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What’s the difference between zhongwen, hanyu, putonghua, guoyu and huayu?


Today I'm going to answer a very common question brought up by my students and here it is:

Question: There are so many different ways to say “Chinese language”. What’s the difference between zhōng wén (中文), hàn yǔ (汉语), pǔ tōng huà (普通话), guó yǔ (国语) and huá yǔ (华语)?

Here's my answer:

zhōng wén (中文)  – Chinese language. It can cover both the spoken language as well as the written form. Also, all the different Chinese dialects are considered to be zhōng wén, though with the increasing popularity of Mandarin worldwide, zhōng wén tends to refer mainly to Mandarin Chinese.

hàn yǔ (汉语)  – Mandarin. hàn refers to hànzú (汉族) , or the Han ethnic group. Of the 56 ethnic groups in China, the Han people account for over 90% of the population. hàn yǔ (汉语), as the name suggests, refers to the language of the Han ethnic group, or Mandarin. Mandarin Chinese is considered “standard” Chinese -- as opposed to other Chinese dialects.

pǔ tōng huà (普通话)  – The literal meaning of pǔ tōng huà (普通话) is “common language”. pǔ tōng huà (普通话) is the official language of Mainland China.

zhōng wén (中文)  is used when the opposite may be English, Japanese, etc., whereas "pǔ tōng huà" is used when the opposite may be other Chinese dialects. Like in most countries, the most standard Chinese dialect can be found on television. In China, all the TV anchors are required to speak standard pǔ tōng huà (普通话).

pǔ tōng huà (普通话)  and hàn yǔ (汉语)  and are pretty much the same thing. You can think of pǔ tōng huà (普通话) as the more standard, better-pronounced hàn yǔ (汉语).

guó yǔ (国语)  – guó yǔ (国语) literally means “national language”. Guó yǔ and pǔ tōng huà are also essentially the same. guó yǔ (国语) is used by Taiwan and sometimes Hong Kong to refer to Mandarin, while pǔ tōng huà is used by Mainland China to refer to Mandarin.

huá yǔ (华语)  / huá wén (华文)  – These two terms also refer to standard Mandarin but are used in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore and Malaysia. Both countries have adopted Mainland China’s pǔ tōng huà (普通话) along with simplified characters rather than traditional. huá yǔ (华语) / huá wén (华文) refer exclusively to spoken and written language.

SUMMARY The differences between zhōng wén (中文), hàn yǔ (汉语), pǔ tōng huà (普通话), guó yǔ (国语), huá yǔ (华语) and huá wén (华文) are pretty subtle and the nuances are commonly overlooked by foreign Chinese speakers. But now you know how to sound like a real Chinese! ^_^

I hope you like this. Let me know what other questions you'd like me to address in the future. :)


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YANGYANG CHENG is the founder of Yoyo Chinese and a TV personality. She taught Chinese to MBA students at Pepperdine University. Before that, Yangyang was the host of the popular entertainment TV show "Hello Hollywood!, bringing Western culture to tens of millions of viewers in China. Currently, she teaches Mandarin through video lessons on Yoyo Chinese, and can also be found hosting educational shows on popular channels like the Discovery Channel.

Wed, 04 Sep 2013 10:00:00 GMT

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