Why is a definition of Chinese so elusive? For starters, China has over 50 different cultural groupings, which together constitute over a fifth of mankind. It is not so strange that China has 50 languages when view from this vantage point. To get the same population one really needs not one continent but two; if you combine the total population of every country in Europe, including Russia, and North America you get just over Chinas total population count and about 80% of Chinas linguistic complexity as these countries, combined, are home to only about 40 official languages. Linguistically, it is therefore the case that China is not a country, Chinas languages make up two major continents.
But lets get specific. After all, people do study Chinese. What most people refer to when they talk about speaking Chinese or learning Chinese is what is today known as Standard Mandarin. Standard Mandarin is the most common language in China, which kind of makes it a winner for the candidacy of the title Chinese though this is not strictly correct. For most Chinese people standard mandarin is not their native language. It is the second language that they learn, and this has far from always been the case.
The complicated linguistic mark up of The Middle Kingdom is a phenomenal heritage from Chinas 5000 years of history. For most of this time China has been involved in some kind of civil war, or at least been more of a loosely federated empire than a distinct nation state. The China of today is fairly recent thing that has only come about as a result of the world getting smaller. As mentioned, China really is more a large continent than a country and this fact made it centrally ungovernable until the communication and logistical technology of the last century changed the nature of the game.
For the last hundred years, or in other words, for the last 2 percent of Chinas history, there has been a far reaching streamlining process inherit in all general cultural trends and for the last fifty years, the trend has been both artificially enforced and explicit. Today every school kid learns Standard Mandarin from an early age and it is encouraged in most large domestic workplaces as the language of choice. The central government has created a new status quo that has only one lingua franca.
The benefits of this are obvious. For a country to share a currency, one seat of governance but not a mode of communication is like a railway system sharing the same types of trains but having different track widths. It is a major obstacle to trade, development and crucially, a stable and harmonious society. One people need one language to function as such.
What does all this mean for you? As a language student and a language school employee I often get questions about what Chinese really means in China. I tend at these times to give a briefer account of the above history lesson and then finish with what the reality of the situation is. For language students all this is simply put in one word: great.
Firstly, Standard Mandarin is much easier to learn than for example Cantonese, which is probably why the central government picked it as a lingua franca in the first place. Secondly, it makes learning Mandarin extremely beneficial. For all of the educational reform in China that gears the education towards a more globalised approach Chinas general grasp of English is still very much lacking. This makes a bilingual person almost unique on the labor market. Thrown in a western college education and your CV can pretty much be put on Wikipedia as an example of E-M-P-L-O-Y-A-B-I-L-I-T-Y. I am pretty fluent in the areas that I work in and I would say that I if am not under a full-scale siege from employers, I am at least the object of constant flanking artillery fire. The definition of Chinese is complicated; the benefits of proficiency are obvious.
Rui Ming works for a Mandarin academy that is a great option for those that want to learn Chinese. If you are interested in more information about learning Chinese in China, please consult the website of Beijing Gateway Academy.