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Standard Chinese

Map of eastern China and Taiwan, showing the historic distribution of all the varieties of Mandarin Chinese in light brown. Standard Chinese is based on the particular dialect of Mandarin spoken in Beijing.
Map of eastern China and Taiwan, showing the historic distribution of all the varieties of Mandarin Chinese in light brown. Standard Chinese is based on the particular dialect of Mandarin spoken in Beijing.

Standard Chinese or Modern Standard Chinese, also known as Mandarin, Putonghua and Modern Standard Mandarin, is a standardized variety of Chinese and the official language of the People's Republic of China[1] and the Republic of China (Taiwan), and is one of the four official languages of Singapore.

The phonology of Standard Chinese or Standard Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, but its vocabulary is drawn from the large and diverse group of Chinese dialects spoken across northern, central and southwestern China (a linguistic area whose varieties are collectively known as Mandarin Chinese). The grammar is standardized to the body of modern literary works that define written vernacular Chinese (originally Baihua), the colloquial alternative to Classical Chinese developed around the turn of the 20th century in China. The name "Mandarin" originally referred to the language used by the imperial court in Beijing and sometimes by imperial officials elsewhere (), and as such was adopted as a synonym for Modern Standard Chinese in the 20th century, but the term has became ambiguous as its use was extended in the field of linguistics to the various Northern dialects of Chinese ().[2] This article will use the phrase "Mandarin dialects" for this broader usage.



Standard Chinese is officially known,

  • in the People's Republic of China (including the SARs of Hong Kong[3] and Macau) as Putonghua ().
  • in Taiwan as Guoyu ().
  • in Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore as Huayu (). In other parts of the world, the three names are used interchangeably to varying degrees, Putonghua being the most common.

The name Guoyu received official recognition in 1909, when the Qing Dynasty proclaimed Mandarin as the "national language". The name Putonghua also has a long, albeit unofficial, pedigree. It was used as early as 1906 in writings by Zhu Wenxiong ( ) to differentiate a modern standard language from classical Chinese and other varieties of Chinese.

For some linguists of the early 20th century, the Putonghua, or "common tongue", was conceptually different from the Guoyu, or "national language". The former was a national prestige dialect or language, while the latter was the legal standard. Based on common understandings of the time, the two were, in fact, different. Guoyu was understood as formal vernacular Chinese, which is close to classical Chinese. By contrast, Putonghua was called "the common speech of the modern man", which is the spoken language adopted as a national lingua franca by conventional usage. The use of the term Putonghua by left-leaning intellectuals such as Qu Qiubai and Lu Xun influenced the People's Republic of China government to adopt that term to describe Mandarin in 1956. Prior to this, the government used both terms interchangeably.[4]

Huayu, or "language of the Chinese nation", originally simply meant "Chinese language", and was used in overseas communities to contrast Chinese dialects against foreign languages. Over time, the desire to standardise the variety of Chinese spoken in these communities led to the adoption of the name "Huayu" to refer to Mandarin. This name also avoids choosing a side between the alternative names of Putonghua and Guoyu, which came to have political significance after their usages diverged along political lines between the PRC and the ROC. It also incorporates the notion that Mandarin is usually not the national or common language of the areas in which overseas Chinese live.

In English, (Modern) Standard Chinese tends to be used when contrasting with non-Chinese languages, while Mandarin tends to be used for both this standard and for Northern Chinese when there is a contrast with other varieties of Chinese. However, in both English and Chinese, Mandarin ( , Gu nhu ) has largely taken over the latter meaning, so phrases like Standard Mandarin (Chinese) have become more common.


Chinese languages have always had dialects; hence prestige dialects have always existed, and linguae francae have always been needed. Confucius, for example, used y y n ( ), or "elegant speech", rather than colloquial regional dialects; text during the Han Dynasty also referred to t ngy ( ), or "common language". Rime books, which were written since the Southern and Northern Dynasties, may also have reflected one or more systems of standard pronunciation during those times. However, all of these standard dialects were probably unknown outside the educated elite; even among the elite, pronunciations may have been very different, as the unifying factor of all Chinese dialects, Classical Chinese, was a written standard, not a spoken one.

