Aside from being hailed as the most populated country and one of the largest countries in the world, China is also very well-known as the land of many languages and dialects. As listed by Ethnologue, China has almost 300 living languages and local dialects.
Originally, Chinese language is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family and is believed to be from the “Proto-Sino-Tibetan”.
From 221 B.C. when China grew into a nation state until in 1912 during the end of its last imperial dynasty, China never had introduced a common national language. Before Mandarin came to life, China already embodied a wide variety of dialects. The Rhyme books written during the Southern and Northern Dynasties, Confucius using yǎyán (雅言), or “elegant speech”, rather than colloquial regional dialects and Han Dynasty text called tōngyǔ (通語), or “common language” were evidences of the variations. Perhaps, pronunciations were also distinctive among the most educated people. The only thing that was common and unify the Chinese language of old times was there written language. The present Chinese language varieties developed out of the different ways in which dialects of Old Chinese and Middle Chinese evolved. “Old Chinese” was common during the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC – 256 BC) while “Middle Chinese” was during Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties (6th – 10th centuries).
In 1368 to 1912, officials of the two famous dynasties, Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), varied widely in their pronunciation. During the reign of these dynasties was also the start of Guānhuà (官話), or “official speech”. Guānhuà refers to the speech used at the courts. Historically, and properly speaking, the term “Mandarin” (官話) denotes to the language spoken in the 19th century by the upper classes of Beijing as well as by the higher civil servants and military officers of the imperial regime serving in Beijing or in the provinces. “Mandarin” is an English term also from Portuguese, meaning official of the Chinese empire. As their home dialects were varied and often mutually unintelligible, these officials communicated using a koiné based on various northern dialects. When Jesuit missionaries learned this standard language in the 16th century, they called it Mandarin, from its Chinese name Guānhuà(官话/官話), or “language of the officials”.
When Beijing became the Capital of China in lieu to Nanjing in the latter part of Ming Dynasty until the Qing Dynasty, Nanjing dialect was the basis for standards. Later in 20th century, the position of Nanjing Mandarin was considered higher than that of Beijing by some and the Chinese Postal Map Romanization standards set in 1906 included spellings with elements of Nanjing pronunciation. Yet, by 1909, the falling Qing Dynasty had recognized the Beijing dialect as Guóyǔ (国语/國語), or the “national language”. Guóyǔ is the other name of Mandarin.
The Republic of China was established in 1912. This growth also initiated a more successful campaign in having a common national language. In February 1913, the Republic of China (中華民國) organized a “Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation” (讀音統一會) in Beijing in order to foster a phonetic system and national language for China. After years of widespread research and debate, the Commission adopted the Zhuyin alphabet as China’s official alphabet in 1918. The Commission then turned to the task of standardizing the language that the new Zhuyin alphabet would represent. In 1920, the Commission published a Dictionary of National Pronunciation (國音字典) that adopted a modification of Beijing’s phonology. Mandarin was not modelled after the actual speech of the majority of real Beijing residents, but rather the way a hypothetical educated Beijing person would speak, as imagined by Mandarin’s creators. After much heated discussions between proponents of northern and southern dialects and an abortive attempt at an artificial pronunciation, the National Language Unification Commission finally settled on the Beijing dialect in 1932. The government of the People’s Republic of China, established in 1949, continued the effort. In 1955, Guóyǔ was changed to Pǔtōnghuà (普通話), or “common speech”.
In 1982, the People’s Republic of China (中華人民共和國) amended their constitution making Mandarin the official language of China.
As Mandarin was established officially in 1932, the proponent’s aim was to make it as the bind for unification in language of the Chinese people after a century. At present, approximately 70% of Chinese people speak Mandarin fluently.