Self-Access Centre - Mandarin

Welcome to the Self-Access Centre materials database. Here you can find out about the Mandarin materials available in the SAC.

If you are interested in studying Mandarin at UCL, please click here.

The SAC is here to provide you with opportunities to study Mandarin outside class time. You may feel extra study is necessary in order to achieve the exam score you want, or you may just enjoy studying Mandarin. Either way, the SAC could be useful for you.

If you have a very clear idea of what you need to study in Mandarin, use the Resources menu above to look for the study topics which are of importance to you. If you need advice and guidance on what to study, you should talk to your class tutor, who will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations on what to study.

We have a wide range of resources to help you study Mandarin on your own. In the Self-Access Centre you can find course books, dictionaries, but also, reading and grammar books. You can also watch online TV or listen to radio stations. There are links to BBC Languages programmes, which will allow you to learn Mandarin by watching interactive videos. You can also watch Mandarin films, TV recordings, or course videos. You can also practice your Mandarin by doing the online exercises.

A bit about the language

Mandarin (simplified Chinese; traditional Chinese; pinyin: Guānhuà) is a category of related Chinese dialects spoken across most of northern and south-western China. When taken as a separate language, as is often done in academic literature, the Mandarin language has more native speakers than any other language. The "standard" in Standard Mandarin (Putonghua / Guoyu / Huayu) refers to the standard Beijing dialect of the Mandarin language. In everyday use Mandarin refers to Standard Chinese or Standard Mandarin, which is based on the particular Mandarin dialect spoken in Beijing. Standard Mandarin functions as the official spoken language of the People's Republic of China, the official language of the Republic of China (Taiwan), and one of the four official languages of Singapore. "Chinese"—in practice Standard Mandarin—is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. In its broader sense, Mandarin is a diverse group of Mandarin dialects spoken in northern and southwestern China (Guanhua / Beifanghua / Beifang fangyan). This group of dialects is the focus of this article.

  • The Sinophone world:
    Chinese as a primary, administrative, or native language
    Countries with more than 5,000,000 Chinese speakers
    Countries with more than 1,000,000 Chinese speakers
    Countries with more than 500,000 Chinese speakers
    Countries with more than 100,000 Chinese speakers
    Major Chinese speaking settlements

The latter grouping is defined and used mainly by linguists, and is not commonly used outside of academic circles as a self-description. Instead, when asked to describe the spoken form they are using, Chinese speaking a form of non-Standard Mandarin will describe the variant that they are speaking, for example Southwestern Mandarin or Northeastern Mandarin, and consider it distinct from "Standard Mandarin" (putonghua); they may not recognize that it is in fact classified by linguists as a form of "Mandarin" in a broader sense. Like all other varieties of Chinese, there is significant dispute as to whether Mandarin is a language or a dialect.

Role of standard Mandarin

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

In Taiwan, Guoyu (national language) continues to be the official term for standard Mandarin. The term Guoyu is rarely used in Mainland China, 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. However, the term Guoyu does persist among many older Mainland Chinese, and it is common in U.S. Chinese communities, even among Mainlanders. The China National Language And Character Working Committee was founded in 1985. One of its important responsibilities is to promote Standard Mandarin and Mandarin Level proficiency for Chinese native speakers.

Writing system

The writing system for almost all the varieties of Chinese is based on a set of written symbols 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 of course possible to invent new characters, 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 top to bottom, right to left, but in modern usage it is more common to read from left to right.

Chinese character

  • Biang (a type of noodle) character)

A Chinese character, also known as a Han character is a logogram used in writing Chinese (hanzi), Japanese (kanji), less frequently Korean (hanja), and formerly Vietnamese (hán tự), and other languages. Chinese characters are also known as sinographs, and the Chinese writing system as sinography. The number of Chinese characters is approximately 47,035, although a large number of these are rarely used variants accumulated throughout history. Studies carried out in China have shown that literacy in the Chinese language requires a knowledge of only between three and four thousand characters.

