By Francisco Diez

This article tries to answer two questions about Mandarin and Putonghua

Question 1: Why is Putonghua called Mandarin in English?

Question 2: What does the Chinese word Putonghua mean?

The history of Mandarin

The English word "mandarin" originally meant an official of the Chinese empire, "mandarin" came from mandarim in Portuguese, mandarim means minister or counselor.

In 16th century, in the Capital Beijing, people's home dialects were varied and often mutually unintelligible, the officials communicated using a standard  dialect that has arisen as a result of contact among various mutually intelligible dialects of Chinese language.  When Jesuit missionaries had learned this standard language, they called it Mandarin, or "the language of the officials".


In 1583, two Portuguese persons,  Michael Ruggieri (1552 - 1610) and Matteo Ricci (1552- 1610),  entered China and they eventually came to the imperial capital, Beijing, in 1600. They had built a permanent Catholic Church in China. they are thought to have created the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary some time during 1583-88. 

The Meridian Gate, Entrance To The Forbidden City, Peking China       Yung Ting Men, Front View Of The Two Towers & The Barbican
By ralphrepo       By ralphrepo

Until the mid-20th century, most Chinese people living in many parts of southern China spoke only their local language. As a practical measure, officials of the Ming and Qing dynasties carried out the administration of the empire using a common language based on Mandarin varieties, known as "the language of the officials".  Knowledge of this language was thus essential for an official career, but it was never formally defined.  However, it became koiné based on dialects.  In 1815, Robert Morrison wrote Chinese–English and English–Chinese lexicons (1815–1823) based on this koiné as the standard of the time.  By the middle of the 19th century, the Beijing dialect had become dominant and was essential for any business with the imperial court.


The modern history of Mandarin

In early 20th century China, after many discussions and disputes about the national language among northern and southern dialects, the National Language Unification Commission had finally managed to convince the nation that the educated speech of Beijing was chosen as the standard in 1924.   Mandarin then became the official language of China and it was called "National Language'.   The People's Republic founded in 1949 retained this standard, it is also called Putonghua (pǔtōnghuà in Pinyin)

in 1950's the Central Government of The People Public of China had standardized Chinese characters by two means, first by the reduction in the total number of standardized Chinese characters to around 7,000 commonly used Chinese characters,  secondly, by structural simplification of character forms, this gave birth to  Simplified Chinese.

Nowadays, the Mandarin, as the national language,  is used in education, the media, and formal situations in China.  The written forms of Standard Chinese are also essentially equivalent, although simplified characters are used in Mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore while people in Taiwan, Macao and Hong Kong generally use traditional characters.


Where to learn

Various online courses are available: