Are you planning on doing business with a Chinese-speaking region? Then you need to be aware that there’s no ‘one size fits all’, both in terms of spoken and written language. Let’s dive into the Chinese language basics once again.

Chinese comes in different shapes. Which variant of Chinese you need for your translations will totally depend on the region you are targeting. Quick tip: if you are focusing on mainland China, then you’ll need the Simplified Chinese character set. If you address another region, then get ready for a meatier explanation.

But first things first. As you have gathered from the intro, there are spoken and written variants of Chinese.

Spoken variants of Chinese

Mandarin (also called Putonghua) is the most spoken variant of Chinese, spoken by roughly one billion people. Mandarin is the sole official spoken language of China (the People's Republic of China). It is also the national language of Taiwan and one of the four official languages of Singapore.

In other regions of the country, other dialects are spoken, but Mandarin is widely understood. One of the best-known Chinese dialects is Cantonese. This is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and in southern parts of China.

Both Mandarin, Cantonese and other Chinese dialects use the same writing system, but as a spoken language, they are quite different. Speakers of these different dialects will not be able to understand each other. The fact that one character can be pronounced in different ways seems strange, but it is one of the absolute strengths of Chinese. Thanks to this, more than one billion people, who do not understand each other in spoken language, can successfully communicate through the same writing system. That is a very strong asset, especially in a centrally organized country of the size of China. 

Written variants of Chinese

The Chinese writing system is one of the oldest that is still being used. However, in an attempt to increase literacy, the Chinese government introduced a new writing system, called Simplified Chinese, in 1949. Simplified Chinese replaces around 2,000 characters from the traditional character set with versions that use fewer strokes and eliminate a number of variants. Simplified Chinese is officially used in mainland China and Singapore.

However, if you are doing business in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau, then you will be using the traditional Chinese, not simplified Chinese. The traditional character set uses the original, traditional characters.

Here’s the Chinese character for “country” in traditional and simplified Chinese.

So, what version of Chinese do you need where?

  • Mainland China and Singapore: China and Singapore are where you will hear Mandarin and where Simplified Chinese has official status.

  • Hong Kong: The Cantonese dialect is commonly spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and a few neighboring areas in Guangzhou. Hong Kong uses the traditional character set.

  • Taiwan: This region uses a variety of Mandarin Chinese together with the traditional character set.

Next time you want to publish or communicate in Chinese, ask yourself: “Who is my audience? What region do I target?” Then use this post or the picture below to get a quick answer.

Do you need a Chinese translation? We have a network of translation professionals for any written or spoken variant of Chinese. Contact us for a quote.