Middle Mandarin
官話 Guānhuà
Frontispiece of Fourmont's Chinese grammar (1742): Chũm Kuĕ Kuõn Hoá (中國官話), or Medii Regni Communis Loquela ('Middle Kingdom's Common Speech')[1]
EraMing and Qing dynasties
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Mandarin (traditional Chinese: 官話; simplified Chinese: 官话; pinyin: Guānhuà; lit. 'official speech') was the common spoken language of administration of the Chinese empire during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It arose as a practical measure, due to the mutual unintelligibility of the varieties of Chinese spoken in different parts of China. Knowledge of this language was thus essential for an official career, but it was never formally defined.[2][3] The language was a koiné based on Mandarin dialects. The southern variant spoken around Nanjing was prevalent in the late Ming and early Qing eras, but a form based on the Beijing dialect became dominant by the mid-19th century and developed into Standard Chinese in the 20th century.[4] In some 19th-century works, it was called the court dialect.


By the late imperial period, local varieties of Chinese had diverged to the extent that people from different provinces could not understand one another. In order to facilitate communication between officials from different provinces, and between officials and the inhabitants of the areas to which they were posted, imperial administrations adopted a koiné based on various northern dialects. Mandarin of the early Ming dynasty was not identical to any single dialect.[5] Though its variant spoken in the area of Nanjing, which was the first Ming capital and a major cultural center, gained prestige gradually through the course of the dynasty. The standard language of the Ming and early Qing, when it was based on lower Yangtze dialects, is sometimes called Middle Mandarin.[6] It was not based on the Nanjing dialect.[7][8]

In 1375, the Hongwu Emperor commissioned a dictionary known as the Hóngwǔ Zhèngyùn (洪武正韻) intended to give a standard pronunciation. The dictionary was unsuccessful, criticised on one side for departing from the tradition of the Song dynasty rime dictionaries and rime tables, and on the other for not accurately reflecting the contemporary standard of elegant speech.[9]

The Korean scholar Shin Suk-ju published the Hongmu Jeong'un Yeokhun (洪武正韻譯訓 "Correct Rhymes from the Hongwu Reign with Korean Translation and Commentaries"[10]) in 1455, augmenting the Zhèngyùn by giving the Chinese pronunciation of each word using the newly created Hangul alphabet. In addition to these "standard readings", he recorded a rather different body of "popular readings", some of which are also preserved in the works of Choe Sejin. Kim Kwangjo, in his extensive study of these materials, concluded that Shin's standard readings constitute an idealized phonology of the earlier dictionary, while the popular readings reflect contemporary speech. In contrast, Yùchí Zhìpíng and Weldon South Coblin hold that the two readings reflect different versions of 15th-century standard speech.[11]

The term Guānhuà (官話; 官话), or "language of the officials", first appeared in Chinese sources in the mid-16th century.[12] Later in that century, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci used the term in his diary:[13]

Besides the various dialects of the different provinces, the province vernacular so to speak, there is also a spoken language common to the whole Empire, known as the Quonhoa, an official language for civil and forensic use. [...] The Quonhoa dialect is now in vogue among the cultured classes, and is used between strangers and the inhabitants of the province they may visit.

First page of Ricci and Ruggieri's Portuguese-Mandarin dictionary

The missionaries recognized the utility of this standard language, and embarked on its study.[14] They translated the term Guānhuà into European languages as língua mandarim (Portuguese) and la lengua mandarina (Spanish), meaning the language of the mandarins, or imperial officials.[15] Ricci and Michele Ruggieri published a Portuguese-Mandarin dictionary in the 1580s. Nicolas Trigault's guide to Mandarin pronunciation was published in 1626.[16] Grammars of Mandarin were produced by Francisco Varo (finished in 1672 but not printed until 1703) and Joseph Prémare (1730).[17]