Zhongguo Guanhua ( / ), or Medii Regni Communis Loquela ("Middle Kingdom's Common Speech"), used on the frontispiece of an early Chinese grammar published by tienne Fourmont (with Arcadio Huang) in 1742[5] The Ming Dynasty (1368 1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644 1912) began to use the term gu nhu ( / ), or "official speech", to refer to the speech used at the courts. The term "Mandarin" is borrowed directly from Portuguese. The word mandarim was first used to name the Chinese bureaucratic officials (i.e., the mandarins), because the Portuguese, under the misapprehension that the Sanskrit word (mantri or mentri) that was used throughout Asia to denote "an official" had some connection with the Portuguese word mandar (to order somebody to do something), and having observed that these officials all "issued orders", chose to call them mandarins. The use of the word mandarin by the Portuguese for the Chinese officials, as well as its putative connection with the Portuguese verb mandar is attested already in De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu (1617) by Matteo Ricci and Nicolas Trigault.[6]

From this, the Portuguese immediately started calling the special language that these officials spoke amongst themselves (i.e., "Guanhua") "the language of the mandarins", "the mandarin language" or, simply, "Mandarin". The fact that Guanhua was, to a certain extent, an artificial language, based upon a set of conventions (that is, the various Mandarin dialects for grammar and meaning, and the specific dialect of the Imperial Court's locale for its pronunciation), is precisely what makes it such an appropriate term for Modern Standard Chinese (also the various Mandarin dialects for grammar and meaning, and their dialect of Beijing for its pronunciation).

It seems that during the early part of this period, the standard was based on the Nanjing dialect, but later the Beijing dialect became increasingly influential, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various dialects in the capital, Beijing. In the 17th century, the Empire had set up Orthoepy Academies ( / Zh ngy n Sh yu n) in an attempt to make pronunciation conform to the Beijing standard. But these attempts had little success since as late as the 19th century the emperor had difficulty understanding some of his own ministers in court, who did not always try to follow any standard pronunciation. Although by some account, as late as the early 20th century, the position of Nanjing Mandarin was considered to be higher than that of Beijing by some and the Chinese Postal Map Romanization standards set in 1906 included spellings with elements of Nanjing pronunciation.[7] Nevertheless, by 1909, the dying Qing Dynasty had established the Beijing dialect as gu y ( / ), or the "national language".

After the Republic of China was established in 1912, there was more success in promoting a common national language. A Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation was convened with delegates from the entire country, who were chosen as often due to political considerations as they were for their linguistic expertise. A Dictionary of National Pronunciation ( / ) was published, which was based on the Beijing dialect. Meanwhile colloquial literature continued to develop apace written vernacular Chinese, despite the lack of a standardized pronunciation. Gradually, the members of the National Language Commission came to settle upon the Beijing dialect, which became the major source of standard national pronunciation due to the prestigious status of that dialect. In 1932, the commission published the Vocabulary of National Pronunciation for Everyday Use ( . / . ), with little fanfare or official pronunciation. This dictionary was similar to the previous published one except that it normalized the pronunciations for all characters into the pronunciation of the Beijing dialect. Elements from other dialects continue to exist in the standard language, but as exceptions rather than the rule.[8]

After the Chinese Civil War, the People's Republic of China continued the effort. In 1955, the name gu y was replaced by p t nghu ( / ), or "common speech". By contrast, the name gu y continued to be used by the Republic of China which, after the 1949 loss in the Chinese Civil War, had a territory consisting of Taiwan and some smaller islands. Since then, the standards used in the PRC and Taiwan have diverged somewhat, especially in newer vocabulary terms, and a little in pronunciation.

The advent of the 20th century has seen many profound changes in Mandarin. Many formal, polite and humble words that were in use in imperial China have not been used in daily conversation in modern-day Mandarin, such as ji n ( / "my humble") and gu ( / "your honorable").

The word 'Putonghua' was defined in October 1955 by the Minister of Education Department in mainland China as follows: "Putonghua is the common spoken language of the modern Han group, the lingua franca of all ethnic groups in the country. The standard pronunciation of Putonghua is based on the Beijing dialect, Putonghua is based on the Northern dialects [i.e. the Mandarin dialects], and the grammar policy is modeled after the vernacular used in modern Chinese literary classics."[9]

In both mainland China and Taiwan, the use of Mandarin as the medium of instruction in the educational system and in the media has contributed to the spread of Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken fluently by most people in mainland China and Taiwan.

