Chinese: A Linguistic Introduction

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Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language in the world, and has a rich social, cultural and historical background. This 2006 book is a comprehensive guide to the linguistic structure of Chinese, providing an accessible introduction to each of the key areas. It describes the fundamentals of its writing system, its pronunciation and tonal sound system, its morphology (how words are structured), and its syntax (how sentences are formed) - as well as its historical development, and the diverse ways in which it interacts with other languages. Setting the discussion of all aspects of Chinese firmly within the context of the language in use, Chinese: A Linguistic Introduction will be of great benefit to learners wishing to extend their knowledge and competence in the language, and their teachers. It will also be a useful starting point for students of linguistics beginning work on the structure of this major world language.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521823807
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 8/31/2006
  • Series: Linguistic Introductions Series
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Chaofen Sun is Associate Professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian Languages, Stanford University.

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Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-82380-7 - Chinese: A Linguistic Introduction - by Chaofen Sun


The phonetic transcriptions used in this book for Mandarin data are the officially adopted hànyŭ pīnyīn spelling used in China. The data from various Chinese dialects are transcribed in the International Phonetic Alphabet adopted by the International Phonetic Association (see Appendix 1).

1    China and Chinese in the world

For centuries China stood as the most powerful country in Asia with a splendid civilization, outpacing the rest of the world in many ways. With the longest unbroken line of recorded history, its extant literature has lasted for more than three millennia, with a legacy extending back to 1500 BCE and with many outstanding Chinese scholars in science, philosophy, literature, and many other fields that continue to influence the modern world. However, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, China was devastated by a series of foreign invasions, famines, and internal turmoils that prevented it from keeping pace with the rapid developments in science and technology and caused it to lag behind the industrialized world in many aspects. It was not until 1979, when Chinese leaders decided to reopen China’s doors to the outside world and to convert its state-planned economy into a market-oriented one, that China’s national economy started to develop atone of the world’s fastest growth rates. After more than twenty years of sustained development, China is now the fourth-largest trading nation and has the second-largest foreign reserves in the world.1 Its major trading partners include the United States, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and many other European Union members. In fact, it has been claimed that, measured on a purchasing-power parity basis, China currently stands as the second-largest economy in the world after the United States.2

   As the world is becoming more and more integrated, contacts between China and the rest of the world have also become common. During the last ten years of the twentieth century, China actually sent more international students than any other country in the world to study in the United States. In recent years, many people, particularly overseas Chinese, have moved to live and build up their careers in the People’s Republic of China.

   The population in China alone accounts for about 1.3 billion,3 approximately one-fifth of the total population of the human race. With such a high percentage of the human race growing up speaking different varieties of the language as their first language, Chinese is indisputably one of the most commonly used languages in the world.

   Against such a background, interest in the Chinese language has grown rapidly outside China. Over the last decade, many colleges in the United States saw the number of students enrolled in their Chinese-language classes double, or in some cases triple. It has been reported4 that, accompanying China’s becoming an official member of the World Trade Organization in 2003, the total number of non-Chinese students who were studying Chinese outside the People’s Republic of China reached 25 million. In the same year, there was a great shortage of qualified Chinese-language instructors in the People’s Republic to teach some 50,000 foreign students who had traveled to China to study Chinese.

2    China

China is a unitary multinational state which officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups including Han, Zhuang, Uygur, Hui, Yi, Tibetan, Miao, Manchu, Mongol, Buyi, and Korean. Chinese, or zhōngguórén□, is used to refer to all citizens the People’s Republic of China regardless of ethnic nationality. Apart from the Han majority, the non-Han Chinese, with a total of more than 96.5 million people, constitute roughly 8% of the total population in the People’s Republic. Small as the percentage may appear, they nevertheless inhabit nearly 60% of the land mass of the nation. Nearly all the ethnic groups have spoken languages of their own, and twenty-three have written languages of their own (Map 1 is a linguistic map of China). In the south are the Tai-speaking Zhuang people; in southwest China reside the Tibeto-Burman speakers like Tibetans, Yi, etc; in the northwest corner live the Turkic branch Altaic speakers like Uygurs and Kazakhs; in the north are Altaic speakers like Mongols, Koreans, etc. With a population larger than 15 million, Zhuang is, next to Han, the largest ethnic group in China. However, there are eighteen

