You've been working on your Chinese for a few years, and maybe you are pretty confident in your Chinese skills. Today, you finally decided to take your learning outside the classroom and visit an authentic Chinatown restaurant. "I'll even place my order in Chinese." You thought.
You confidently sit down at the table, when the waiter comes over and greets you with:
and proceeds to rattle off today's specials. You know he's speaking Chinese, but you cannot understand a thing! What gives?
普通话 (Pǔ tōng huà) - The Official Language of China
Turns out, the Chinese you've been learning is only one dialect of Chinese, although it is the most popular. Mandarin, or as it is called in China, Putonghua, is the sole official language of China. Other popular dialects include Shanghainese, Fujianese, and Cantonese, which was the example spoken by the waiter above. Many of these local language varieties are not mutually intelligible, meaning that even if you are fluent in Mandarin, you still cannot understand Shanghainese, or vice versa.
The word Putonghua itself breaks down to "普通 (Pǔ tōng)" which means "common," and "话 (huà)" which means language. Putonghua also goes by many other names, such as "国语 (Guó yǔ)" in Taiwan, or "华语 (Huá yǔ) in Singapore.
READ MORE: What is a Chinese Dialect?
The Origins of Putonghua
Due to its long history and vast geographic size, China has always been a country with many regional dialects, lacking one common language to unite the regions. It wasn't until the Ming Dynasty, when the court moved from Nanjing to Beijing, that what we know as Putonghua today became the official language of the government.
Interestingly, the word "Mandarin" was not developed until the later Qing Dynasty. "Mandarin" is a word that was phonetically borrowed from the Chinese word 满大人(Mǎn dà rén), the term used to refer to Chinese court officials.
More progress was made after the Republic of China was established in 1912, when National Language Commission was established to design and promote a national language. Due to its already prestigious status and common use in government, the Beijing dialect was selected as the base dialect for a standard national language.
Later, after the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the national government continued the effort, but officially renamed the national language to普通话 (Pǔ tōng huà).
Putonghua is the language of instruction in the Chinese school system, but even as recent as 2014, approximately 30% of the Chinese population do not speak Putonghua. People who do not speak Putonghua typically live in rural areas, belong to an ethnic minority tribe, and are generally older.
That's to say, if you are traveling throughout China, your Mandarin Chinese skills will be a lot more helpful in northern China than in the South, since the northern Beijing dialect is what Putonghua is based on. You will have better luck communicating with people in cities rather than rural areas, and with younger people rather than the older Chinese population
Putonghua with an Accent
As you advance in your Chinese studies, you will be able to start distinguishing different types of accents within Putonghua. For example, Beijing locals tend to add an "er" to the end of many nouns. One popular example is "门 (Mén) - door," which sounds like "门儿 (Méner)" in the Beijing accent.
If you watch a lot of Taiwanese TV dramas, you might just pick up the Taiwanese accent. When speaking with a Taiwanese accent, people tend to turn "sh, zh, ch" sounds into "s, z, c" sounds. The Taiwanese accent is very popular among girls, since it is typically associated with a cute and feminine image.