In Hong Kong and Macau, which are now special administrative regions of the People's Republic of China, Cantonese has been the primary language spoken by the majority of the population, for historical and linguistic reasons. Cantonese remains the official government language of Hong Kong and Macau. After Hong Kong's handover from Britain and Macau's handover from Portugal, Putonghua is the language used by the governments of the two territories to communicate with the Central People's Government of the PRC. There have been widespread efforts to promote usage of Putonghua in Hong Kong since the handover,[10] with specific efforts to train police[11] and teachers.[12]

Mandarin is now spreading overseas beyond East Asia and Southeast Asia as well. In New York City, USA, the Cantonese dialect that dominated the Manhattan Chinatown for decades is being rapidly swept aside by Mandarin, the lingua franca of most of the latest Chinese immigrants.[13]


The phoneme inventory of Standard Chinese consists of about two dozen consonants, of which only , , and under certain circumstances can occur in the syllable coda; about half a dozen vowels, some of which form diphthongs; and four tones. Statistically, vowels and tones are of similar importance in the language.[14]


Chinese is similar to English in many of its syntactic characteristics. It frequently forms sentences by stating a subject and following it by a predicate. The predicate can be an intransitive verb, a transitive verb followed by a direct object, a linking verb followed by a predicate nominative, etc.

Chinese differs from English in distinguishing between names of things, which can stand as predicate nominatives, and names of characteristics. Names of characteristics (e.g., green) cannot follow linking verbs. There is not an equivalent to the English predicate adjective. Instead, abstract characterizations such as "green," "angry," "hot," etc., stand as complete predicates in their own right. For example, . W b l i. The word-for-word version in English would be, "I not tired."

Chinese additionally differs from English in that it forms another kind of sentence by stating a topic and following it by a comment. To do this in English, speakers generally flag the topic of a sentence by prefacing it with "as for." For instance, one might say, "As for the money that Mama gave us, I have already bought candy with it." Note that the comment in this case is itself a complete sentence with subject, verb, and object. The Chinese version is simply, , . M ma g i w men de qi n, w y j ng m ile t ng le. This is translated somewhat directly as, "The money Mom gave us, I already bought candy," lacking a preface as in English.

Chinese does not have tense. Instead it uses a combination of aspect markers and markers of modality. In other words, it employs single syllables that indicate such things as (1) that the subject of the sentence did something that was expected or anticipated, (2) that the subject of the sentence has gone through some experience within a stated or implicit time period, (3) that a statement that was formerly not the case has now become true, i.e., that there has been a change of status, (4) that there still has not been a change in a condition previously noted, etc.

The time that something happened can be given by an explicit term such as "yesterday," by relative terms such as "formerly," etc.

Another major difference between the syntax of Chinese and languages like English lies in the stacking order of modifying clauses. . Zu ti n f p q de w iji o j ngch q xi ole m iy u ji oqi n de n xi r n de r j ngzh ng. Using the Chinese order in English, that sentence would be:

"[Yesterday got angry] --> foreign affairs policeman canceled [did not pay] --> [those people]'s visas."

In more ordinary English order, that would be:

"The foreign affairs policeman who got angry yesterday canceled the visas of those people who did not pay."

There are a few other features of Chinese that would be unfamiliar to speakers of English, but the features mentioned above are generally the most noticeable.

Writing system

The writing system for almost all the varieties of Chinese is based on a set of written logograms that has been passed down with little change for more than two thousand years. Each of these varieties of Chinese has developed some new words during this time, words for which there are no matching characters in the original set. While it is possible to invent new characters (as was done to represent many elements in the periodic table), a more common course of development has been to borrow old characters that have fallen into disuse on the basis of their pronunciations. Chinese Characters were traditionally read from top to bottom, right to left, but in modern usage it is more common to read from left to right.

