Chinese native speakers are over 1.2 billion! Mandarin is the official language of China. (It’s also referred to as Standard Chinese or Putonghua.) But that doesn’t mean Mandarin is the only language in China. Far from it! While the many varieties of spoken Chinese are often called “dialects,” many of them are different enough to be languages in their own right. When you look at all of the Chinese languages together, the number of speakers becomes even more staggering: about 1.2 billion native speakers, or around 16% of the world’s population.
For centuries China stood as a leading civilization, outpacing the rest of the world in the arts and sciences, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the country was beset by civil unrest, major famines, military defeats, and foreign occupation. After World War II, the communists under MAO Zedong established an autocratic socialist system that, while ensuring China’s sovereignty, imposed strict controls over everyday life and cost the lives of tens of millions of people. After 1978, MAO’s successor DENG Xiaoping and other leaders focused on market- oriented economic development and by 2000 output had quadrupled. For much of the population, living standards have improved dramatically and the room for personal choice has expanded, yet political controls remain tight. Since the early 1990s, China has increased its global outreach and participation in international organizations.
Since the late 1970s China has moved from a closed, centrally planned system to a more market-oriented one that plays a major global role—in 2010 China became the world’s largest exporter. Reforms began with the phasing out of collectivized agriculture, and expanded to include the gradual liberalization of prices, fiscal decentralization, increased autonomy for state enterprises, growth of the private sector, development of stock markets and a modern banking system, and opening to foreign trade and investment. China has implemented reforms in a gradualist fashion. In recent years, China has renewed its support for state-owned enterprises in sectors considered important to “economic security,” explicitly looking to foster globally competitive industries. After keeping its currency tightly linked to the US dollar for years, in July 2005 China moved to an exchange rate system that references a basket of currencies. From mid 2005 to late 2008 cumulative appreciation of the renminbi against the US dollar was more than 20%, but the exchange rate remained virtually pegged to the dollar from the onset of the global financial crisis until June 2010, when Beijing allowed resumption of a gradual appreciation and expanded the daily trading band within which the RMB is permitted to fluctuate. The restructuring of the economy and resulting efficiency gains have contributed to a more than tenfold increase in GDP since 1978. Measured on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis that adjusts for price differences, China in 2013 stood as the second-largest economy in the world after the US, having surpassed Japan in 2001. The dollar values of China’s agricultural and industrial output each exceed those of the US; China is second to the US in the value of services it produces. Still, per capita income is below the world average. The Chinese government faces numerous economic challenges, including: (a) reducing its high domestic savings rate and correspondingly low domestic consumption; (b) facilitating higher-wage job opportunities for the aspiring middle class, including rural migrants and increasing numbers of college graduates; (c) reducing corruption and other economic crimes; and (d) containing environmental damage and social strife related to the economy’s rapid transformation. Economic development has progressed further in coastal provinces than in the interior, and by 2011 more than 250 million migrant workers and their dependents had relocated to urban areas to find work. One consequence of population control policy is that China is now one of the most rapidly aging countries in the world. Deterioration in the environment—notably air pollution, soil erosion, and the steady fall of the water table, especially in the North—is another long-term problem. China continues to lose arable land because of erosion and economic development. The Chinese government is seeking to add energy production capacity from sources other than coal and oil, focusing on nuclear and alternative energy development. Several factors are converging to slow China’s growth, including debt overhang from its credit-fueled stimulus program, industrial overcapacity, inefficient allocation of capital by state-owned banks, and the slow recovery of China’s trading partners. The government’s 12th Five-Year Plan, adopted in March 2011 and reiterated at the Communist Party’s “Third Plenum” meeting in November 2013, emphasizes continued economic reforms and the need to increase domestic consumption in order to make the economy less dependent in the future on fixed investments, exports, and heavy industry. However, China has made only marginal progress toward these rebalancing goals. The new government of President XI Jinping has signaled a greater willingness to undertake reforms that focus on China’s long-term economic health, including giving the market a more decisive role in allocating resources.
