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“汉语vs中文”, “中国人vs华人vs华裔“ Chinese Characters for Chinese

The word “Chinese” in English can refer to the official language of China or its nationality. However, in Mandarin Chinese, these two meanings are expressed using different words.

To refer to the Chinese language, we can say 中文 (Zhōng wén) or 汉语 (Hàn yǔ), but how are these two words different?

中文 (Zhōng wén): The 中 here is from 中国 (China) while 文 means language. Therefore, 中文 means the language of China. This term covers all the dialects spoken in China. Note that some linguists consider them languages rather than dialects. For example:

  • 普通话 (Pǔ tōng huà) or 汉语 (Hàn yǔ): Also known as Standard Mandarin, is the official and most widely spoken dialect in China. It is the official language of China.
  • 粤语 (Yuè yǔ): Also known as Cantonese. It is spoken mainly in Guangdong province, Hong Kong, and Macau.
  • 吴语 (Wú yǔ): Also known as the Shanghai dialect. It is spoken mainly in the region around Shanghai.
  • 闽南语 (Mǐn nán yǔ): Also known as Hokkien or Taiwanese. It is spoken in Fujian Province, Taiwan, and among some Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.
  • 客家话 (Kè jiā huà): Also known as Hakka. It is spoken in several scattered regions in southern China.

However, in the global context, when someone says they speak 中文 (Zhōng wén, Chinese), it is generally understood that they speak 汉语 (Hàn yǔ, Standard Mandarin), which is the most internationally recognized variety of Chinese.

To refer to Chinese people, it is more complicated to explain since there are several words to refer to “Chinese people” in Chinese.

中国人 (Zhōng guó rén): Refers to all people who have Chinese nationality. Most 中国人 are ethnic Han, but there are also many other ethnic minorities in China.

华人 (Huá rén): This term is very broad and refers to any person of Chinese origin, regardless of their nationality. It can include Chinese people living in China as well as those living in other countries.

华侨 (Huá qiáo): This word specifically refers to Chinese who live outside of China but still maintain Chinese nationality. In other words, they are Chinese citizens residing abroad.

华裔 (Huá yì): This term refers to people of Chinese descent who were born or raised in another country and have the nationality of that country. These people may have cultural and family ties to China, but their native language and customs are from the country where they were born or reside.