In Classical Chinese, the demonstrative pronouns were c "this" and b "that". These terms were rare in spoken Mandarin, where zh and n (or regional variants of them) were used instead. None of the original characters had those meanings associated with those pronunciations, so the character for zh "to meet" was borrowed to write "this", and the character for n , the name of a country and later a rare surname, was borrowed to write "that".

The government of the PRC (as well as some other governments and institutions) has promulgated a set of simplified forms. Under this system, the forms of the words zh l ("here") and n l ("there") changed from / and / to and .

Standard Chinese and Beijing dialect

Due to evolution and standardization, Mandarin, although based on the Beijing dialect, is no longer synonymous with it. Part of this was due to the standardization to reflect a greater vocabulary scheme and a more archaic and "proper-sounding" pronunciation and vocabulary. The areas near Beijing, especially the cities of Chengde and Shijiazhuang in neighbouring Hebei province, speak a dialect closest to the standardized pronunciation; this form is generally heard on national and local television and radio.

By the official definition of the People's Republic of China, Standard Chinese uses:

  • The phonology or sound system of Beijing. A distinction should be made between the sound system of a dialect or language and the actual pronunciation of words in it. The pronunciations of words chosen for the standardized language do not necessarily reproduce all of those of the Beijing dialect. The pronunciation of words is a standardization choice and occasional standardization differences (not accents) do exist, between Putonghua and Guoyu, for example.
  • The vocabulary of Mandarin dialects in general. This means that all slang and other elements deemed "regionalisms" are excluded. On the one hand, the vocabulary of all Chinese dialects, especially in more technical fields like science, law, and government, are very similar. (This is similar to the profusion of Latin and Greek words in European languages.) This means that much of the vocabulary of Standard Chinese is shared with all varieties of Chinese. On the other hand, much of the colloquial vocabulary and slang found in Beijing dialect is not found in Standard Chinese, and may not be understood by people outside Beijing.
  • The grammar and idiom of exemplary modern Chinese literature, such as the work of Lu Xun, collectively known as "vernacular" (baihua). Modern written vernacular Chinese is in turn based loosely upon a mixture of northern (predominant), southern, and classical grammar and usage. This gives formal Standard Chinese structure a slightly different feel from that of street Beijing dialect.

In theory the Republic of China in Taiwan defines Standard Chinese differently, though in reality the differences are minor and are concentrated mostly in the tones of a small number of words.

In fluent speech, Chinese speakers can easily tell the difference between a speaker of the Beijing dialect and a speaker of Standard Chinese. Beijingers speak Standard Chinese with elements of their own dialect just as speakers of other dialects do. Speakers of Standard Chinese generally have little difficulty understanding the Beijing accent. Natives of Beijing commonly add a final "er" () ( / ; pinyin: ry n) commonly used as a diminutive to vocabulary items, as well as use more neutral tones in their speech. An example of standard versus Beijing dialect would be: standard men (door), Beijing menr. These give the Beijing dialect a somewhat distinctive lilt compared to Standard Chinese spoken elsewhere.

Although Chinese speakers make a clear distinction between Standard Chinese and the Beijing dialect, there are aspects of Beijing dialect that have made it into the official standard. Standard Chinese has a T-V distinction between the polite and informal versions of you that comes from Beijing dialect, but its use is quite diminished in daily speech. In addition, it also distinguishes between "z nmen" (we including the listener) and "w men" (we not including the listener). In practice, neither distinction is commonly used by most Chinese, at least outside the Beijing area.

The following samples are some phrases from Beijing dialect which are not yet accepted into Standard Chinese:

  • b ir means 'very much'; b nsu n means 'stagger'; b l n means 'do not worry about'; cu means 'eat'; ch li means 'slip'; ( ) d l oyermenr means 'man, male'.

The following samples are some phrases from Beijing dialect which have been already accepted as Standard Chinese:

  • r b d o means 'not very skillful'; g m nr means 'good male friend(s)', 'buddy(ies)'; k u m nr means 'parsimonious' or 'stingy'.

Standard Chinese and other varieties of Chinese

Although Standard Chinese is now firmly established as the lingua franca of China, it differs from other dialects even in the vast Mandarin dialect group, to the point of being to some extent unintelligible. For example, the word for "sky", ti n, is pronounced with a high level tone in the Beijing dialect and in Standard Chinese, but with a low falling tone in the Tianjin dialect and a high rising tone in the Chengdu dialect.

