Mandarin: One “Chinese” Word That Isn’t Used In China

One oddity of the English language is the word “mandarin”. Many people think that the word is somehow Chinese, or that it can properly be used to refer to Chinese things.

Neither of these are true.

The word “mandarin” has its origin in pidgin English, and is derived from either a Malay or a Hindi word (no one is really sure which).

A little background is in order here before we proceed. In colonial times, British civil servants and businessmen in Asia needed to communicate with the local people, even though they could not be bothered to learn the local languages, so they developed pidgin English–a highly simplified version of English mashed together with words from different languages and dialects. Pidgin English was used throughout Asia, but reached the apex of its development in colonial China. Prior to World War 2, a must-have for any foreigner traveling to Hong Kong or Shanghai was a pidgin English phrasebook–otherwise, they would not be able to do much business or get around. (The word “pidgin” is actually a Chinese corruption of the English word “business”, so literally “pidgin English” meant “business English”. Prior to the War, the first question a Chinese person was likely to ask a foreigner upon meeting was, “What’s you pidgin?” meaning, “What’s your business?” or “What are you doing in China?”) Since China opened up to foreigners long after India and Malay had already been colonized by the Brits, and the Brits who colonized those places were also the first Brits to have extended contact with the Chinese, the pidgin English used in China contained quite a few Hindi and Malay terms, though in corrupted form. “Mandarin” (meaning “ruler”) was one of those words.

Here, the plot thickens.

The first extended point of contact westerners had with the Chinese was through the Portuguese colony of Macao, and even then westerners were seldom allowed to travel beyond the borders of the colony. As a consequence, the Chinese people they most often came into contact with spoke Cantonese, which is the local dialect of the Pearl River delta area. However, on rare occasions, these westerners would meet with an official of the Qing Dynasty, visiting from Beijing. To the Brits meeting these officials, the officials were “mandarins” (that is “rulers”).

A couple of things should be noted here. First, the Qing Dynasty was not Han Chinese–it was ethnically Manchu. Thus, the officials the Brits met were all either Han Chinese wearing Manchu dress and working for the Manchus, or their Manchu overlords themselves. Second, the Manchus had adopted the most commonly used dialect of Chinese for government business, so the language these officials spoke was not “mandarin” Chinese–it was the common tongue of China, used by more than 80% of the people. Or, as the Chinese call it, “putonghua” (普通话).

No doubt, the Brits meeting these Qing Dynasty officials knew that these officials represented a different ethnic group than the people around them. This led them to make a logical mistake: They thought that the language these officials spoke was not common Chinese, but was the language of the rulers, the language of the “mandarins”.

From there we begin a downhill slide.

The clothes the Qing Dynasty officials wore were called “mandarin dress”–it was merely the ethnic Manchu style of dress, used by rulers and common people alike, but no matter.

Then we have mandarin cuisine, which is what, exactly? People living in the West are sure that they understand this term, but people who have been to China will find it perplexing.

Usually, westerners use “mandarin” to refer to the food of Beijing. However, to Chinese people the food of Beijing is made up of Peking duck and what most of them would call Dongbei (东北) cooking (Dongbei refers to northeast China; more properly, Dongbei cooking is considered Shandong cuisine). Here we are talking Chinese dumplings, noodle soup, steamed bread, and various kinds of braised pork dishes. Salty, sweet, fatty, and bland. This is the common food for vast swaths of people in northern China. However, it is only one of eight of the most commonly recognized Han Chinese schools of cooking. Why should “mandarin” be used to refer to this cooking school, and not the others? It makes no logical sense.

“Mandarin cuisine” would more logically refer to Manchu cooking, but there are very few ethnic Manchus left in the world, and most of them have nearly completely assimilated to the Han culture, so today Manchu cuisine might be a bit of a mystery even to many of them.

Perhaps by “mandarin cuisine” one could be referring to the food served in the Forbidden City? As it turns out, this is also a bit of a mystery. The emperor, the empress, and the various concubines used Han Chinese chefs. However, these chefs were commanded upon the pain of death to produce up to one hundred or more unique and tasty dishes a day for the delight of their patrons, using the finest ingredients and the most extraordinary techniques. This was not the food common people ate, and until quite recently it was not the food one would find on any restaurant menu anywhere in the world. Fortunately, a handful of Forbidden City chefs passed on their secrets to future generations, so now there are one or two restaurants which are trying to recreate something of the atmosphere of a Qing Dynasty royal banquet, although without the executioner standing by to exact judgement on an errant chef.

Altogether, “mandarin cuisine” appears not to refer to any food at all, or at least any food that is commonly eaten.

Next we have mandarin ducks and mandarin fish, both of which were dubbed “mandarin” by westerners because they are from China, but which have always been known in China by completely different names. And then we have the mandarin dogfish, a saltwater creature which appears to have little to do with China at all.

Perhaps the oddest use of the word “mandarin” is to refer to mandarin oranges. Mandarin oranges are eaten in China, but are not really that common there, and certainly do not go by that name. The one country which is really wild about mandarin oranges is Japan. Mandarin oranges are so popular in Japan that the palms of many school children’s hands actually change color when the fruit is in season because they have eaten so many of them. There is a theory, repeated on Wikipedia, that the appellation “mandarin orange” was first used during World War 2 by growers to hide the fact that mandarin oranges are essentially a Japanese fruit. This is not true, however, as the term “mandarin orange” was first used in the 18th century to refer to an example of the fruit seen by westerners in China.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a word that does not properly refer to anything Chinese, which in fact is almost never used in China, and which has no counterpart in the Chinese language.

“What about the Mandarin Hotel?” you might ask. Foreign travelers might know this Hong Kong hotel chain as the “Mandarin”. However, the Chinese name “wenhua dongfang jiudian” (文華東方酒店), roughly translated, means the “Chinese Culture Oriental Hotel”. In Chinese, it neither sounds like the word “mandarin”, nor does it evoke any of the connotations of the word “mandarin” in English.

So there were have it. “Mandarin” is one of those strange words in English which everyone “knows” the meaning of and uses all the time, but which has little real meaning and no proper use. In every usage of the word, there is a more appropriate and more accurate term.

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3 Responses to Mandarin: One “Chinese” Word That Isn’t Used In China

  1. george-b says:

    Thanks for referencing!

  2. I have learned something new and interesting today, so my day has not been wasted. Thank you very much.

  3. James Lee says:

    Generally, Chinese accept the fact that “putonghua” = Mandarin. Mandarin is the Chinese official spoken language in Beijing. But the history of Mandarin is about four hundred years only. Mandarin was first spoken by the Manchu. Before the Qing dynasty, the people in Beijing spoke quite differently. To the Han Chinese at that time, Mandarin really sound terrible and funny. But, as China was ruled by the Manchu, all the Chinese in the country had no choice but to follow this style of speaking… and slowly this funny Mandarin has became China’s official spoken language till today.

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