Continuing talks and confidence-building measures work toward reducing tensions over Kashmir that nonetheless remains militarized with portions under the de facto administration of China (Aksai Chin), India (Jammu and Kashmir), and Pakistan (Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas); India does not recognize Pakistan’s ceding historic Kashmir lands to China in 1964; China and India continue their security and foreign policy dialogue started in 2005 related to the dispute over most of their rugged, militarized boundary, regional nuclear proliferation, and other matters; China claims most of India’s Arunachal Pradesh to the base of the Himalayas; lacking any treaty describing the boundary, Bhutan and China continue negotiations to establish a common boundary alignment to resolve territorial disputes arising from substantial cartographic discrepancies, the largest of which lie in Bhutan’s northwest and along the Chumbi salient; Burmese forces attempting to dig in to the largely autonomous Shan State to rout local militias tied to the drug trade, prompts local residents to periodically flee into neighboring Yunnan Province in China; Chinese maps show an international boundary symbol off the coasts of the littoral states of the South China Seas, where China has interrupted. Vietnamese hydrocarbon exploration; China asserts sovereignty over Scarborough Reef along with the Philippines and Taiwan, and over the Spratly Islands together with Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Brunei; the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea eased tensions in the Spratlys but is not the legally binding code of conduct sought by some parties; Vietnam and China continue to expand construction of facilities in the Spratlys and in March 2005, the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam signed a joint accord on marine seismic activities in the Spratly Islands; China occupies some of the Paracel Islands also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan; China and Taiwan continue to reject both Japan’s claims to the uninhabited islands of Senkaku-shoto (Diaoyu Tai) and Japan’s unilaterally declared equidistance line in the East China Sea, the site of intensive hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation; certain islands in the Yalu and Tumen rivers are in dispute with North Korea; North Korea and China seek to stem illegal migration to China by North Koreans, fleeing privations and oppression, by building a fence along portions of the border and imprisoning North Koreans deported by China; China and Russia have demarcated the once disputed islands at the Amur and Ussuri confluence and in the Argun River in accordance with their 2004 Agreement; China and Tajikistan have begun demarcating the revised boundary agreed to in the delimitation of 2002; the decade-long demarcation of the China- Vietnam land boundary was completed in 2009; citing environmental, cultural, and social concerns, China has reconsidered construction of 13 dams on the Salween River, but energy- starved Burma, with backing from Thailand, remains intent on building five hydro-electric dams downstream despite regional and international protests; Chinese and Hong Kong authorities met in March 2008 to resolve ownership and use of lands recovered in Shenzhen River channelization, including 96-hectare Lok Ma Chau Loop; Hong Kong developing plans to reduce 2,000 out of 2,800 hectares of its restricted Closed Area by 2010.
(End of text/excerpt from the CIA World FactBook. You can download the book via a CIA-post on our frontpage.)
Chinese writing has over 50,000 characters.
That said, only about 20,000 of them are used today. Meanwhile, it only takes about 2-3,000 characters to read a newspaper. Most Chinese adults can recognise around 8,000 characters without pulling out a dictionary.
Written Chinese is over 3,000 years old.
The oldest Chinese characters that have been found to date are fragments of characters carved into animal bones and turtle shells from the Shang Dynasty. These bones are called “oracle bones,” and they were used for divination. Soothsayers carved questions into the bones and then burnt them until they cracked. The pattern of the cracks was believed to indicate the answer.
Simplified Chinese is used in mainland China and Singapore.
Simplified Chinese was developed by the Chinese government in the 1950s to encourage literacy. However, Hong Kong never quite got with the program. They still use the more complicated traditional Chinese character set. Otherwise, formal written Cantonese is quite similar to written Mandarin. However, there may also be some differences in grammar and vocabulary if the document in question is written in informal, colloquial Cantonese.
Linguists classify all varieties of Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, together with Burmese, Tibetan and many other languages spoken in the Himalayas and the Southeast Asian Massif.
Chinese Language Learning Pack (Updated).
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