Map 1

Image not available in HTML version

other ethnic groups with a population larger than a million, including Manchu, Hui, Miao, Uygur, Tibetan, Mongolian, Korean and Kazakh. Another fifteen ethnic groups have a population larger than 100,000. The rest are smaller (Zhou 2003).

   The territory of China currently occupies an area of about 9,600,000 square kilometers in East Asia, a country that is geographically almost as big as the United States or only 700,000 square kilometers smaller than the entirety of Europe. After the 1911 Revolution when the Qing Empire fell after a popular revolt led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist Party, the new Republic was then known as zhōnghuá míngguó □ “Republic of China.” Later, in 1949, the Nationalists under the leadership of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, lost the civil war and control of most of China to the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong, and the name of the country was changed into zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó □ “the People’s Republic of China.” Nowadays, the Republic of China has jurisdiction over the island of Taiwan where the Nationalist government continued to rule after its defeat in the mainland in 1949. However, in spite of the differences in official names, the Chinese people in modern times most commonly identify China in Chinese with the shortened form zhōngguó □, that is composed of the first and last syllables of the two official names of modern China.

   In Chinese history, the country was most commonly referred to in Chinese by the name of its ruling empire such as dàqīngguó □ “the Qing Empire” (1644–1911 CE). Even the English name of the country, i.e., China, may be phonetically related to the sounds of the name of the powerful Qin dynasty (221–207 BCE), which defeated various warring states and established the first Chinese empire with a highly centralized government. However, after the 1911 Revolution, the country was commonly referred to as zhōngguó. Furthermore, the Chinese people have used zhōngguó □ to denote the area where the natives accept and carry on the Chinese civilization for a very long time, although sinologists sometimes translate zhōngguó into English literally as Middle Kingdom or sometimes Central States. In isolation, the two syllables, zhōng □ and guó □, that make up the short name actually carry the meanings “middle” or “central” for zhōng and “country” or “state” for guó separately. But the notion of Central States implies multiple entities, whereas Middle Kingdom refers to one country. As early as the Chunqiu period (770–476 BCE),5 zhōng-guó, refers to a geographical area with many warring states and, therefore, Central States is an appropriate translation for the land at that time. For example, in (1) zhōngguó was already in use referring to an area contrasting with yídí □ “foreign countries” in a document written over two millennia ago.

(1) □□□□□□□□□
Huán gōng jiù zhōngguóér rǎng yí-dí(□□□:□□)
Name duke save central-states and resist foreign-foreign
“Duke Huan saved the central states and resisted the foreign

   Therefore, at that time, zhōngguó was already used as a term to distinguish the states that embraced Chinese civilization from those that did not. However, after all the warring states were unified by the Qin dynasty (221–207 BCE) under one central government, the term zhōngguó, from its former sense, a central area occupied by a number of states, naturally developed into a noun for the unified country. This happened as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). In example (2), zhōngguó clearly refers to the entire Han empire. Therefore, it makes sense to translate it as “Middle Kingdom.”

(2) □□□□□□□□□□□□□□
tiān-xiàmíng shān bā ér sān zài mán-yí
sky-down noted mountain eight and three in foreign-foreign
wŭ zài zhōng-guó □(□□□)
five in central-state
“There are eight famous mountains in
the world. Three are in foreign countries, and five in the Middle Kingdom.”

