China · Taiwan

Beijing life- Mandarin differences between the mainland and Taiwan

It’s already the end of the workweek (I work Sundays to Thursdays) and November and winter is starting off now. The last few weeks have passed by pretty fast, just like in Taiwan, and it’s not like I’m doing much. It’s both kind of eerie and pleasant, the former since it means time is moving on and I’m not getting any younger, the latter because it’s always good when the workweek finishes quickly (though workaholics probably would differ).

Another similarity with Taiwan is the workplace itself. When I’m in my office, while the work is more interesting, I don’t feel much different than before, as if I’m not really in the mainland. It’s relatively quiet, orderly, and my local colleagues all speak pretty decent English, so much that I don’t speak any Chinese with them. I actually speak less Chinese than when I was at my last company in Taiwan. It’s when my colleagues speak Chinese with their accents that obviously differ from Taiwan that I’m reminded I’m in mainland China.

However, one difference from Taiwan is the Mandarin Chinese that’s spoken here. Both the mainland and Taiwan speak Mandarin as their main language and it’s largely similar. Yet as I gradually get used to here and listen to people speak more, I’m finding out some differences, not just with accents, but with some phrases and vocabulary.

For instance, take the number one 1 (一). It’s original pronunciation is “yi“, but in the mainland, mainly the North, it’s “yao.” This is a big difference and I used to think “yao” sounded kind of crude. But after searching online, I found some likely explanations for why “yao” is used and it makes more sense. “Yi” sounds similar to “qi” (chi) which is the number seven 7. Also, if you say “yi” several times, such as 1111, it sounds weird. Whereas when you use “yao,” it’s actually easier and sounds better. Try it – say “yi-yi-yi-yi”, then “yao-yao-yao-yao” – and see which one is easier. I’ve started to say “yao” and I guess it’s an early step in becoming like a Beijinger.

In Taiwan, people such as service staff often say “bu hui (不會)” to say “you’re welcome.” In Beijing, often people like shop attendants or taxi drivers would say “mei shi (没事)” or “it’s no big deal.” Sometimes people might say “bukeqi” (不客氣) or “don’t mention it.” This one is used often in both Taiwan and the mainland. Meanwhile when people in Taiwan say goodbye, they’ll say “zaijian” (再見) or “see you again,” whereas here, you’ll often hear “manzao“(慢走) or “walk slowly (take it easy)” from service staff.

Speaking of taxis, in Taiwan they’re called “jichengche (計程車)” while in the mainland, it’s “chuzhuche (出租車).”

While it’s often said that manners aren’t as prevalent among mainlanders as it supposedly is in Taiwan, there’s an interesting form of politeness here in addressing people, usually males though, like drivers or vendors or professionals like plumbers. Basically, they’re called “shifu (師傅)” or “master/teacher” which seems rather overly formal. However, I find it is used sincerely and not in an ironic way. In Taiwan, “xiansheng (先生)” or “mister” suffices when talking to a male driver or service staff or any male stranger in general.

Then, mainlanders often use the word “zamen (咱們)” to mean “us” in an exclusive form – as in “you and me.” We is usually “women,” and in Taiwan that’s applicable to all usages of “we.” I’ve never heard anyone in Taiwan say “zamen.” In the mainland, “women” is used, but more to mean “we” in a general sense when talking about a lot of people, and “zamen” as I mentioned above.  This “women” is not the same as English, but is pronounced like “worr-mun.” Since Chinese, whether Mandarin, Cantonese or others, is spoken with tones, pronunciation is very important and strongly determines what it is you’re saying. For instance, Mandarin has four tones so it is possible to pronounce something in four different ways, which of course results in four different words. Cantonese has much more than four so it’s even harder.

Of course, when it comes to women as in ladies, there’s an important distinction in how to call them. In Taiwan or Hong Kong, young women can be addressed as “xiaojie (小姐)” whether by itself or with the woman’s surname in front of “xiaojie.” In the mainland however, don’t call women that. If you’re talking to a female service staff you can say “gunian (姑娘) or the always reliable “fuwusheng (服務員)!” This is because in mainland China, “xiaojie” is slang for prostitute. I don’t know how this usage came about but I’ll try to find out.

Finally, a lot of times when you ask people if it’s alright to do something, people say “xing (行)” or “yes,” while in Taiwan, people often say “keyi (可以)” or “you can.” But to say “no, you can’t,” people in Taiwan often use “bu xing (不行).”

I should point out that I’m mainly using the Mandarin spoken in Beijing and the North as my reference, since China is a large country and there are differences in Mandarin between different regions and provinces, as some helpful commenters have mentioned below.

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16 thoughts on “Beijing life- Mandarin differences between the mainland and Taiwan

  1. it’s also a difference in Guangdong. There, you call a taxi 的士 dīshì and people usually don’t say 不客气 but 不用. And they also say 慢走。
    It’s interesting where people say what and how 🙂 very interesting post!

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  2. Hello, thanks for your comment. I guess 的士 dīshì is Cantonese right? It’s also used in Hong Kong and it came from English. Strangely I’ve heard some people here say “da di” (打 di) for calling a cab though not “dīshì” itself.
    It is interestingly that there are variations within a language in different regions across China. It adds to the cultural mix of the country.

