The Chinese family of languages is spoken by more than 1.136 billion people worldwide, and they compose a number of languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, and Gan, among many others. All the forms of Chinese share a single written language, and as such are often classified together as “the Chinese language.” Mandarin Chinese is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the language most frequently meant when speaking of “Chinese.” Cantonese is the most common language in Hong Kong and as such is another important language for international business.

The Chinese language originated in Proto-Sino-Tibetan, a language spoken in the region in the deep past. By the second millennium BC, Old Chinese had developed, sharing many characteristics of the modern language and already possessed of a written language, which is well attested from archaeological evidence and ancient literature such as the I Ching. Middle Chinese grew out of this from the 6th through 10th centuries AD along with the development of Imperial China. Modern Chinese developed after this, and the form used today is based on the dialect spoken in and around Beijing, the capital. As a result of increasingly standardized education in the modern period, most Chinese citizens now speak Mandarin.

Chinese in its various forms has been highly influential in East Asia. It was the dominant language of diplomacy and trade throughout the historic period. Chinese also contributed a great number of loan words to neighboring languages like Korean and Japanese. In addition, Chinese writing heavily influenced the development of Japanese writing and Korean writing. By one estimate, around half of all Korean words are derived from Chinese sources. Even the more distant Philippine islands can trace 10 percent of their words to Chinese origins.

Today, Chinese is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and it is increasingly important as a language of business and commerce as China expands its economic footprint worldwide. From the United States to Europe to Africa, Mandarin has become a popular second language, and some families in those areas are now teaching their children Mandarin as a second language in elementary school. As China continues to grow and becomes ever-more prominent in world affairs, the influence of Mandarin will grow alongside it.