In 1728, the Yongzheng Emperor, unable to understand the accents of officials from Guangdong and Fujian, issued a decree requiring the governors of those provinces to provide for the teaching of proper pronunciation. Although the resulting Academies for Correct Pronunciation (正音書院, Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) were short-lived, the decree did spawn a number of textbooks that give some insight into the ideal pronunciation.[18]

Mandarin class, c. 1900

Although Beijing had become the capital in 1420, its speech did not rival the prestige of the Nanjing-based standard until the middle of the Qing dynasty.[19] As late as 1815, Robert Morrison based the first English–Chinese dictionary on the lower Yangtze koiné as the standard of the time, though he conceded that the Beijing dialect was gaining in influence.[20] By the middle of the 19th century, the Beijing dialect had become dominant and was essential for any business with the imperial court.[4] The new standard was described in grammars produced by Joseph Edkins (1864), Thomas Wade (1867) and Herbert Giles (1873).[21]

In the early 20th century, reformers decided that China needed a national language. The traditional written form, Literary Chinese, was replaced with written vernacular Chinese, which drew its vocabulary and grammar from a range of Northern dialects (now known as Mandarin dialects). After unsuccessful attempts to define a cross-dialectal spoken standard, it was realized that a single spoken form must be selected. The only realistic candidate was the Beijing-based guānhuà, which was adapted and developed into modern Standard Chinese, which is also often called Mandarin.[22]


The initials of Shin Suk-ju's standard readings (mid-15th century) differed from those of Late Middle Chinese only in the merger of two series of retroflexes:[23]

Initials of the standard readings
Labial Dental Sibilant Retroflex Velar Glottal
Stop or
voiceless p t ts k ʔ
aspirate tsʰ tʂʰ
voiced b d dz ɡ
Nasal m n ŋ
Fricative voiceless f s ʂ x
voiced v z ʐ ɣ
Approximant ʋ l r

Sin's system had fewer finals than Late Middle Chinese. In particular, final stops -p, -t and -k had all merged as a final glottal stop, as found in modern Jiang-Huai Mandarin:[24]

Finals of the standard readings
əj əw əm ən əjŋ əʔ əjʔ
, r̩ʔ
i iw im in
u uj un ujŋ ujʔ
y yn yjŋ yjʔ
ɔ ɔn ɔʔ
je jej jew jem jen jeʔ
wɔn wɔʔ
ɥe ɥen ɥeʔ
a aj aw am an awʔ
ja jaj jaw jam jan jaŋ jaʔ jawʔ
wa waj wan waŋ waʔ wawʔ

The system had the mid vowels [e] and [ɔ], which have merged with the open vowel [a] in the modern standard language. For example, and are both guān in the modern language but were distinguished as [kwɔn] and [kwan] in Sin's system.[25] The Middle Chinese level tone had split into two registers conditioned by voicing of the initial, as in modern Mandarin dialects.[25]

In comparison with Shin's standard readings, the major changes in the late Ming language that were described by European missionaries were the loss of the voiced initials and the merger of [-m] finals with [-n].[26] The initials [ʋ-] and [r-] had become voiced fricatives [v-] and [ʐ-] respectively.[27] [ʔ-] had merged into [ŋ-] before mid and low vowels, and both initials had disappeared before high vowels.[28] By the early 18th century, the mid-vowel [e]/[ɔ] had merged with [a].[29] However unlike the contemporary Beijing pronunciation, in the early 19th century, Mandarin still distinguished between palatalized velars and dental affricates, the source of the spellings "Peking" and "Tientsin" for what are now "Beijing" and "Tianjin."[30]


Most of the vocabulary found in descriptions of Mandarin speech before the mid-19th century has been retained by the modern standard language. However several words that appear in the more broadly-based written vernacular of the Qing and earlier periods are absent from early accounts of standard speech. These include such now-common words as 'to drink', hěn 'very', suǒyǒude 所有的 'all, whatsoever' and zánmen 咱們 'we (inclusive)'.[31] In other cases a northern form of a word displaced a southern form in the second half of 19th century, as in dōu 'all' (formerly ) and hái 'still, yet' (formerly huán).[32]


