gravely as 25 million died after capture of the Ming Dynasty by the Manchu people. During this period, China expanded to its current-day size and saw interaction with Europeans. This period also saw conflict with Japan during the First Sino-Japanese war, as China fought and later lost control of Korea and Taiwan. The very last emperor, a six-year old name Puyi, and his adopted mother, Empress Dowager Longyu, abdicated power in 1912, as China went to the nationalists and became a republic.
China’s history after this would be dominated by political turmoil and a tug of war between nationalists, communists and warlords. The Second Sino-Japanese War and WWII would bring strife as 20 million Chinese died and China would engage in another civil war shortly after. In 1949, the People’s Republic of China, a communist state, was established by Mao Zedong as the Nationalists would be forced to resign to Taiwan. Mao would try to implement several social programs, most notably the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which would ultimately fail. After his death, China loosed up on its restrictions economically, which would lead to huge growth in the 1990s. Although still Communist, the government has eased, allowing more freedoms and personal liberties as it has tried to reestablish China as a modern superpower.
WRITING SYSTEM: Do you remember the archaeological evidence I mentioned earlier? It turns out that animal bones, also known as “oracle bones” were used as a form of communication, as the cracks were used to determine fortunes and writing inscriptions were added them.
Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet. It mostly uses characters called Hànzi, which developed from pictographs. Hànzi are read vertically from right to left. These characters are formed by 12 types of strokes and a character can have up to 64 strokes.
For about 1,700 years, China used these characters until the 1920s when characters were modified to match Mandarin, the main dialect spoken in China. As noted, there are about 56,000 of them, but many of them are archaic and a user only needs to know 3,000 to read most things, like newspapers and magazines.
There are two types used: traditional and simplified, with the later appearing in the 1950s. Most people in China use simplified while many in overseas communities use traditional. According to a friend who is studying Chinese, the difference is quite monumental. While traditional characters have a distinct history and meaning, simplified characters are merely cursive forms of those, or in his terms, “chicken scratch.”
Since the 20th century, Chinese also use Pinyin, or Mandarin written with Roman characters.
That’s about it for the writing system. Spoken Chinese is tonal, like many languages in Asia. It uses five tones: neutral, low falling-rising, high falling, high rising and high.
Spoken Chinese also differs radically because there are so many varieties that are essentially different languages. Also, Chinese is mistakenly referred to as monosyllabic, despite the fact that quite a few words have more than two syllables.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Well, I did have the privilege of looking at Chinese way back in my teens, but I was so overwhelmed or turned off that I put my interest to rest. I wonder if the same thing will happen again. Tonal languages are very hard for me to grasp, even though I can determine words in speech. The hardest thing beyond that would likely be learning thousands of characters. And then there’s the curiosity about other varieties of Chinese.
Eh, we’ll see. But I thought this was really cute!
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