People often think of Chinese as one language with several "dialects" – Mandarin and Cantonese, for example. Actually, though, the so-called "dialects" are more like separate languages. Calling them "dialects" is like saying that French and Italian are dialects of Latin.
Europe has been politically divided for most of its history, so we think of each country as having a separate language. China has usually been politically united, so we think of Chinese as a single language with dialects. In other words, the way we classify the languages is based on political considerations, not on linguistics. (Click here for a more complete discussion.)
Each of the so-called Chinese "dialects" has its own dialects or sub-dialects, some of which are mutually intelligible and some of which are not. For example, the native language of the people in Liuzhou, where I live, is generally considered to be a type of Mandarin, but it's very different from the Mandarin that's spoken in, say, Beijing. Think of someone from West Texas trying to talk to a Cockney from London and you'll have an idea what it's like.
Also, we use the English word "Mandarin" to refer to two rather dissimilar things. I've been using it above to mean the Chinese language (or dialect, if you prefer) that's spoken as a native language by most of the people in China. But "Mandarin" is also used to refer to what the Chinese call the "National Language" or "common speech". That's a set of vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar rules which were made up by academics in the last century as part of an effort to keep the country politically unified. (See here.)
"Mandarin" in this second sense is what we foreigners learn in classrooms when we take Chinese. It's also what Chinese children learn in school, but in some ways it's different from the way they actually speak. If you've only studied academic "Mandarin", it ain't gunna be easy to boldly find cats to talk wit.
The National Language is supposedly based on the language spoken by residents of Beijing, but it would be more accurate to say that it's based on the language spoken by educated people in that city. The language spoken by many an "average Zhou" on the streets there is about as similar to the National Language as London Cockney is to the Queen's English. Many Beijingers have never bothered to learn the National Language because they think that they grew up speaking it. I often find it easier to talk to people from other parts of the country because they've learned the National Language in the same way I did – in a classroom.
I remember one time talking to two young men in a bus depot. One spoke the National Language and the other spoke Beijing dialect. About the only thing I could understand the second guy say was when he asked his friend, "Why can this foreigner understand you and not me?" He didn't have a clue, and his friend was too polite to tell him.
The translations we published on this site are all written in standard American English, West Coast version, conversational style. The language might make you wince if you're a fan of the Queen's English, but you shouldn't have any trouble understanding it.
The Great Fire website indicates that this blog was blocked for half the days of last month, but it is apparently not blocked at the moment. The Party censors certainly do work in strange ways, their wonders to perform. I feel a bit insulted to have been given their seal of approval, but at least I can stop waiting for that midnight knock. I think.
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