Standard Chinese

From Roses, Tulips, & Liberty
Standard Chinese
Language family
  • Sinitic
    • Mandarin
      • Standard Chinese
Official status
Official language in

Standard Chinese (華語, hwãü, /hwa.y/, lit. 'Chinese language'), commonly known as Mandarin, is a standard variety of Chinese used as the official language of China. It is based on the Mandarin dialect of Namging with significant influence from Cantonese. The current dialect began its standardization after the Canton War and was adopted as the official language and lingua franca of China in 1938. The language primarily written with Chinese characters, though informal Latin script is used in countries such as Tauland and Tussenland.


Modern Standard Chinese is a descendant of the Mandarin of the late Ming and Western Qing imperial courts, which were based on the dialect of the city of Namging. During the early 19th century, the basis for standard speech was gradually moving to Beiging. This process was interrupted with the Canton War of the 1850s. As a consequence, imperial Mandarin was split; the ancient Namging dialect remained prestigious in the southern Ye dynasty, while the Beiging pronunciation quickly became popular in the post-war Qing dynasty and among emigrants to Poeja and Mongolia. The later half of the century saw the introduction of a large Cantonese influence on the Mandarin dialect of Namging. In a few generations, this resulted in numerous phonological changes, including the revival of the -m coda and ŋ- initial, [x] becoming a glottal [h], general de-palatalization, as well as the loss of any retroflex sounds acquired up until that point.

Starting in the 20th century, this new evolution of the Namging dialect was extensively studied and formalized. In 1938, with the abolition of the Qing and Ye dynasties, the new dialect was adopted as the national standard by the Chinese Republic.


The phonemic inventory of Standard Chinese consists of 25 distinct phonemes, divided into 16 initial consonants, 3 common allophone initials, 3 semi-vowels/glides, and 37 finals.

Chinese syllables

In Chinese, syllables have the form of (CG)V(X) and can consist of a maximum of four parts:

  • Initial (usually a consonant)
  • Medial (a semi-vowel)
  • Nucleus (a vowel, and is present in all syllables)
  • Ending (a vowel or nasal consonant)


Labial Denti-alveolar Alveolo-palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m /m/ n /n/ ng /ŋ/
Stop aspirated p /pʰ/ t /tʰ/ k /kʰ/ ʔ
unaspirated b /p/ d /t/ g /k/
Affricate aspirated c /tsʰ/ ć /tɕʰ/
unaspirated z /ts/ ź /tɕ/
Fricative f /f/ s /s/ ś /ɕ/ h /h/
Liquid l /l/
  • The checked tone ʔ and -m codas are maintained. For example, 甘肅 is read as Gamsu /kamsu/.
  • /s, ts, tsʰ/ are often palatalized to the sibilants /ɕ, tɕ, tɕʰ/ in front of high front vowels (/i, y/), a feature called źiantwanholiw 尖團合流. It is represented in orthography by placing an acute accent ◌́ over the consonant to indicate its palatalization. These are derived primarily from the alveolar and retroflex sibilants (/ts, tsʰ, dz, s, z/ - /ʈʂ, ʈʂʰ, ɖʐ, ʂ, ʐ/) of Middle Chinese.
  • [ʃ, tʃ, tʃʰ] are allophones of /ɕ, tɕ, tɕʰ/, used mainly by some communities in southern China.
  • Retroflexes found in Beiging Mandarin are merged into their alveolar counterparts. The rhotic retroflex [ɻ] is often merged into [j].


Semi-vowels, also known as glides, can act as initials, medials, or finals in syllables. /j, ɥ, w/, the three semivowels, correspond to their vocalic counterparts [i, y, u]. The table below shows how each glide sounds and appears orthographically in different positions.

Glide Initial Medial Final
/j/ j i
/ɥ/ y ü
/w/ w

In final position, glides are considered to be part of diphthongs (for example, /sai/ 塞). Meanwhile in medial position, glides often transform diphthongs into triphthongs (/sai/ 塞 vs. /swai/ 帥).


Standard Chinese is considered to possess six vowels, each with phonemic allophones depending on context.

Front Central Back
Close i y u
Mid e o
Open a

The following table displays the possible finals for the six vowels. In this analysis, the high vowels /i, u, y/ are fully phonemic and may form sequences with the nasal codas /m, n, ŋ/. As nucleuses, /u/ and /y/ are written as u and ü respectively.

Nucleus /a/ /o/ /e/ /i/ /u/ /y/
Coda /i/ /u/ /m/ /n/ /ŋ/ /ŋ/ /i/ /n/ /ŋ/ /n/ /ŋ/ /ŋ/ /n/
a ai aw am an ang o ong e ei en eng i in ing u ung ü un
Medial /j/ ia iaw ian iang iong ie iw
/w/ wa wai wan wang wo wei wen weng wi
/ɥ/ ue uen


Standard Chinese has five tones, along with a neutral tone (sometimes classified as toneless).

No. 1 2 3 4 5 6
Diacritic ā á ã à ȧ a
Name 陰平 陽平
Description Dark level Light level Rising Departing Entering Neutral
Contour /˥/ 55 /˩˧/ 13 /˨˩˨/ 212 /˧˩/ 31 /˥/ 5
MC 1 2 3 5
Example ma

Unlike more northern varieties of Mandarin, Standard Chinese preserves the entering tone (入, ) found in southern varieties of Mandarin and southern Chinese languages like Cantonese. The entering tone is realized as a glottal stop /ʔ/.


See also