Chinese as an official language

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The following is a list of the countries where Chinese is an official language. While those countries that designate Chinese as an official language use the term "Chinese", as Chinese is a group of related language varieties, of which many are not mutually intelligible, in the context of the spoken language such designations are usually understood as designations of specific varieties of Chinese, namely Standard Cantonese Chinese and Standard Mandarin Chinese.[1] In the context of the written language, written modern standard Chinese is usually understood to be the official standard, though different territories use different standard scripts.

Cantonese as an official spoken language[edit]

As special administrative regions of China, Hong Kong and Macau list the ambiguous "Chinese" as their official language, although in practice the regionally traditional Cantonese dialect is used by the government as the official variant of Chinese rather than the mainland's customary variant of Mandarin.

Region Population 2013[2] Written Variety More information
 Hong Kong 7,182,724 Traditional Chinese Languages of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Cantonese
 Macau 631,000 Traditional Chinese Languages of Macau

Cantonese is also highly influential in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, where the language originated. Despite Mandarin's status as the official language of China, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) has allowed local television and other media in Guangdong Province to be broadcast in Cantonese since 1988 in order to countermeasure against Hong Kong influence. Meanwhile, usage of the country’s other dialects in media is rigorously restricted by the SARFT, with permission from national or local authorities being required for a dialect to be the primary programming language at radio and television stations.[3] Despite its unique standing relative to other Chinese dialects, Cantonese has also recently been targeted by the SARFT in attempts to curb its usage on local television in Guangdong. This created mass demonstrations in 2010 that resulted in the eventual rejection of the plans.

Mandarin as an official spoken language[edit]

While Mandarin actually consists of closely related varieties of Chinese spoken natively across most of northern and southwestern China, a standard form based on the variant of the Beijing area has been established as its standard and is official in mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. However, in the latter two jurisdictions, local languages have influenced the spoken vernacular form of Mandarin.

Country/Location Population 2013[2] Written Variety More information
 People's Republic of China 1,349,585,838 Simplified Chinese Languages of China, Standard Chinese
 Republic of China (Taiwan) 23,299,716 Traditional Chinese Languages of Taiwan, Taiwanese Mandarin
 Singapore 5,460,302 Simplified Chinese Languages of Singapore, Singaporean Mandarin

Status of other Chinese variants[edit]

In China, the public usage of varieties other than Standard Mandarin (Putonghua) is officially discouraged by the government and nearly all education and media is conducted in the standard variant, with a notable exception being Cantonese in Guangdong media and public transportation. As a result, younger populations are increasingly losing knowledge of their local dialects.[4] However, in recent years, there has been limited activity in reintroducing local dialects at schools through cultural programs and broadcasting restrictions on dialects have been somewhat slightly uplifted.[5]

Although Standard Mandarin is the official variant of Chinese in Taiwan, Taiwanese (Hokkien) and Hakka are both widely spoken and used in media. Additionally, they are also taught at the primary school level and are used in public transportation announcements.[6] There is also a thriving literary scene for both Taiwanese and Hakka alongside Mandarin. In 2002 the Taiwan Solidarity Union proposed making Taiwanese an co-official language, but this was criticized by both Blue and Green politicians as promoting Hoklo chauvinism at the expense of Hakka and the Aboriginal language.[7]

In Singapore, the public usage of varieties other than Standard Mandarin is discouraged as in China. The Singaporean government has actively promoted the Speak Mandarin Campaign (SMC) since the 1980s and forbids non-cable broadcasting and Chinese language medium of instruction in non-Mandarin varieties. However, since the mid-1990s, there has been a relaxation in allowing non-Mandarin broadcasting via cable networks and a massive following of Hong Kong pop culture. As a result, the presence of Cantonese has grown and many Chinese Singaporeans are able to understand or speak it, with Cantonese even being taught as an elective language in many schools.[8] However, only Cantonese seems to have benefitted from this uplift, as Hokkien, the most spoken Chinese variety in Singapore, and other varieties continue to see a steady decline in speakers.

Until the late 19th century, laws in the Republic of China were drafted in Classical Chinese.[citation needed]

Countries where Chinese has a significant minor presence[edit]

Due to historically large Chinese minority populations, the Chinese language has a significant presence in Malaysia and Indonesia despite having no official status. In Malaysia, Cantonese is widely used in commerce and media among the Chinese Malaysian community, especially in Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh.[9][10] Meanwhile, the Hokkien that originates from the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian is the most spoken Chinese variant. However, Chinese schools in Malaysia use Mandarin as medium of instruction.[11] Hokkien is also the most spoken variety among Chinese Indonesians, with Cantonese, Mandarin and Hakka also present.[12]

Southern Vietnam also hosts a smaller but still significant and historic Chinese population that was heavily involved in the country's trade and industry from the 16th century, through French colonization and the Vietnam War, up to the present despite a mass exodus following the Fall of Saigon. Cantonese is the lingua franca among members of the community, although there is also a significant presence of speakers of Teochew and Hakka.[13]

Taishanese, a closely related variant of Chinese to Cantonese, was originally the main Chinese dialect spoken throughout Chinatowns in the United States and Canada as early Chinese immigrants to the West originated from the Siyi area of Guangdong Province. Since the mid-20th century, standard Cantonese has since replaced it as the main Chinese variant among the Chinese American and Chinese Canadian communities due to a larger influx of immigrants from the Guangzhou area and Hong Kong. More recently, immigration from other parts of mainland China and Taiwan has resulted in a larger presence of Mandarin speakers in the United States as well.[14]


Nearly every historic Chinese dynasty and state has had some form of Chinese as an official language. The spoken language of bureaucrats and officials, also known as Mandarin has usually been based on the local speech of capital city. Historical states associated with Korea, Japan, and Vietnam have also used Classical Chinese as an official written language, but for inter-personal communication used their respective native languages.

Other states and countries that have used written or spoken Chinese in an official capacity include:


  1. ^ Mair, Victor H. (1991). "What Is a Chinese "Dialect/Topolect"? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms" (PDF). Sino-Platonic Papers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. 29. 
  2. ^ a b "The World Factbook". Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  3. ^ "Code of Professional Ethics of Radio and Television Hosts of China" (in Chinese). State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT). 2005-02-07. Retrieved 2010-07-26. 
  4. ^ Yin Yeping (2011-07-31). "60 years of Putonghua and English drown out local tongues". Global Times. 
  5. ^ Ni Dandan (May 16, 2011). "Dialect faces death threat". Global Times. Retrieved June 5, 2011. we arranged Shanghai Day on Fridays to promote the language and local culture 
  6. ^ 大眾運輸工具播音語言平等保障法 (statutory languages for public transport announcements in Taiwan) (in Chinese)
  7. ^
  8. ^ Chua, Beng Huat. Life is Not Complete Without Shopping: Consumption Culture in Singapore, 2003, Singapore University Press, p. 89-90.
  9. ^ [1]
  10. ^ Chua, Amy. "Minority rule, majority hate". Asia Times. Retrieved 15 November 2010. 
  11. ^ UN Report, Languages in Malaysia
  12. ^ Lewis 2005, p. 391.
  13. ^ West (2010), pp. 289-90
  14. ^ Lai, H. Mark (2004). Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions. AltaMira Press. ISBN 0-7591-0458-1. 

See also[edit]