In the Chinese writing system, the characters are morphosyllabic, each usually corresponding to a spoken syllable with a basic meaning. However, although Chinese words may be formed by characters with basic meanings, a majority of words in Mandarin Chinese require two or more characters to write (thus are poly-syllabic) but have meaning that is distinct from the characters they are made from. Chinese characters have also been used and in some cases continue to be used in other languages, most significantly Japanese (where a single character can represent several spoken syllables), Korean, and Vietnamese. Chinese characters are used both by meaning to represent native words, ignoring the Chinese pronunciation, and by meaning and sound, to represent Chinese loanwords.

Mandarin literature

Originally, written Chinese was learned and composed as a special language. It may originally have rather closely represented the way people spoke, but with time the spoken and written languages diverged rather strongly. The written language, called "classical Chinese" or "literary Chinese", is much more concise than spoken Chinese, the main reason being that a single written character is often just what one wants to communicate yet its single syllable would communicate an ambiguous meaning if spoken because of the huge number of homonyms. For instance, 翼 (yì, wing) is unambiguous in written Chinese but would be lost among its more than 75 homonyms in spoken Chinese.

For writing formal histories, for writing government documents, and even for writing poetry and fiction, the written language was adequate and economical of both printing resources and the human effort of writing things down. But to record materials that were meant to be reproduced in oral presentations, materials such as plays and grist for the professional story-teller's mill, the classical written language was not appropriate. Even written records of the words of a famous teacher like Zhu Xi (1130-1200) tend to strongly reflect his spoken language. From at least the Yuan dynasty’s plays to the Ming and Qing dynasty novels and beyond a vernacular Chinese literature developed. In many cases this written language reflected the Mandarin spoken language, and, since pronunciation differences were not conveyed in the written form, this tradition had a unifying force across all the Mandarin speaking regions.

Chinese calligraphy

For centuries, the Chinese literati were expected to master the art of calligraphy. The art of writing Chinese characters is called Chinese calligraphy. It is usually done with ink brushes. In ancient China, Chinese calligraphy is one of the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholars (playing a traditional musical instrument, mastering the board game Go, painting and calligraphy). There is a minimalist set of rules of Chinese calligraphy. Every character from the Chinese scripts is built into a uniform shape by means of assigning it a geometric area in which the character must occur. Each character has a set number of brushstrokes; none must be added or taken away from the character to enhance it visually, lest the meaning be lost. Finally, strict regularity is not required, meaning the strokes may be accentuated for dramatic effect of individual style. Calligraphy was the means by which scholars could mark their thoughts and teachings for immortality, and as such, represent some of the more precious treasures that can be found from ancient China.


  • Mandarin Dialects in Mainland China

Chinese languages have always had dialects; hence prestige dialects have always existed, and linguas francas have always been needed. Confucius, for example, used yayán or "elegant speech", rather than colloquial regional dialects; texts during the Han Dynasty also referred to  "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.

The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) began to use the term guānhuà, or "official speech", to refer to the speech used at the courts. The term "Mandarin" comes directly from the Portuguese. The word mandarim was first used to name the Chinese bureaucratic officials (i.e., the mandarins) by the Portuguese. They were under the false impression 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.

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).

  • Map of Sinitic Languages

It seems that during the early part of this period, the standard was based on the Nanjing dialect of Mandarin, 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 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. Nevertheless, by 1909, the dying Qing Dynasty had established the Beijing dialect as guóyǔ, 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 based on 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 rapidly 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. The People's Republic of China, established in 1949, continued the effort. In 1955, the name guóyǔ was replaced by pǔtōnghuà, or common speech. Since then, the standards used in mainland China 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 Standard Mandarin. Many formal, polite and humble words that were in use in imperial China have almost entirely disappeared in daily conversation in modern-day Standard Mandarin. 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 modelled after the vernacular used in modern Chinese literary classics".

In both mainland China and Taiwan, the use of Standard Mandarin as the medium of instruction in the educational system and in the media has contributed to the spread of Standard Mandarin. As a result, Standard 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, Standard Cantonese has been the primary language spoken by the majority of the population, due to historical and linguistic reasons. After Hong Kong's handover from Britain and Macau's handover from Portugal, Standard Mandarin has become only slightly more understood (but still not widely spoken) and is used by the governments of the two territories to communicate with the Central People's Government of the PRC. Cantonese remains the official government language of Hong Kong and Macau when not communicating with mainland China.

Source: adapted from www.wikipedia.org