  1. ^ Fourmont (1742).
  2. ^ Norman (1988), p. 136.
  3. ^ Wilkinson (2013), p. 25.
  4. ^ a b Coblin (2000a), pp. 540–541.
  5. ^ Coblin (2003), p. 353.
  6. ^ Norman (1988), p. 23.
  7. ^ 麦耘,朱晓农〈南京方言不是明代官话的基礎〉,收入《语言科学》,徐州師範大學編,2012年4期
  8. ^ 曾晓渝《<西儒耳目资>音系基础非南京方言补证》 《语言科学》2014年第4期
  9. ^ Kaske (2008), p. 47.
  10. ^ 보물 홍무정운역훈 권3~16 (洪武正韻譯訓 卷三 – 국가문화유산포털
  11. ^ Coblin (2000b), pp. 268–269.
  12. ^ Coblin (2002), p. 27.
  13. ^ Trigault (1953), pp. 28–29.
  14. ^ Kaske (2008), p. 46.
  15. ^ Coblin (2000a), p. 537.
  16. ^ Coblin (2000b), p. 270.
  17. ^ Coblin (2000b), p. 271.
  18. ^ Kaske (2008), pp. 48–52.
  19. ^ Coblin (2002), p. 26.
  20. ^ Morrison (1815), p. x.
  21. ^ Coblin (2000a), p. 541.
  22. ^ Norman (1988), pp. 133–135.
  23. ^ Coblin (2001), p. 4.
  24. ^ Coblin (2001), p. 20.
  25. ^ a b Coblin (2000a), p. 538.
  26. ^ Coblin (2000a), p. 539.
  27. ^ Coblin (2000b), pp. 275, 283.
  28. ^ Coblin (2000b), pp. 288–293.
  29. ^ Coblin (2000a), p. 540.
  30. ^ Kaske (2008), p. 52.
  31. ^ Coblin (2000a), pp. 544–545, 547.
  32. ^ Coblin (2000a), p. 544.

Works cited

  • Coblin, W. South (2000a), "A brief history of Mandarin", Journal of the American Oriental Society, 120 (4): 537–552, doi:10.2307/606615, JSTOR 606615.
  • ——— (2000b), "A diachronic study of Míng Guānhuá phonology", Monumenta Serica, 48: 267–335, doi:10.1080/02549948.2000.11731346, JSTOR 40727264, S2CID 192485681.
  • ——— (2001), "'Phags-pa Chinese and the Standard Reading Pronunciation of Early Míng: A Comparative Study" (PDF), Language and Linguistics, 2 (2): 1–62.
  • ——— (2002), "Reflections on the Study of Post-Medieval Chinese Historical Phonology" (PDF), in Ho, Dah-an (ed.), Dialect Variations in Chinese, Taipei: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica, pp. 23–50, ISBN 978-957-671-937-0.
  • ——— (2003), "Robert Morrison and the Phonology of Mid-Qīng Mandarin", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, 13 (3): 339–355, doi:10.1017/S1356186303003134, S2CID 162258379.
  • Fourmont, Étienne (1742), Linguae Sinarum Mandarinicae hieroglyphicae grammatica duplex, latinè, et cum characteribus Sinensium, with Arcadio Huang, Hippolyte-Louis Guerin.
  • Kaske, Elisabeth (2008), The politics of language in Chinese education, 1895–1919, BRILL, ISBN 978-90-04-16367-6.
  • Morrison, Robert (1815), A dictionary of the Chinese language: in three parts, Volume 1, Macao: P.P. Thoms, OCLC 680482801.
  • Norman, Jerry (1988), Chinese, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-29653-3.
  • Trigault, Nicholas (1953), China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci, 1583–1610, trans. by Louis J. Gallagher, New York: Random House, ISBN 978-0-7581-5014-1, OCLC 491566.
  • Wilkinson, Endymion (2013), Chinese History: A New Manual, Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, ISBN 978-0-674-06715-8.

Further reading

Modern studies

Early European dictionaries and grammars