What Is a Mandarin?
The word “mandarin” has several meanings which are all interconnected. Perhaps the most common use of it is as the name for the nine grades of Chinese administrators who were selected by a series of very difficult examinations. In the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906), this system of scholar-officials was operating extremely effectively. This administration proved to be the backbone of the great Chinese Empire that persisted through about 20 successive dynasties.
The name mandarin is also given to the language spoken in China by officials and educated people, also called Northern Chinese, Chinese (Pinyin) Guanhua (“Officials’ Language”), or (Wade-Giles romanization) Kuan-hua, the most widely spoken form of Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is spoken in all of China north of the Yangtze River and in much of the rest of the country and is the native language of two-thirds of the population.
Mandarin Chinese is often divided into four subgroups: Northern Mandarin, centring on Beijing and spoken in northern China and the Northeast provinces (Manchuria); Northwestern Mandarin, extending northward from the city of Baoji and through most of northwestern China; Southwestern Mandarin, centring on the area around Chongqing and spoken in Sichuan and adjoining parts of southwestern China; and Southern, or Lower Yangtze, Mandarin, in an area centred on Nanjing.
Mandarin Chinese in the form spoken in and around Beijing forms the basis for Modern Standard Chinese—Guoyu, “National Language,” usually called Putonghua “common language” by the Chinese. Modern Standard Chinese is also spoken officially on Taiwan.
Mandarin uses four tones—level, rising, falling, and high-rising—to distinguish words or syllables that have the same series of consonants and vowels but different meanings; both Mandarin and the standard language have few words ending with a consonant. Mandarin, like all other varieties of Chinese, has mostly monosyllabic words and word elements, and, because there are neither markers for inflection nor markers to indicate parts of speech, it has a fixed word order.
The name mandarin is also given to a grotesque toy figure in Chinese costume which goes on nodding after it is shaken. The mandarin scholar-official wore yellow silk robes and so a dye obtained from coal tar, a sweet, flattened, easily-skinned orange and a yellow liquor also have the name mandarin.