Chinese (simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語; pinyin: Hànyǔ; literally: "Han language"; or Chinese: 中文; pinyin: Zhōngwén; literally: "Chinese writing") is a group of related, but in many cases mutually unintelligible, language varieties, forming a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Chinese is spoken by the Han majority and many minority ethnic groups in China. About 1.2 billion people (around 16% of the world's population) speak some form of Chinese as their first language.
The varieties of Chinese are usually described by native speakers as dialects of a single Chinese language, but linguists note that they are as diverse as a language family. The internal diversity of Chinese has been likened to that of the Romance languages, but may be even more varied. There are between 7 and 13 main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most spoken by far is Mandarin (about 960 million, e.g. Southwestern Mandarin), followed by Wu (80 million, e.g. Shanghainese), Min (70 million, e.g. Southern Min), Yue (60 million, e.g. Cantonese), etc. Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible, and even dialect groups within Min Chinese may not be mutually intelligible. Some, however, like Xiang and certain Southwest Mandarin dialects, may share common terms and a certain degree of intelligibility. All varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic.
Standard Chinese (Pǔtōnghuà/Guóyǔ/Huáyǔ) is a standardized form of spoken Chinese based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin. It is the official language of China and Taiwan, as well as one of the four official languages of Singapore. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. The written form of the standard language (中文; Zhōngwén), based on the logograms known as Chinese characters (汉字/漢字; Hànzì), is shared by literate speakers of otherwise unintelligible dialects.
The earliest Chinese written records are Shang dynasty-era oracle inscriptions, which can be traced back to 1250 BCE. The phonetic categories of Archaic Chinese can be reconstructed from the rhymes of ancient poetry. During the Northern and Southern dynasties period, Middle Chinese went through several sound changes and split into several varieties following prolonged geographic and political separation. Qieyun, a rime dictionary, recorded a compromise between the pronunciations of different regions. The royal courts of the Ming and early Qing dynasties operated using a koiné language (Guanhua) based on Nanjing dialect of Lower Yangtze Mandarin. Standard Chinese was adopted in the 1930s, and is now the official language of both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan.
Most linguists classify all varieties of Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, together with Burmese, Tibetan and many other languages spoken in the Himalayas and the Southeast Asian Massif. Although the relationship was first proposed in the early 19th century and is now broadly accepted, reconstruction of Sino-Tibetan is much less developed than that of families such as Indo-European or Austroasiatic. Difficulties have included the great diversity of the languages, the lack of inflection in many of them, and the effects of language contact. In addition, many of the smaller languages are spoken in mountainous areas that are difficult to reach, and are often also sensitive border zones. Without a secure reconstruction of proto-Sino-Tibetan, the higher-level structure of the family remains unclear. A top-level branching into Chinese and Tibeto-Burman languages is often assumed, but has not been convincingly demonstrated.