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I am wondering to what extent spoken language is important to the intelligibility of written Chinese. I read the Wikipedia article on Chinese grammar in which they have words in one particular language (Mandarin maybe?) are written in the text as though it is the only language, when obviously that is not the case.

For example, newspapers in Beijing I assume are written by people who speak Mandarin, whereas in Shanghai I would guess they are written by people who speak Wu. Even so, my understanding is that they use the same character for a concept, even though the words are different. For example, "man" may be spoken differently in Mandarin and Wu, but both cities use the same symbol for the idea.

Does the underlying language affect the ability to read and write Chinese?

For example, can someone who ONLY speaks Wu understand a Beijing newspaper as well as a Mandarin? And likewise, if a Wu speaker writes a document, can a person who does not speak Wu comprehend the document just as fully as a native Wu speaker can?

  • Shanghai is situated far away from the area where Cantonese is spoken, it's a common mistake that in Shanghai they speak Cantonese. – Yellow Sky Jan 6 '15 at 15:55
  • @YellowSky Ok, I edited the question to use "Wu" as the example language rather than Cantonese. – Tyler Durden Jan 6 '15 at 16:14
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    Unless this question is changed to ask mostly about linguistics, it seems to be about mutual intelligibility of dialects of Chinese, which is perfectly covered in this question and answers to it. – bytebuster Jan 6 '15 at 18:04
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All literate Chinese people can read and write in Mandarin, even if they do not speak it. It is common in Hong Kong to be able to read and write in Mandarin but, when reading aloud, use Cantonese pronunciations. Mandarin is the only standard written form of Chinese, after all.

The bulk of newspaper articles must be written in Mandarin, though there could be informal columns where local dialects are used. There are a handful in Hong Kong, and they could have those in Taiwan as well, though I doubt that's allowed in the Mainland.

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  • Really? Cantonese has a lot of words/characters that don't exist in Mandarin or other dialects, and they are written out. Hongkong people don't write Mandarin – Lưu Vĩnh Phúc Jun 30 '15 at 10:30
  • Having a handful of local words in our writing is not the same as writing in a different language. Analogy: You wouldn't say Australians don't speak English because they use some vocabulary that doesn't appear in British or American English. – WavesWashSands Jun 30 '15 at 15:04
  • In the other linked question, it has been said that "In Cantonese, in particular, the written form of Cantonese is highly developed (partially because of Hong Kong's unique history) and widely used in place of Mandarin writing in non-official settings." – Lưu Vĩnh Phúc Jun 30 '15 at 15:56
  • Yes, but the OP was asking about newspapers... – WavesWashSands Jun 30 '15 at 16:07
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Newspapers from different mainland cities use the identical language. Specifically for Wu, people in or around Shanghai who speak Wu only write in Mandarin. Wu is written down almost only for academic purposes (e.g. studying Wu as a dialect); actual reading and writing in real life, whether formal or informal or online or offline, is almost exclusively in Mandarin.

I am pretty sure this would be true for most other Han dialects. The written form of Cantonese is more well-developed and adopted compared to Wu though, partly due to less standardization of Mandarin in Hong Kong. And there are slight differences in language between Hong Kong and mainland newspapers even when they both use Mandarin. Taiwanese newspapers also use Mandarin, albeit a different flavor (Taiwanese Mandarin) and less standardized.

Don't get me wrong though—Wu (like any other Han dialects) has very different pronunciations, vocabulary, syntax, etc. from Mandarin, written or spoken. And you may be able to identify tiny traces of Wu-ish vocabulary or syntax in Mandarin in informal settings, like online forums. But for newspapers the language written by a local person from Shanghai and Beijing would be completely identical. People who write and edit articles must be proficient in standard Mandarin.

As a side note, the Beijing local dialect is different from Mandarin (although mutually intelligible and very similar).

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