From these examples we can see that the Chinese name for China, zhōngguó, originally refers to a number of states situated roughly along the Yellow River in North China that defines the limits of Chinese civilization and later becomes a noun designating the unified empire. In modern times, when serving as a short name for China, the meanings of “central,” or “middle” in this lexical item are completely lost.6

3   Chinese

Chinese, as a language name in English, refers to the Sinitic subgroup of Sino-Tibetan languages in Asia. But it can be translated into various Chinese nouns for the language encompassing many different ideas depending on the context. First of all, Chinese can be translated as zhōngwén □ generally referring to the language. Zhōngwén □ is also the right term to use for the academic discipline in studying Chinese language and literature, such as zhōngwénxì □ for the Chinese department in a university setting. Second, the term hànyŭ □ “Han language” is used in the context contrasting the languages spoken by the Han nationality that makes up 92% of the 1.3 billion Chinese citizens of the People’s Republic with all of the non-Han languages spoken in China and the rest of the world. Therefore, foreign students who are now learning Chinese are said to be learning hànyŭ □. Third, as hànyŭ is a general term for the languages, many of which are mutually unintelligible among speakers of different varieties of Han language, it by default refers to the standard dialect of the country that is known as pŭtōnghuà □ literally meaning “common language” in the People’s Republic. Pŭtōnghuà is a constructed norm based upon the language, a variety of Northern Chinese, spoken in the capital city, Beijing. Moreover, Chinese corresponds to a number of Chinese equivalents depending on the given speech community. In Singapore, an important Chinese-speaking community, as well as in the other Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, Chinese is known as huáyŭ □□ “Hua-language,” as Huá is another Chinese name for the Han-Chinese. In Taiwan, for historical reasons, standard Chinese is known as guóyŭ □, literally “national language.” Different as huáyŭ □ and guóyŭ □ may appear, the standard is practically the same as pŭtōnghuà. Mandarin referring to Northern Chinese in English originated from the fact that the Mandarin officials of the Qing Empire spoke to each other in that language. Fourth, “Chinese” also refers to different Chinese dialects, or hànfāngyán □, but does not include any of the non-Han-Chinese languages spoken by ethnic minorities in China.

   An extraordinary phenomenon for the Han-Chinese is the lack of mutual intelligibility among people within the same ethnic group. A Chinese person from Beijing who has grown up speaking the most prestigious dialect of the nation cannot speak or understand the local languages in the south, or the so-called Southern Chinese dialects, such as those used in the streets of Shanghai or Hong Kong. Traditionally, Han-Chinese is divided into seven major dialect groups, Mandarin (or beifanghua Northern Chinese), Wu, Xiang, Gan, Kejia (Hakka), Yue (Cantonese), and Min.7 Among the Han-Chinese, Northern Chinese speakers comprise 70% (840 million), Wu 8.5% (102 million), Yue 5.5% (66 million), Min 4.5% (54 million), Kejia 4% (48 million), Gan 2.5% (30 million), and Xiang 5% (60 million).8 In spite of sharing a large number of cognates, or words of common origin, Chinese dialects vary most strikingly in their sound systems. All Chinese dialects have tones with different pitch contours for each syllable (for details see chapter 2). Table 1 shows the tonal variations of different dialects as given in hànyŭ fāngyīn zìhuì “A list of words with dialectal pronunciations” (Chinese Department, Beijing University 1989).

Table 1 Tonal variation in Chinese dialects. 55, 35, 214, etc. are tonal values. For a more detailed description please refer to section 2.4.

Dialect City Tones (with tonal values)

Mandarin Beijing four tones: 55, 35, 214, 51
Wu Suzhou seven tones: 44, 24, 52, 412, 31, 4, 23
Xiang Changsha six tones: 33, 13, 41, 55, 21, 24
Gan Nanchang seven tones: 42, 24, 213, 45, 21, 5, 21
Kejia Meixian six tones: 44, 11, 31, 52, 1, 5
Yue Guangzhou nine tones: 55, 21, 35, 23, 33, 22, 5, 22, 2
Min Xiamen seven tones: 55, 24, 51, 11, 33, 32, 5

Table 2 Pronunciation of some Chinese cognates in different dialects.

