"Chinese" can refer to many different things, such as the spoken language of Hong Kong, or the written language of Beijing. The written language is quite old, tracing back to as early as the 14th century BCE. It has remained fairly consistent over all these years, and the current writing system has been in place since at least the late Han dynasty around 200 CE.
The spoken language, on the other hand, has undergone many changes over these same centuries, and it has developed quite independently and differently in different parts of what is now considered “Modern China.” Alongside the Chinese-speaking peoples were descendants of many other ancient tribes, and they spoke languages distant from “Chinese” by any definition. Yet, because of where they lived, they were often called “Chinese” because of the territory they occupied. Click here for a discussion of written Chinese.
Chinese (as spoken) is the largest member of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The other main branch, Tibeto-Burman, is still a subject of considerable scholarly study and debate, as the relationships between Chinese and Tibeto-Burman are not easily uncovered, and “unlike Chinese“ the other languages do not have much in the way of ancient writings that can be studied by linguists. Chinese speakers are referred to as “Sinophone,” a term analogous to “Anglophone.” It is taken from “Sinae,” a Latin term for ancient China.
About 20% of all the residents of Planet Earth speak Chinese natively.
Chinese comes in several sub-languages or dialects. The principal sub-group is Han Chinese, which today is spoken by over 90% of the population of the modern Chinese state. The language of the Han Chinese is called Hànyǔ, which is one of the common ways of saying “Chinese” in Chinese. The Han Chinese as a people are named after the Han dynasty, which started around 200 BCE and lasted for about 400 years. Under Han rule, the indigenous people of China were united into one ethnic (and political) family.
The spoken language of the Han Chinese itself subdivides into many regional dialects and accents. The most prominent groups are Mandarin (850 million), Wu (90 million), Min (70 million) and Cantonese (70 million). Speakers from the different groups are not intelligible one to the other, with the exception of some border dialects that may straddle two of the major types. All of these people will understand the written word in Chinese. The International Standards Organization considers Chinese to be a “macro language” with 13 sub languages.
The Beijing form of speaking Standard Mandarin 普通话 or 普通話 Pǔtōnghuà is the official language of the Peoples’ Republic of China. It is also the official language of the Republic of China, based on Taiwan. It is also the official standard for Singapore (one of four official tongues). And, as “Chinese,” it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
The PRC government has calculated (as of 2007) that 1.136 billion persons (86% of its population) are speakers of Chinese, and that 700 million of them (or 53% of the total population) can communicate in Standard Mandarin. Several China observers believe that the total population figures numbers are understated by approximately 200 to 300 million.