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"Mandarin", "Chinese" and political correctness

Sorry for spamming the board with questions! This one is more about referring to the chinese language when talking in english. In Australia I feel like most people say “Mandarin” to avoid confusion with Cantonese, as I think we have a substantial cantonese speaking population here. However I’m wondering if the word “Mandarin” is seen by some Chinese people as having negative connotations? The history of the usage of that word to refer to the common chinese language seems to be very imperial in nature, with Britain and Portugal both factoring in as colonizing powers in the 1800’s.

For example, in Australia we are very careful to try to use the right words to refer to the people that were here before white folk (i.e. indigenous, aboriginal, native, first peoples), all these words have different amounts of political “loading” and saying the wrong one might upset somebody.

I feel like if we were talking about the western world, using the word “Mandarin” to describe one of our languages would be seen as a bit old fashioned, even racist, due to the imperial history of the word. But I get the sense that Chinese people aren’t so concerned with these sorts of issues and care more about just getting on with the job. Forgive me if saying that in itself is racist.

Thoughts? thanks :slight_smile:

This sounds about right. I’ve never heard of anyone taking issue with it. In the UK you just say “Chinese” for the language despite having a larger Cantonese population. It’s only people that have maybe travelled or learnt Mandarin would use more “accurate” word.

For those interested, here’s the Wikipedia article about the origin of the word.


I speak some Cantonese as well as some Mandarin and how I refer to them depends on the situation.

Kind of like what Gwilym said, if I’m pretty sure the person I’m communicating with knows the difference between the two, I’ll say ‘Mandarin’ or ‘Cantonese’. Otherwise I’ll just say ‘Chinese’ for simplicity (and I’ll specify if they ask). But on job applications and things, I’ll write ‘Mandarin Chinese’ and ‘Cantonese’ - I think perhaps because this way there’s no ambiguity. I’ve never sensed any offence when talking about this in person.

But if possible, I always make a point of referring to Cantonese as ‘Cantonese’ rather than under the umbrella of ‘Chinese’. (I have friends and family in Hong Kong so I’m a bit biased, fighting for their corner :wink: ) Whether Cantonese is a Chinese dialect or a language in it’s own right is a whole other politically-loaded debate in Hong Kong…! They’re mutually unintelligible spoken languages (and very different when written colloquially) so to me it seems right to distinguish between Cantonese and Mandarin if the situation allows for it :slight_smile:

I found this interesting article from a couple of years ago:

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I think you are conflating the colonial empires with the Chinese Imperial Court, which used “mandarin” as a working language, though the language they spoke probably bears little resemblance to modern “putonghua.” Also, it was then restricted to the scholar or court class, and was by no means a “universal” language, any more than common European folk in the middle ages were conversant in Latin. Anyway, the Brits and the Portugese did not impose this language on them, and did not make up the word “Mandarin” to be derogatory, So if you want to offend, you are barking up the wrong tree. But if you want to be naughty you can use your Mandarin to refer to other dialects (especially Cantonese) as 鸟语。

Thank you, I guess I was taking the term “Imperial” and stretching it a bit far. Much appreciated!

My experience is that Chinese people will assume you mean Mandarin when you say Chinese, so the only people who will ask for clarification are those relatively well-informed non-Chinese people who know about Cantonese (so generally I just say Chinese when talking to Chinese people, and Mandarin when talking to non-Chinese). In Mandarin, I think there are two words: they use 华语 for the Chinese language family (for example on Youku I think), while 汉语 and 普通话 are usually used synonymously except maybe when differentiating between Chinese varieties. If you didn’t use the word Mandarin or Chinese in English…then I’m not sure what else you could say except maybe a directish translation: like Standard Chinese.

Not at all! There is absolutely NO negative cannotation in this word to Chinese people. When you say “mandarin”, you are basically referring to “Standard / official spoken Chinese” or “Pu-Tong-Hua”.

Mandarin is the official state language of China and is the lingua franca of the country. It is in many areas the primary spoken language, including Beijing and Shanghai, although many provinces still retain their own local dialect. Mandarin is also the main dialect in Taiwan and Singapore. Cantonese is spoken by the people of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province, including Guangzhou (previously Canton in English). Most foreign Chinese communities, such as those in London and San Francisco, also speak Cantonese thanks to emigration from Guangdong. Read more about their differences if you are interested. :grinning:

I agree with what colinhagemeyer suggested, “Chinese people will assume you mean Mandarin when you say Chinese, so the only people who will ask for clarification are those relatively well-informed non-Chinese people who know about Cantonese”.

Awesome, thanks for the detailed explanation!

Actually the native dialect of Shanghai is Shanghainese. I’m not sure what you meant by “primary spoken language” but native Shanghai people speak a language that is not even in the same language sub-grouping as Mandarin. It belongs to the the Wu classification of language families, which is related to but distinct from other languages of southern Jiangsu / northern Zhejiang province such as the dialects of Suzhou and Hangzhou. Also, in Singapore I don’t believe many ethnic Chinese speak Mandarin at home. If anything its more likely to be Hokkien. Mandarin is not indigenous to Taiwan either, although it enjoys the same status as “official language” as on the mainland. The “native” language of Taiwan, “Taiwanese” is in the Min language family, and is related to the dialects of Fujian Province, which lies across the Taiwan Strait.

I would say that within the languages of China that are even vaguely related to Mandarin (i.e., excluding Ural-Altaic languages) they collectively have no more in common than the languages of Europe. So in a way the phrase “the Chinese language” is no more meaningful than “the European language.”

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