City □ “mouth” □ “gold” □ “male” □ “province”

Beijing kou jin nan sheng
Suzhou k’□ t□in ∗sən/sa□
Changsha kəu t□in lan sən
Nanchang k’iɛu t□in lan ∗sɛn/sa□
Meixian ∗k’ɛu/hɛu kim nam ∗sɛn/sa□
Guangzhou h□u k□m nam □a□
Xiamen ∗k’□/k’au kim lam s□□

∗ The first of the pair represents literary pronunciation, wéndú, and the second colloquial pronunciation, báidú.

The examples in Table 2 show the diversified pronunciation of cognates for mouth, gold, male, and province in different Chinese dialects (Chinese Department, Beijing University 1989).

   The seven major Chinese dialect groups are actually like many European languages that are members of the Indo-European language group but are mutually unintelligible. However, unlike Europeans, the inability to understand each other’s speech has not made Chinese speakers feel any less Chinese, regardless of the variety of language they grew up speaking. Norman (1988: 1) observes that:

The explanation is to be found in the profound unity of Chinese culture that has been transmitted in an unbroken line beginning from the third millennium BC and continuing down to the present day. Even in periods of political disunity at various times in the past, the ideal of a single, culturally unified Chinese empire has never been forgotten. The Chinese language, especially in its written form, has always been one of the most powerful symbols of this cultural unity.

Unlike European languages, the writings of which are alphabetical and bear a direct relationship to the speech sounds in the given language, Chinese writing adopts a logographic system with characters that are partially morpho-syllabic (see Chapter 4).9 Although Chinese speakers from different parts of the country may not be able to carry out a meaningful conversation in their own spoken language, they can easily communicate in writing, which creates a common, solidifying, and profound cultural bond among all Chinese dialect speakers.

   This connection is made possible by the fact that the grammar of written Chinese generally follows the grammar of standard Chinese pŭtōnghuà without incorporating into it too many regional dialectal features. All Han-Chinese children, particularly those growing up in dialect-speaking areas, must learn to write in this literary language in school. Fortunately, in spite of some minor structural variations, the syntactic structures in pŭtōnghuà and the various dialects do not differ substantially, thus making learning less onerous for dialect-speaking children. Their primary task in learning pŭtōnghuà is to a large extent simply to master the sound system of the national standard. For example, other than the differences in speech sounds, the most conspicuous difference between two sentences in pŭtōnghuà and Cantonese, or a Yue dialect, is perhaps the perfective marker (glossed as PFV in (3), le versus zo, that may not share a common origin.

(3) pŭtōnghuà: □□□□□
    wŏ măi le yỉ-běn shū
1st buy PFV a-CL book
“I have bought a book.”
  Cantonese: □□□□□
    ηo mai zo jat-pun Sy
I buy PFV a-CL book
“I have bought a book.”

Of course, these similarities do not mean that learning the grammar of standard Chinese is completely effortless for dialect-speaking Chinese children. Dialectal variations among the Chinese dialects go beyond speech sounds and vocabularies and definitely reach sentence grammar. For example, in (4) the adverb xiān “first” goes before the verb in pŭtōnghuà but the adverb Sin with a similar function in Cantonese takes the sentence-final position.

(4) pŭtōnghuà: □□□
    wŏxiān qù
I first
go “Igo first.”
  Cantonese: □□□
    η o haηSin
I go first
“I go first.”

It is highly possible for a Cantonese speaker to learn to say something with the correct pŭtōnghuà pronunciation, but with the Cantonese sentence grammar like wŏ qù xiān “I go first.” In this case, even though the sentence may sound very odd to a Northern Chinese speaker, the chance for her/him to comprehend the sentence is still good. However, in the school setting, the wrong word order in syntax would still be considered incorrect and not tolerated by the teachers. In most cases, children growing up in a Cantonese-speaking area would be taught to avoid speaking pŭtōnghuà and writing formally in this kind of ungrammatical manner.

