China is a multi-nationality, multi-language country. In addition to Han group, Most of other 55 minority nationalities have their own languages and even some of them have their written language. The national language is Putonghua (the common speech) or Mandarin, which is one of the five working languages at the United Nations. It's helpful to learn simple Chinese before your China trip if you have time.
Putonghua is another word for Mandarin, the official dialect of China which is closely based on "northern speech", as spoken in Beijing. Chinese language is generally grouped into seven dialects. For example, Cantonese is one of the local dialects of southern China. As a written language, Chinese has been used for 6,000 years.
Han Character - According to legend, Chinese characters were invented by the historian Hanjie under China's founder Emperor Huang about 4500 years ago. Archeological research indicates that possible precursors of Chinese characters appeared as early as 8000 years ago and that Chinese characters formed a complete system of writing by about 3500 years ago. Among the writing systems in use at that time, only Chinese characters are still used.
The dominance of the written language has had significant effects on the development of the culture. In handwriting or in print, a piece of writing has visual appeal. This has given rise to the great respect that calligraphy enjoys in China, where it has been regarded for at least 16 centuries as a fine art comparable to painting (See Calligraphy).
The main disadvantage of written Chinese is the great number of characters it contains: Even basic reading and writing require a knowledge of more than 1,000 characters. This has often made it difficult to spread the skills of reading and writing into certain areas of the country. But even with this disadvantage, Chinese has been a potent factor in shaping and maintaining a cultural continuity for millions of people. Because the written characters tend to keep the language stable, Chinese never developed into distinctly separate languages as did Latin in southern Europe with the formation of the several Romance languages.
Pinyin - The pronunciation of a character. Unless you have already memorized the pronunciation, you cannot be sure of a character's pronunciation just by looking at it, but you can make an educated guess. Chinese characters do not have an alphabet, but they incorporate a rough syllabify. Whereas alphabets use symbols to represent each phoneme, syllabifies use symbols for each syllable. To do this in English, with its more than 8,000 different symbols, would be impossible. But in Chinese there are only about 1,250-1,300 different syllables, and only about 400 if the four tones are ignored. So theoretically it is possible to represent all Chinese sounds with just 400 characters and some tone markers. In practice most Chinese characters have two components, the "radical" which roughly classifies the meaning and a phonetic component which roughly represents the character "ping" which has identical pronunciation.
When a language has few syllable a syllabify has clear advantages over an alphabet. Children have less difficulty dividing words into syllables than into phonemes. (Many adult Chinese unfamiliar with alphabet –based writing systems have a very hard time writing even their own names in "pinyin" since it requires phoneme –by –phoneme dissection of the syllables.) And syllabifies allow for quick reading because the symbols can be made quite distinct from each other rather than being just letters in different combinations arranged in a line. Perhaps the ideal writing system for Chinese would have a syllabify of four hundred different characters, based on the current system of about one thousand, and a set of about two hundred different classifiers based on the current 214 "bushou"。All Chinese characters would then be formed by combining about 600 characters, greatly reducing the burden of memorizing so many different characters. Such a system would clearly indicate pronunciation as "bushou" does, but would also indicate information about character meaning and there by maintain the essence and tradition of Chinese writing. Of course, at this point it is extremely unlikely that such radical character reform will be undertaken.
See more typical styles of Chinese character, Chinese calligraphy, Chinese Couplets.