About one fifth of he world’s population speaks a version of Chinese language as their native tongue. That equals to approximately one billion people!
Chinese is a language and a language family at the same time — belonging to the Proto-Sino-Tibetan language family –, and it includes varieties of the language that are usually mutually intelligible. Depending on the classification scheme, Chinese has 7-13 main regional groups of dialects. The most spoken ones are Mandarin, Wu, Min and Cantonese.
Standard Chinese is the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, it is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (also known as Taiwan), one of the four official languages of Singapore and one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
The Chinese language has gone through several phases throughout its very complex history: Old Chinese (or Archaic Chinese) was the common language in the period of 1122 BCE–256 BCE (early and middle Zhou Dynasty), this is the language we find inscribed on bronze artifacts and in portions of the “I Ching“. Middle Chinese has been widely used during between the 6th and 10th centuries CE (the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties, as well as the Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties) and its development can be divided into early (6th century) and late (10th century) periods and since the 17th century the Quing Dynasty has put a lot of effort into conforming the Chinese pronunciation to the standard of Beijing but it had limited effect on the spoken language, people of different regions continued using their own dialects.
In the mid-20th century the compulsory education of Mandarin has been introduced in both the PRC and the ROC and it lead to the widespread use of this variety of Chinese on the mainland of China and in Taiwan, while Cantonese is still the official language of Hong Kong — however Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential there, too.
Chinese has been influential on other Asian languages. Korean and Japanese use Chinese characters in their writing systems: Kanji (Japan) and Hanja (Korea). Also, 50%+ of Korean words ,and a similarly substantial part of Japanese and Vietnamese vocabulary is of Chinese origin.
Did you know that the words tea and ketchup are Chinese loanwords in the English language? Tea comes from the Minnan pronunciation and ketchup from the Cantonese one.