Although both mainland China and Taiwan use Standard Chinese in the official context and are keen to promote its use as a national lingua franca, there is no explicit official intent to have Standard Chinese replace the regional dialects and languages. Practically some elderly or rural Chinese-language speakers do not speak Standard Chinese fluently, if at all, but most are able to understand it. But the younger generations are almost all fluent in Standard Chinese, some to the extent of being unable to speak their local dialect.

It is common for Standard Chinese to be spoken with the speaker's regional accent, depending on factors as age, level of education, and the need and frequency to speak in official or formal situations. This appears to be changing, though, in large urban centers, as social changes, migrations, and urbanization take place.

In the predominantly Han areas in mainland China, while the use of Standard Chinese is encouraged as the common working language, the PRC has been sensitive to the status of minority languages and has not discouraged their use. Standard Chinese is commonly used for logistical reasons, as in many parts of southern China the linguistic diversity is so large that neighboring city dwellers may have difficulties communicating with each other without a lingua franca.

In Taiwan, the relationship between Standard Chinese and other varieties, particularly Taiwanese Hokkien, has been more politically heated. During the martial law period under the Kuomintang (KMT) between 1949 and 1987, the KMT government revived the Mandarin Promotion Council and discouraged or, in some cases, forbade the use of Hokkien and other dialects. This produced a political backlash in the 1990s. Under the administration of Chen Shui-Bian, other Taiwanese varieties were taught in schools. The former President, Chen Shui-Bian, often spoke in Hokkien during speeches, while after late 1990s, former President Lee Teng-hui, also speaks Hokkien openly.

In Singapore, the government has heavily promoted a "Speak Mandarin Campaign" since the late 1970s. The use of other Chinese languages in broadcast media is prohibited and their use in any context is officially discouraged. This has led to some resentment amongst the older generations, as Singapore's migrant Chinese community is made up almost entirely of south Chinese descent. Lee Kuan Yew, the initiator of the campaign, admitted that to most Chinese Singaporeans, Mandarin was a "stepmother tongue" rather than a true mother language. Nevertheless, he saw the need for a unified language among the Chinese community not biased in favor of any existing group.[15]


Most Chinese (Beijingers included) speak Standard Chinese with elements of their own dialects (i.e. their "accents") mixed in.

For example, natives of Beijing, add a final "er" () commonly used as a diminutive sound to vocabulary items that other speakers would leave unadorned ( / ry n).

On the other hand, speakers from northeastern and southern China as well as Taiwan often mix up zh and z, ch and c, and sh and s because their own home dialects often do not include retroflex initial consonants. Speakers of various Chinese dialects do not distinguish initial n and l, or final n and ng. As a result, it can be difficult for people who do not have the standard pronunciation to use pinyin for dictionary look-up or typing on a computer, because they do not distinguish these sounds.

Role of Standard Chinese

From an official point of view, Standard Chinese serves the purpose of a lingua franca a way for speakers of the several mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese, as well as the Chinese minorities, to communicate with each other. The very name Putonghua, or "common speech," reinforces this idea. In practice, however, due to Standard Chinese being a "public" lingua franca, other languages or dialects, both Han and non-Han, have shown signs of losing ground to the standard, to the chagrin of certain local culture proponents.

On Taiwan, Guoyu (national language) continues to be the official term for Standard Chinese. The term Guoyu is relatively rarely used in the PRC, because declaring a Beijing-dialect-based standard to be the national language would be deemed unfair to other Chinese dialects and ethnic minorities. The term Putonghua (common speech), on the contrary, implies nothing more than the notion of a lingua franca. During the government of a pro-Taiwan independence coalition in the ROC (2000 2008), officials promoted a different reading of Guoyu as all of the "national languages", meaning Hokkien, Hakka and Formosan as well as Standard Chinese.[16]

A poster outside of high school in Yangzhou urges people to speak Putonghua In December 2004, the first survey of language use in the People's Republic of China revealed that only 53% of its population, about 700 million people, could communicate in Standard Chinese. (China Daily) A survey by South China Morning Post released in September 2006 gave the same result. This 53% is defined as a passing grade above 3-B (i.e. error rate lower than 40%) of the Evaluation Exam. Another survey in 2003 by the China National Language And Character Working Committee () shows, if mastery of Mandarin is defined as Grade 1-A (an error rate lower than 3%), the percentages were as follows: Beijing 90%, Shanghai 3%, Tianjin 25%, Guangzhou 0.5%, Dalian 10%, Xi'an 12%, Chengdu 1%, Nanjing 2%.

