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People and Social Customs

Chinese Language

The Chinese language, a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family, is the language of the Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China. It is the official language of China, and the dominant language of East Asia. It has greatly influenced the writing systems and vocabularies of neighboring languages not related to it by origin, such as Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Of China's more than 1 billion people, approximately 95 percent speak Mandarin Chinese, also known as Putonghua (or common speech). Nearly all Chinese can speak Mandarin, but in most areas the people also speak their own local dialect. The most widespread of these are Cantonese, in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, in southern Fujian and Taiwan, and Wu, in the Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang area. Although the Chinese dialects are mutually unintelligible in their spoken forms, they share a common written form.

This linguistic fragmentation, particularly in southeastern China, has provided the basis for strong regional identity and some speaking variation within the larger Han community. Mandarin has basically four tones, high, rising, falling-rising and falling; other sub-languages use different and additional tones.

Written Chinese has existed for more than 3,000 years, and has been standardized for more than 2,000 years. It has served as important social cement, tying together the peoples of northern, central, and southern China. Written Chinese is rendered in pictographs or characters, yet few of them are visual representations of what they express. There are thousands of characters, most of them constructed of a root element or radical, and a phonetic element. Knowledge of 3000 to 4000 characters is needed to read newspapers, and a large dictionary contains more than 35,000 characters. The People's Republic of China uses a system of simplified characters, introduced by the government to make reading and writing easier for China's under-educated populace. However, in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other Chinese communities, the more traditional complex characters are used. In 1958, China adopted the Pinyin system of Romanization, which uses letters to produce the sound of the character.

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