I was reading an article on the Economist about learning Mandarin and as expected the comments are more interesting than the article itself. After going through about fifty of them, some of which reflected misunderstandings or partial understandings, I decided to put in my two cents here. I have never taken a linguistics course and English and Mandarin/Putonghua/Guoyu are not my first languages but there are certain things I feel that are important to English speakers learning or interested in learning Chinese but don't exists in English in a form suitable for a general audience, defined as English native speakers that have university degrees not in languages and linguistics and have some high level understanding of Chinese culture, politics and history - the litmus tests are 1) knowing the difference between China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and 2) what happened in 1911 and 1949.
What is Chinese?
Chinese is the language used in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities. Chinese refers to written and spoken Chinese collectively.
Unlike English, the written and spoken forms of Chinese have been completely different animals until the overthrown of the imperial dynasty in 1911. This is similar to the relationship between Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin, the predecessor of Romance languages like French and Spanish, in the Middle Ages. Written Chinese was standardized by an emperor that united the country in 3rd century BC and has remained pretty much the same until 1911. Works by Confucius and his disciples from the 5th century BC are still read in the original by Chinese high school students nowadays. After 1911, both the China ("PRC") and Taiwan ('ROC") governments as well as intellectuals and opinion leaders have tried to make written Chinese more similar to spoken Chinese. Moreover, in an attempt to reduce illiteracy, the PRC government simplified the characters in the 1950s while the Taiwan and Hong Kong governments did not. Nowadays, educated people in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong can read and understand what each other write as long as they are in the format they know (i.e. regular or simplified or both) but their written Chinese is almost always affected by the type of spoken Chinese they are fluent in and by where they live.
There are at least a thousand types of spoken Chinese, commonly referred to as Chinese dialects. Examples include Beijingnese, Cantonese, Taiwanese and Shanghainese. Most of these dialects are tonal, related to each other in different degrees but mutually unintelligible and not every spoken "word" has a corresponding written Chinese character.
In imperial China, the emperor and the officials (aka mandarins) of the imperial courts used sanitized forms of the local dialects of their respective capitals to communicate verbally. The capital of China has been Beijing since the 15th century so the imperial courts adopted Beijingnese to create Beijing Mandarin. Unlike the original dialects, there is one-to-one mapping between written Chinese character s and spoken Mandarin so that spoken orders by the emperor and the mandarins could be recorded and transmitted in writing. In many parts of China especially the north, Beijing Mandarin was modified to become local dialects.
After 1911, The ROC government briefly united China and essentially took over Mandarin and called it Guoyu. Guoyu remained the official spoken language of Taiwan (ROC) to date. The PRC government won the civil war in 1949 and again essentially took over Mandarin and called it Putonghua. There are minor differences between Guoyu and Putonghua but they are mutually intelligible. The word Mandarin has fallen out of usage in China (replaced by Putonghua), Taiwan (replaced by Guoyu) and Hong Kong (replaced by both and used interchangeably) but is regularly used in the Western world
People from China and Hong Kong generally speak their home dialects fluently and Putonghua at different levels of fluency, with accents influenced by their home dialects. People from Taiwan generally speak Taiwanese and Guoyu with a Taiwanese accent fluently. Almost nobody except newscasters and Putonghua and Guoyu teachers speak perfect Putonghua and Guoyu. Chinese paramount leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaopeng's Putonghua was so heavily accented that only people from their respective hometowns understood clearly what they said. Before Putonghua was popularized, people that spoke different dialects often had to use interpreters or pass each other written notes in meetings.
Transliteration and Pinyin
There were a few unofficial Romanization systems for Mandarin before 1911, the most famous one being the Wade-Giles system. Taipei and Kaoshiung are transliterations based on the Wade-Giles system for example. The ROC created a transliteration system called "bopomofo" (labialized consonants in Guoyu) to go with Guoyu based on parts ("radicals") of Chinese characters. It is still used in Taiwan but is gradually replaced by the Pinyin system created by the PRC government to go along with Putonghua. The pinyin system uses the Latin Alphabet and represents tones with diacritics or numbers and is widely used both for teaching Chinese and inputting Chinese on computers and mobile devices.
Link to the Economist article
Learning Mandarin, whatever it takes