Chinese is spoken by around 1.3 billion people, almost one fifth of the world’s population: it is thus the most spoken language in the world, ahead of English and Hindi. It is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan and is also spoken in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, parts of Japan, North Korea, South Korea and the Philippines.
The complex relations between written and spoken Chinese are due to the fact that while the spoken language has undergone many changes over the centuries since the late Han dynasty, written Chinese has changed much less.
Spoken Chinese has numerous dialects, which are so diverse that it is almost impossible for their speakers to communicate with each other verbally. To give an example, the phonetic and lexical differences could be compared with those between the various Romance languages. The majority of Chinese (867.2 million people) speak Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua = common tongue).
Modern written Chinese has two basic variants – the simplified and traditional types. A character written in the traditional form is generally more complicated graphically than its simplified version. Traditional Chinese has around 13,000 characters, while simplified Chinese has around 8,000. Around 5,800 characters are shared by the two forms.
The Chinese government introduced and promoted the use of simplified Chinese in 1956 (after the foundation of the New China) and this is the type currently used in the PRC and Singapore. It is also an official language of the United Nations and other international bodies. Traditional Chinese, on the other hand, is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.
Note however that, although the PRC uses principally the simplified version, the traditional version is still used for cultural purposes and documents intended for official events, as explained in the language and shared character laws of the People’s Republic.
The Chinese calendar
China has two types of calendar, the Gregorian (western) calendar, used for official purposes, and the traditional calendar, a lunar or solar-lunar calendar, which is similar in many ways to the Jewish calendar. Each month starts with a new moon, determined by the conjunction of the Moon and Sun, when the Moon is completely invisible for areas close to 120° East (the meridian of the eastern coast of China).
The traditional Chinese calendar employs a 60 year cycle. Up to 1911, years were counted from the ascent to the throne of each Emperor. Each year has a two-part name: a celestial root, which is untranslatable, and a terrestrial branch, made up of 12 animal names (mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, serpent, horse, sheep, monkey, cock, dog and pig).
The names are combined starting with the first celestial and first terrestrial name, running through each list in sequence; when the end of a list is reached, it starts again from the beginning. This system results in 60 combinations, or 60 names of years, which compose a complete cycle.
These sixty-year cycles are counted from 2637 B.C. when, according to tradition, the Chinese calendar was invented (in reality it is about 2000 years old).
Can you write in Chinese using a PC running a western language operating system?
Yes, you can use IME (Input Method Editor), which enables you to write complex characters (like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.), using a western language OS and keyboard. IME is generally used in reference to Microsoft Windows. Other operating systems may use different acronyms, like Input Method for Mac OS, FEP for MS-DOS, or XIM for X Window System.
Can a Windows .docx file in Chinese be read by Macintosh?
Yes, but only Mac OS X – Word 2014 and later, and only if the system fonts are correctly installed. As for other programmes, compatibility must be verified case by case, since it depends on the type of software, version and fonts installed.
When translating into Chinese, must proper nouns and abbreviations be transliterated?
In many cases it is best to transliterate proper nouns (e.g. personal names), i.e. reproduce the sound of the name using the most appropriate Chinese characters. As for abbreviations and tradenames, it is best not to change them.
However, one must take care when transliterating personal names and especially trade or product names, since each Chinese sound has a meaning, and it is easy to make inappropriate choices.
Does Chinese have upper and lower case characters?
No, the ideograms are not affected by this distinction.
Does Chinese use italic and bold typefaces, etc.?
Yes. Bold and italic are both used in Chinese and now, thanks to continuous improvements in Chinese text editors, there is no need to change font.
Is Chinese only written from left to right, or are other options available?
Traditional Chinese is written vertically, top downwards, and is read from right to left. Even when the writing is horizontal, it reads from right to left. This type of printing is still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, even though many publications are printed left to right as in the West. Newspapers, for instance, are printed top downwards and horizontal titles run from right to left. Simplified Chinese, on the other hand, reads from left to right in almost all cases.
How are numbers written in Chinese?
Numbers are transliterated into Chinese, using the ideograms of Chinese script. However, Western numerals are universally used and understood.
Should a text like a company presentation be translated into traditional or simplified Chinese?
Traditional Chinese is obligatory for Taiwan, but may also be the preferred option for the PRC, since it gives greater prestige to the document. However, each case must be evaluated on its own merits, and the decision must be taken before starting a translation, since the two variants are not interchangeable.