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Both spoken Chinese and the written language are dramatically different from Western languages. The Chinese language has many widely divergent dialects but one system of writing used by all. The spoken Chinese dialects are, in many cases, distinctive enough to be classified as separate languages since they are mutually unintelligible. These dialects include:
- The “common speech” (putonghua) or Mandarin. This language (based on the Beijing dialect) predominates in the north and in Taiwan.
- Cantonese (yue). This language is spoken in the southwestern part of China (and in most Chinatowns in the United States).
- Xiang dialect. This is spoken in central China.
- Wu dialect. This is spoken in the lower Yangce delta and in the vicinity of Shanghai.
- Fujianese and Amoy dialects. These are spoken along the east central coast.
- Hakka dialect. This and several minor dialects are limited to linguistic enclaves in areas of south China.
All the Chinese dialects share a common written language. Chinese is the only major modern language written exclusive in non-phonetic characters. The written language is based on thousands of characters, fairly uniform in meaning but read differently in the various areas of China. In the People’s Republic there have been efforts to simplify the characters. While literacy is growing on one hand, the capabilities of the population in the old language are declining rapidly on the other.
There are various ways of representing Chinese phonetically. During the Republican period, a phonetic system was devised but was used only in teaching children the pronunciation of Chinese characters. There are two major systems for representing Chinese in the Roman alphabet. One is the Wade-Giles romanization system used by many libraries. The People’s Republic now uses and promotes the pinyin romanization. There are many other romanization systems. Some are based on particular dialects, other are simply created as needed. These various systems account for the multiple English spellings of many Chinese words and placenames. This records profile uses the pinyin romanization.
Record keeping is done principally in Chinese writing but some documents are in Mongolian, Manchu, and occasionally in a minority language. Records in Hong Kong and Macau may be in English and Portuguese, but most are written in Chinese. Many of China’s national minorities have distinct languages. Some of these use the Chinese writing system.
For word list and help researching in Chinese records, see:
- The Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Family History Record Profile: China,” Word document, private files of the FamilySearch Content Strategy Team, 1997.