Factbox: Language and politics in the Chinese world

(Reuters) - China has been promoting Mandarin as the national language for decades to boost unity in a country with thousands of dialects and minority tongues.

Here are some facts about language and politics in the Chinese-speaking world.

* The ruling Communist Party decreed in 1956 that all education be conducted in Mandarin, which is based upon what is spoken in the capital, Beijing, though with dispensation for areas with large ethnic minority populations such as Tibet.

About 70 percent of China speaks Mandarin and its related dialects. The government terms the language “Putonghua,” or “common speech.”

* The Communists also gradually simplified the notoriously complex writing system, reducing the number of strokes needed to write characters. Officials once considered replacing the script totally with the Roman alphabet, but decided it would be too difficult and an affront to tradition. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and much of the overseas Chinese world still use the traditional, complex forms of the characters.

* Some Chinese dialects are written using adapted or archaic Chinese characters. Hong Kong’s racier newspapers tend to write their gossip columns and entertainment news in vernacular Cantonese, which is hard for a Mandarin-speaker to understand.

* China’s main dialect groups include Wu, which covers the languages spoken in Shanghai and nearby, Yue, which includes Cantonese, and Min, whose dialects are spoken in Taiwan, southeastern Fujian province and parts of Southeast Asia.

* While some languages like Tibetan and Uighur remain widely spoken, smaller minorities have not been so lucky. Evenki, Hezhen and Manchu are among those deemed critically endangered, despite government efforts to revive them.

* Almost all broadcasting in China is done in Mandarin, again aside from minority areas like Tibet and Xinjiang. Dialects are not taught at school.

* In Taiwan, where the government once enforced similar pro-Mandarin policies, dialects and languages of the island’s aboriginal groups are now taught in school, though Mandarin predominates. Hokkien, the main dialect in Taiwan and also known as Taiwanese, is widely used on the television and on radio.

* Chinese Singaporeans speak a cacophony of Chinese dialects, including Hokkien, Hakka, Hainanese and Cantonese. There is no official support for dialects and the government has pushed its “Speak Mandarin Campaign.”

Sources: Reuters, Chinese state media, The Languages of China by S. Robert Ramsey.

Writing by Ben Blanchard