The most widespread form of Chinese is Mandarin, which may be regarded as modern standard Chinese. It has several dialects and is spoken as a first language by some 835 million people in central and N China, as well as Taiwan, claiming more native speakers than any other language. An additional 100 million speak it as a second language. Originally the language of the court at Beijing during the imperial period, Mandarin was then called kuan hua [official speech]. After the Nationalists seized control in 1911, the name was changed to kuo yü [national tongue]. The Communist government adopted and simplified the Beijing dialect of Mandarin as the basis for a national language, renaming it putonghua [generally understood speech]. Mandarin in its various forms is spoken by about 70% of the population of China. It is the official language of both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan and is employed as one of the official languages of the United Nations.
Other leading forms of Chinese include Wu, the tongue of about 65 million people in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provs.; Fukienese or Northern Min, with some 50 million speakers distributed in Fujian prov., Taiwan, and SE Asia; Cantonese or Yue, spoken by over 65 million persons residing in Guangxi and Guangdong provs., Hong Kong, SE Asia, and the United States; Hakka or Kejia, the language of about 35 million in Guangdong and Jiangxi provs.; and Amoy-Swatow or Southern Min, the mother tongue of 15 million living in Fujian and Guangdong provs., Taiwan, and the South Pacific.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.