In China, the word “Mandarin” is rarely used and may have originally been derived from a word in the Sanskrit language. 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—many 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); there are Modern Han Language classes (现代汉语), for example. 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 word “Chinese” (中文) is seldom used except in the context of comparisons with foreign languages such as 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 was the 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 ended in 1911. During its 260-year rule, Manchus stayed in political power and were the most privileged class (Mongols next; Hans third). However, Manchu language education didn’t come to match its political expansion. Being the official language of Manqing, the Manchu language wasn’t popularly used among the ruled. Instead, Hanyu persevered 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 palaces, resorts, mansions, royal tombs, and cemeteries, though most of them forbade access to the Hans.

At the same time, Manchu enriched the Han Language in the northeast cities including the capital, Beijing. For example, a dessert, “saqima” (萨其马), is Manchu’s “sacima.” Hanyu with the Manchu influence spread southward. In 1728, Emperor Yongzheng issued a decree ordering the officials in two southern provinces to conduct business in Mandarin. 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. It would seem that the word “Mandarin” was the translation of the word that stood for the official spoken language of China during that time.

An Internet finding is different—Encyclopedia 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. Therefore, from 1511 to 1644, so-called “Mandarin” was actually Nanjinghua. The 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?

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, and if you believe Manchu is an ethnic group of China it may indeed be a Chinese word; if you don’t think this is the case, then, once again, it is not. SW

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This article has 2 comments so far!

  1. Sivabudh Umpudh says —

    How about this theory?

    “Mandarin” was actually “Mǎn Dà Rén” …or 满大人 or literally, 满族大人。English translation (Manchu people are the boss, or important people)

    If it were true, it would be so degrading to Chinese people (汉人)

  2. Chris Wen-chao Li says —

    “Mandarin” is an English word, and it would be a mistake to equate “Mandarin” with guoyu (國語) or guanhua (官話) in Chinese, and then reason that since guoyu (國語) and guanhua (官話)are old-fashioned in Chinese, “Mandarin” must also be so in English.

    There are many examples of English using a different term from what is used in the donor language. English uses “Germany” for what the Germans call “Deutschland”; English. English uses “China” (derived from the historical Khitan 契丹) for what the Chinese call “Zhongguo”. If English needs to replace the term “Mandarin” with “Putonghua”, then by the same logic English should also abandon the names “China” and “Germany” and instead use “Zhongguo” and “Deutschland”. That isn’t how language works.

    As for the Manchu origin of the word “Mandarin”, there is no shortage of speculation based solely on the phonetic similarity of “Mandarin” with the Chinese Mǎn Dà Rén (滿大人) “Manchu official”, but there is zero historical evidence — nothing ever written by the many European missionaries to China over hundreds of years has ever alluded to such an origin, whereas there is an abundance of evidence in the same records to the Portuguese origin of the word.

    Finally, the terms Hanyu (漢語) and putonghua (普通話) are widely used in mainland China, but less so in Chinese communities outside of the mainland, including in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and in Chinese communities in the US, where zhongwen (中文) and to a lesser extent guoyu (國語) are more widely used. Hanyu (漢語) is an academic term that was introduced as a gesture of political correctness, i.e., the language of the Han ethnicity, rather than the language of all China, in effect, acknowledging that there are ethnicities other than the majority Han in China. The more traditional terms zhongwen (中文) and guoyu (國語) essentially mean “language of China” or “national language”. But one could also argue that this sort of name change is taking language planning to the extreme: think, “English” doesn’t switch to a different name just because there are other ethnicities such as the Scots and the Welsh in Great Britain, not to mention hispanics and native Americans in the United States.

    The term putonghua (普通話), again, is used largely in mainland China and Singapore, but is becoming more neutral and more widespread. The problem with this terms lies in its incorporation of the expression putong (普通), which finds an equivalent in the English word “common” — common in both sense of the word. It was originally intended to mean “common” as in “shared” or “widespread” (普遍通行), but the average Chinese speaker interprets “putong” as common in the sense of “ordinary”, “pedestrian”, therein the aversion to the term in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But as the term is becoming more widespread, it is also becoming more neutral, although it still marks the language as being from mainland China.

    There have been recent debates in the Hong Kong journal Yuwen Jianshe (語文建設) on the use of the terms Hanyu (漢語), Putonghua (普通話), Zhongwen (中文), Guoyu (國語) and Huayu (華語) for Chinese/Mandarin, and it appears that the most neutral of the terms — the term that enjoys the most common ground between Chinese speakers of different regions and backgrounds, is Zhongwen (中文).