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  3. Yeah, as lindalindsch mentioned, there are very distinct regional variations, so it’s very hard to compare Taiwanese Mandarin and Chinese Mandarin. Ultimately you’re comparing Taiwanese and Beijing Mandarin.

    I lived mostly in the south when I was in China, and often found some of the language used in Beijing quite foreign. Zanmen (咱們) is one example of this – they never say this in the south. Also, when calling for a waitress in a restaurant, a common way in the south is mei nv (美女) instead of gu niang (姑娘). Communication between Chinese can be difficult, as I’ve had friends from different provinces get together and not understand what fruit or vegetable the others are talking about (eg. 番茄 vs 西紅柿 for tomato, 紅蘿蔔 vs 胡蘿蔔 for carrot, 花菜 vs 菜花 vs 花椰菜 for cauliflower [花菜 is flowering 菜心 or something similar in some parts of China], 黃瓜 vs 青瓜 for cucumber and 涼瓜 vs 苦瓜 for balsam pear/bitter gourd).

    The regional variations also reflects regional pride. Most Chinese are very proud of being a part of a regional culture, so despite all attempts at standardization by the government, linguistic differences will always exist as they are tied up in the local identity. Being a local ensures not getting overcharged for goods and services and especially not getting ripped off by unscrupulous taxi drivers.

    And don’t get me started on my pet hate when it comes to the northern accent… 兒化音! Still, it cements that local identity, and as much as I don’t like the sound (I actually find Taiwanese Mandarin the most palatable to listen to), it’s still something to respect and appreciate.

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    1. Thanks for the detailed comment.
      It’s good you talked about variations in the mainland for Mandarin. That would be an interesting topic to write about though I don’t know too much about it.

      Yes, my comparison focuses more on Beijing/Northern Mandarin. I didn’t want to say Beijing because I know that some of the usage I mentioned is true outside of Beijing, for example I have Shanghainese relatives who use “zamen,” actually that was when I first heard this word used.

      Just like you said “zamen” isn’t used in the south, a Cantonese friend recently told me that they don’t use “yao” to say one in Guangdong either.
      That’s really something they call waitresses in the south “美女.” It’s a compliment but it can be a little sexist too,haha.

      It’s fitting you brought up food. There’re definitely differences between Taiwan and the mainland/North such as potato (malingshu in Taiwan, tudou in the mainland) and sweet potato (digua in Taiwan, hongshu here). I didn’t know there were differences within the mainland for common food items too though it shouldn’t be surprising.

      I don’t mind the northern accent. Actually hearing Beijingers speak it fast is kind of cool, though much of it is indecipherable to me.

      In contrast, while I can see why Taiwanese Mandarin might sound pleasant and clear, I don’t like it so much. Some of the pronunciations aren’t correct like saying “si” for “shi 是”.

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  4. Really enjoyed this… I used to get in friendly arguments with my Taiwanese friends about some differences in spoken language (Taiwanese would call ‘Wu Liang Ye’ Wu Liang Yi ~ and I always corrected them…and they would simply say “In Taiwan, we still keep true Chinese culture and pronunciation alive…). The ‘si’ for ‘shi’ drives me crazy…of course, many places in China do the same.
    Cheers and great post!

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    1. Thanks, glad you liked it. Is this Wuliangye the baijiu company?
      Yeah, some Taiwanese think that the culture in Taiwan is more genuine and traditional, though even some mainlanders do as well. I think while the Taiwanese way of speaking Mandarin is clearer, it’s not the more genuine.

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        1. OK, I see. I know that brand but I’ve never had their baijiu.
          I meant that besides Taiwanese themselves, even some mainlanders think Taiwan’s culture is more “Chinese” and traditional.
          Thanks for giving your thoughts as well.

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          1. Their baijiu is expensive ~ much better value on the market. yes, I understand your meaning now, and of my mainland friends who have visited Taiwan, they come back in awe ~ saying that they have found things that no longer exist in China (like some of the great food & snacks at the night markets)… So I think you are very correct ~ mainlanders do think Taiwan in most traditional.

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            1. OK, I’m not much of a baijiu person but should try it sometime.
              Yeah, I’ve also heard similar feedback from mainland friends as well who’ve gone there and raved about food. Besides food, I’d think other traditional things like community life and religion are more apparent there.

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  5. I learned basic Mandarin in Shanghai, and based on your article, it was the same as Taiwanese Mandarin. We never learned the Beijing words you listed.

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    1. Thanks for the compliment, I’m glad you liked my post.
      I guess most of the words I described are Northern, and Southern mandarin is much more similar to Taiwan Mandarin.

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  6. 咱們 refers to us and includes the listener.

    If you teach/say language Chinese, say Putonghua, not Mandarin. Elsewhere, people don’t know, and school teachers don’t care! obviously; leaving me to inform: The name ‘Mandarin’ has been obsolete 105 years now. ‘Mandarin’ fits 滿大人 Mǎndàrén, a foreign deference to ‘Manchurian high official’, his language was strangely identified as ‘official speech’ 官話. But since the Manchurian Qing monarchy (1644-1911) fell, Mandarins dead as dodos, none to speak with, raising Mandarin is an affront to China a republic; disuse its fiction! The Chinese national language (learnt with Romanized Pinyin) is ‘common speech’, Putonghua. – Jow Yuzo Los Angeles, CA, USA

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