The Chinese language (Chinese: 汉语) is a language that is spoken in China, and by the ethnic Chinese living in other countries. It is the language with the greatest number of speakers as a first language, and possibly the language with the longest history of continuous use. In 'western' context, it is often mentioned on account of its perceived difficulty.
- [T]he people of Fan (i.e., India) distinguished sounds; and with them the stress is laid on the sounds, not on the letters. Chinese distinguish the characters, and lay the stress on the characters, not on the sounds. Hence in the language of Fan there is an endless variety of sound; with the Chinese there is an endless variety of the character. In Fan, the principles of sound excite an admiration, but the letters are destitute of beauty; in Chinese, the characters are capable of ever-varying intelligible modifications, but the sounds are not possessed of nice and minute distinctions. The people of Fan prefer the sounds, and what they obtain enters by the ear; the Chinese prefer the beautiful character, what they obtain enters by the eye.
- Cheng Qiao as quoted in Essays on the Chinese Language (1889) by Thomas Watters, page 127
- Chinese [...] differs from other languages as much as if it were spoken by the inhabitants of another planet.
- Frederic William Farrar, Language and Languages (1878) p. 389
- The written language at the heart of Chinese civilization was designed for the production of a conservative elite and the exclusion of the masses from their activities. The contrast could scarcely be greater with the competing vernaculars of Europe – Italian, French and Castilian as well as Portuguese and English – usable for elite literature but readily accessible to a wider public with relatively simple and easily scalable education.
- Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011)
- [S]poken or colloquial Chinese is [...] in fact the language of a child. Now as a proof of this, we all know how easily European children learn colloquial or spoken Chinese, while learned philologues and sinologues insist in saying that Chinese is so difficult. Chinese, colloquial Chinese, I say again is the language of a child. My first advice therefore to my foreign friends who want to learn Chinese is "Be ye like little children, you will then not only enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but you will also be able to learn Chinese."
- Spoken as well as written Chinese is, in one sense, a very difficult language. It is difficult, not because it is complex. Many European languages such as Latin and French are difficult because they are complex and have many rules. Chinese is difficult not because it is complex, but because it is deep. It is difficult because it is a language for expressing deep feeling in simple language. That is the secret of the difficulty of the Chinese language. In fact, as I have said else where, Chinese is a language of the heart: a poetical language. That is the reason why even a simple letter in prose written in classical Chinese reads like poetry.
- The longer a language lives, the richer, more diverse and refined it becomes. What happened to Chinese will take place in younger languages in their own time and in their unique and native forms.
An understanding of the history of Chinese language and its impact upon the Chinese mind can be helpful for the students of Western culture because it illustrates an experience beyond the horizon of contemporary speakers of Western languages whose literatures have evolved for only a few hundred years.
- Sharron Gu. A Cultural History of the Chinese Language (2011), page 1external link
- Chinese may be called the Latin of the Far East. For, just as Rome through her higher civilisation lent thousands of words to the semi-savages hovering along her borders, so China has furnished all the surrounding peoples with their scientific, legal, philosophical and religious terminology.
- The student of Chinese will not have to burthen his mind with many rules; but framing his speech according to the native model, will gradually acquire a mode of communicating his ideas at once perspicuous and acceptable.
It must not be thought, however, that the Chinese language is destitute of ornament. They employ various figures of speech, and in some they excel. Metaphor is frequently to be met with in their writings, and similes are abundant. They are fond of alliteration, and attention to rhythm is with them an essential part of composition. Gradation and climax are sometimes well sustained, while in description and dialogue they seem quite at home. But the most remarkable feature of Chinese composition, is the antithesis. Most of the principal words are classed in pairs, such as heaven and earth, beginning and end, day and night, hot and cold, &c. From antithetical words, they proceed to contrast phrases and sentences, and draw up whole paragraphs upon the same principle. In these antithetical sentences, the number of words, the class of expressions, the meaning and intonation, together with the whole sentiment, are nicely and exactly balanced, so that the one contributes to the perspicuity and effect of the other. Such a counting of words, and such a mechanical arrangement of sentences, would be intolerable in European composition, but are quite elegant and almost essential in Chinese.
- A new Chinese language of vastly greater capacity than the old is coming into use through the currency of newspapers, the influence of which is perhaps the greatest outward force in China to-day, and in spite of police surveillance tends to increase.
- Chinesisch ist die leichteste Sprache, wenn sie unbefangen gelernt wird, vom Sinn her eher als vom Einzelausdruck. Aber für neugierige Frager bietet die Sprache eitel Tücken.
- Translation: Chinese is the easiest language when it is learned at ease, dwelling on its spirit rather than on the individual expression. But for inquisitive questioners, this language provides vain pitfalls.
- Richard Wilhelm, Die Seele Chinas. Berlin, Hobbing, 1926
- Encyclopedic article on Chinese language on Wikipedia