March 21, 2013 | Mandarin

How Do You Say Chinese in Chinese?

Seemingly simple things can become complicated when more than a billion people are involved.

In Pimsleur I learned two ways to say “Mandarin.” The main one was Pǔtōnghuà, which I have seen translated variously as “common speech,” “common tongue,” and “common language”—and which is, I have been told, a common and unambiguous way to refer to Mandarin in mainland China.

The other option Pimsleur taught me was Guóyǔ, meaning “country” (guó) and “language” (), which is a translation of “Mandarin” used in Taiwan.

It did feel funny to have two ways to say a language, but when you have 13 digits’ worth of people involved, stuff like that happens!

Then along came Fluenz and introduced me to a third way of referring to the language I was studying: Hànyǔ. This is a more general language term that contains a reference to the Han ethnic group, the majority ethnic group in China, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the population. Although Hànyǔ is used to refer to Mandarin, what I have read suggests it technically alludes to Chinese as a whole—meaning multiple dialects.

While researching the above three terms, I came across a fourth translation, Zhōngwén, which is similar to Hànyǔ in that it embraces the multiple Chinese dialects. I saw some posts indicating that Zhōngwén usually refers more to the written language as opposed to the spoken, but other posts disagreed with that distinction.

Mandarin Translations of 'Language,' Plus Free Dental Implants

Mandarin Translations of ‘Language,’ Plus Free Dental Implants

Watch your tones, by the way, because if Hànyǔ is written Hányǔ (i.e., with the second tone rather than the fourth tone on that first syllable), it means “Korean,” not “Chinese”! 

If I have made any mistakes in what I have written here, or if you disagree with anything I have written here, my apologies. It is hard to find consistent information on the above; there are quite a few divergent opinions, and I’m sure much misinformation, floating around the web.

It was pretty exhausting just to get this information together, in fact, but before I go rest, let me add that for “English,” as in the English language, Pimsleur taught me Yīngwén, while Fluenz taught me Yīngyǔ.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: in editing this entry—which looks so flimsy I can’t believe it took me this long to write!—I spent a not insignificant amount of time trying to figure out whether I was supposed to capitalize the names of languages in pinyin/Pinyin. My instinct was no, the majority of references I saw seemed to suggest yes, and I couldn’t find a clear answer! So for now I have given up on that quest and gone with capitalization.

Okay, this really is the final thing: I just found a dictionary on that provided me with a nice little table of three Chinese translations for the word “language” (huà, wén, and ), along with an ad offering visitors free dental implants, if you are employed and act now.

Comments (4)

Charles • Posted on Sun, March 24, 2013 - 1:48 pm EST

It is confusing.  When I lived in Taiwan I was used and heard zhongwen,  (sorry, I can’t italicize or do accents in this reply) even though my Chinese friends told it more properly referred to the written language, they all used it for the spoken language. Likewise, yingwen was used for English.  But then I met someone from the mainland who asked me if I spoke yingyu and I just stared at him.  I couldn’t figure out what he meant. My Mandarin was pretty good by that time, but not good enough that I could analyze new words on the fly and figure them out.

I never heard the the word hanyu until I went back to university in northeast China a few years ago.  I was speaking with a Korean in the elevator and she asked me if I was going to study hanyu.  And I said, “no, I’m going to study putonghua.” I had misheard her and though she was asking if I was going to study Korean (and I was thinking that it was a really strange question to ask someone who said they came all the way to China to study language).

So, yes, I feel your confusion.  As for pinyin, the first letter of proper nouns is capitalized.  A quick introduction to the rules of pinyin is at

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, March 24, 2013 - 7:26 pm EST

I love the elevator story. How many times each day must that kind of thing happen!

Thank you for the pinyin link. I’m happy about my capitals now.

Charles • Posted on Mon, March 25, 2013 - 10:53 am EST

Its surprising, from a learner’s perspective, how little confusion there is However, when I was first learning Chinese, I was always delighted to come across instances where native speakers had to clarify which word they meant.  There’s an interesting sentence pattern for doing this too.  If I say my name is Tang xiansheng (Mr. Tang) I might need to clarify which tang I mean.  I do that by choosing a two-syllable Chinese word in which tang is the first syllable; in this case, I would pick tangdai (Tang dynasty). I would then say, tangdai de tang (the tang of Tang dynasty).  Its a bit like English speakers saying “C as in Charlie.”

The other thing you’ll see (but not hear) is sometimes the person who’s speaking will “write” the character for the other person.  This sounds simple, but for a beginning student its nerve-wracking because the speaker will either “write” the character in the air or on their palm using their fingertip.  So, in the end there’s no character to see—you’re expected to recognize the character from the motion of writing it.

Finally, not to discourage you—I find all these difficulties only increase my fascination with the language—there’s an amusing article over at called “Why is Chinese so Damn Hard.”  Keep in mind when you read it, the writer is an excellent speaker of Chinese and is, I believe, a music producer in China and the article was published in a samizdat journal devoted to Chinese studies, particularly language, and the issue in which it appears is for a noted Chinese linguist.


Hans • Posted on Sat, May 11, 2013 - 8:01 am EST

‘wén’ is kind of like ‘text’, so ‘Yīngwén’ is equivalent to ‘English text’, in a sense. 

‘yǔ’ is more of ‘speech’, so ‘Yīngyǔ’ would be used to denote ‘spoken English language’. 

I hope it makes sense to you, it’s just one of the little things that gets clearer after reading/listening to a bunch of other examples from different contexts.

Oh by the way, I learned it as ‘Huáyǔ’.  (Chinese in Chinese).

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