   Standard Chinese, or pŭtōnghuà, is generally considered to be the most prestigious variety of the Chinese language all over the country, perhaps only with the exception of Hong Kong, which is located in the Yue-speaking area. For example, whereas in the city of Shanghai, which is located in the Wu-speaking area, the language that is most commonly used in schools is pŭtōnghuà, it is not so in Hong Kong as its sovereignty was not returned to the Chinese authorities until 1997. During the 150 years of colonial rule under the United Kingdom, English was considered the primary language of the colony even though the majority of the people living in the colony could not speak this language. Compared to Hong Kong, Guangzhou (Canton), another city located in the Yue-speaking area which was never placed under British rule, has a profile in which English is hardly used at all in any sociolinguistic domain. It seems that even though pŭtōnghuà is most prestigious in the two Southern-dialect-speaking cities, Shanghai and Guangzhou, English is still the language that enjoys the highest prestige in Hong Kong as English still figures most importantly in legal, governmental, and educational sectors,

Table 3 A comparison of the languages used in the speech communities in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Guangzhou. This is a translation of Zou and You ‘s (2001: 91–92) Table 2.1.4. The original is written completely in Chinese. I have made some minor modifications in light of social changes since 1997.

Domain Hong Kong Shanghai Guangzhou

Family Cantonese Shanghainese Cantonese
Media Cantonese Pŭtōnghuà Pŭtōnghuà/Cantonese
Official meetings Cantonese/English Pŭtōnghuà Pŭtōnghuà
Official reports Cantonese/English Pŭtōnghuà Pŭtōnghuà
Chatting Cantonese Shanghainese Cantonese
Shopping Cantonese Shanghainese Cantonese
Newspapers Pŭtōnghuà Pŭtōnghuà Pŭtōnghuà
Campus language Cantonese/English Pŭtōnghuà Pŭtōnghuà/Cantonese
Airports/stations Cantonese/English Pŭtōnghuà Cantonese/Pŭtōnghuà
Court English Pŭtōnghuà Pŭtōnghuà
Police Cantonese Shanghainese Cantonese
Public transport Cantonese Shanghainese Cantonese
Restaurants Cantonese Shanghainese Cantonese
Local operas Cantonese Shanghainese Cantonese

a phenomenon that can be considered a colonial legacy. Table 3 is taken with some minor modifications from Zou and You (2001), outlining different functions that standard Chinese, local dialects, and English serve for the 98% of Hong Kong residents who are ethnic Chinese as compared to the Chinese in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

   The characterization of the languages used in different social domains also shows that, within the three cities under scrutiny, standard Chinese is most widely used in the city of Shanghai and least used in the city of Hong Kong. As Cantonese is perhaps the most developed variety of Southern dialects, the linguistic situations in the cities located in Southern dialect areas vary between those in Guangzhou and Shanghai.

4  Readership

To a certain extent, this book is shaped by my previous students who were eager to find out how Chinese flourishes within the context of Chinese civilization, how its writing system evolved over time, how it interacts with the different languages surrounding it, what make up Chinese, what the fundamentals of its grammar are, etc. There are two groups of people to whom this book is addressed. The first group is Chinese-language teachers and specialists in different fields of Chinese studies. There are already a number of textbooks and good descriptions of the Chinese language in English in various areas of Chinese linguistics. However, there is not a book written in English with an overview of the structure of the language at the introductory level for students who are not necessarily linguistic majors but need to have a good knowledge of the language in order to conduct research in a given field. Furthermore, most students who have no previous linguistic background may find many available books either too specialized as an introduction, or too limited in scope of coverage. This then is a book written mainly for English speakers about Chinese as a foreign linguistic system. Various aspects of the language covered in this book are shaped by my experience in teaching such an introductory course at Stanford University. In short, this book should be of interest to students and teachers of Chinese who want to acquire a good knowledge about it in general or simply to be sophisticated learners of the language.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. Historical background; 2. Phonetics of standard Chinese; 3. Morphology 1; 4. Morphology 2; 5. Chinese writing; 6. Chinese language and culture; 7. Chinese syntax 1; 8. Chinese syntax 2.

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