With the fast development of China, more Chinese people leaving rural areas for cities for job or study opportunities, and the Putonghua Evaluation Exam () has quickly become popular. Many university graduates take this exam before looking for a job. Employers often require varying proficiency in Standard Chinese from applicants depending on the nature of the positions. Applicants of some positions, e.g. telephone operators, may be required to obtain a certificate. People raised in Beijing are sometimes considered inherently 1-A ()(Error rate: lower than 3%) and exempted from this requirement. As for the rest, the score of 1-A is rare. According to the official definition of proficiency levels, people who get 1-B (Error rate: lower than 8%) are considered qualified to work as television correspondents or in broadcasting stations. 2-A (Error rate: lower than 13%) can work as Chinese Literature Course teachers in public schools. Other levels include: 2-B (Error rate: lower than 20%), 3-A (Error rate: lower than 30%) and 3-B (Error rate: lower than 40%). In China, a proficiency of level 3-B usually cannot be achieved unless special training is received. Even if many Chinese do not speak with standard pronunciation, spoken Standard Chinese is widely understood to some degree.

The China National Language And Character Working Committee was founded in 1985. One of its important responsibilities is to promote Standard Chinese proficiency for Chinese native speakers.

Standard Chinese and the educational system

In both the PRC and Taiwan, Standard Chinese is taught by immersion starting in elementary school. After the second grade, the entire educational system is in Standard Chinese, except for local language classes that have been taught for a few hours each week in Taiwan starting in the mid-1990s.

Common Phrases

English Traditional characters Simplified characters Pinyin
Hello! N h o!
What is your name? N ji o sh nme m ngzi?
My name is... ... ... W ji o ...
How are you? / / N h o ma? / N z nmey ng?
I am fine, how about you? W h n h o, n ne?
I don't want it / I don't want to W b y o.
Thank you! Xi xie
Welcome! / You're welcome! (Literally: No need to thank me!) / Don't mention it! (Literally: Don't be so polite!) / / / / Hu ny ng! / B y ng xi ! / B k q !
Yes. / Correct. / / Sh . / Du .
No. / Incorrect. / / B sh . / B du .
When? Sh nme sh hou?
How much money? Du sh o qi n?
Can you speak a little slower? N n n ng shu de z i m nxi ma?
Good morning! / Good morning! / / Z oshang h o! / Z o' n!
Goodbye! Z iji n!
How do you get to the airport? Q j ch ng z nme z u?
I want to fly to London on the eighteenth 18 18 W xi ng sh b h o zu f ij d o L nd n.
How much will it cost to get to Munich? D o M n h i y o du sh o qi n?
I don't speak Chinese very well. . . W de H ny shu de b t i h o.
Do you speak English? N hu shu Y ngy ma?
I have no money. . . W m iy u qi n.

See also



  • Hsia, T., China s Language Reforms, Far Eastern Publications, Yale University, (New Haven), 1956.
  • Ladefoged, Peter; & Maddieson, Ian. (1996). The sounds of the world's languages. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-19814-8 (hbk); ISBN 0-631-19815-6 (pbk).
  • Lehmann, W.P. (ed.), Language & Linguistics in the People's Republic of China, University of Texas Press, (Austin), 1975.
  • Lin, Y., Lin Yutang's Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1972.
  • Milsky, C., "New Developments in Language Reform", The China Quarterly, No.53, (January March 1973), pp. 98 133.
  • Seybolt, P.J. & Chiang, G.K. (eds.), Language Reform in China: Documents and Commentary, M.E. Sharpe, (White Plains), 1979. ISBN 978-0-87332-081-8.
  • Simon, W., A Beginners' Chinese-English Dictionary Of The National Language (Gwoyeu): Fourth Revised Edition, Lund Humphries, (London), 1975.

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