I was recently asked by a friend if Mandarin was just the English word for Pǔtōnghuà and then we got into the semantics of ALL of the different words that refer to the Chinese language.
Enter my online Chinese teacher. (Thank you 老师 Lǎoshī!) Seriously almost everything I learn is from one of my eChineseLearning teachers so I can’t hoard all of the accolades.
Here’s basically what she told me:
**1. Hànzì (汉字)** means Chinese characters. There are simplified Chinese characters and traditional Chinese characters.
**2. 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.
**3. pǔ tōng huà (普通话) and hàn yǔ (汉语)** and are pretty much the same things. You can think of pǔ tōng huà (普通话) as the more standard, better-pronounced hàn yǔ (汉语).
* **hàn yǔ (汉语)** = Mandarin. This word is used in a more academic way. 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.
**4. zhōng wén (中文)** is used when speaking about it so orally as opposed to written. When we say this word, it includes the culture and characters. It 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).
**5. 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.
**6. 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.
So the differences between them are fairly subtle and the nuances are commonly overlooked by foreign Chinese speakers. But now you know how to differentiate them all like a pro.
Occasionally I answer Chinese related questions (but mostly I ask my online teacher) so if you have one for me, ask. Or get your own teacher to annoy ha!