Population & Ethnic Groups

Spoken and Written Languages

The Han people have their own spoken and written languages. Chinese belongs to the Han-Tibetan language family. It is the most commonly used language in China, and one of the most commonly used languages in the world. Written Chinese emerged in its embryonic form of carved symbols approximately 6,000 years ago. The Chinese characters used today evolved from those used in bone and tortoise shell inscriptions more than 3,000 years ago and the bronze inscriptions produced soon after. Drawn figures were gradually reduced to patterned strokes, pictographs were reduced to symbols, and the complicated graphs became simpler. Early pictographs and ideographs were joined by pictophonetic characters. In fact, there are six categories of Chinese characters: pictographs, self-explanatory characters, associative compounds, pictophonetic characters, phonetic loan characters, and mutually explanatory characters. Chinese words are monosyllabic. A large proportion of Chinese characters are composed of an ideogramatic element combined with a phonetic element. Many non-Chinese sometimes get the feeling that there are an unlimited number of Chinese characters. How many Chinese characters are there exactly? The Qing Dynasty Kang Xi Dictionary, completed in 1716, contains more than 47,000 characters. The eight-volume Hanyu Da Cidian (Chinese Lexicon) published in 1986-1990 contains over 56,000 characters. However, only about 3,000 characters are in common use. In addition to their functional value as symbols for records and communications, Chinese characters have an aesthetic value as calligraphy.

All China’s 55 minority peoples have their own languages except the Hui and Manchu, who use Chinese; 21 of these have a written form, using 27 kinds of languages. Five language families are represented in China: 29, including Zhuang, Dai, Tibetan, Yi, Miao and Yao, are within the Han-Tibetan language family; 17, including Uygur, Kazak, Mongolian and Korean, are within the Altaic language family; three, the Va, Deang and Blang, are within the South Asian language family; Tajik and Russian belong to the Indo-European language family; and Gaoshan is an Austronesian language. The Jing language has yet to be classified typologically. Nowadays, classes in schools in predominantly national minority areas are taught in the local language, using local language textbooks.

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Last updated: 2000-07-13.