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Welcome to the wikibook course on written Chinese. This course aims at teaching Chinese for all dialects. The Chinese spoken language is extremely diverse. It can be mainly divided into Mandarin and Cantonese, not mentioning the diverse dialects. The map on the right can give you an idea of the diversity of the Chinese spoken language. Therefore, this course aims at the written form of Chinese, which is universal in most parts of China. You can pick up different pronunciations of the language in the corresponding dialect you target to learn.
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The difference between the written and spoken language in Chinese differs even more in regions. The official Mandarin, spoken all throughout mainland China (put aside the slight differences in dialects for now), is rather simple: you speak what you write. It is just like in English: you speak what you write in passages or books, etc. In English even the spoken abbreviations (I'm, it's, etc) can be written down half-formally. This is the case in Mandarin.
The spoken language in other dialects, especially those in Southern China, are however more complicated. The written language can, of course, be spoken as usual as you do when reading aloud an English passage; however the language used in everyday lives are different from the written forms. Their spoken language features many alterations of the words, not to mention the different pronunciations of most of the Chinese words from the Mandarin. Although the spoken language can be written down, it is clearly regarded as informal (save for those books that are especially targetted for spoken-language readers).
For beginners and those who wish to use Chinese as a mean of communication throughout China, Mandarin is surely your choice (the only exceptions are some of the Southern provinces, most notably the cities of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou, where people use Cantonese for everyday communications). However, for those who wish to study the Chinese culture or the language in depth, it is recommended that you learn Cantonese, Min Nan or Hakka. Mandarin is a language based on the original northern dialects recently half-invented in order to unify the spoken language used throughout China. Because the northern part of China has been under the influence of many other tribes, such as the Mongols, Huns, etc, which actually ruled the northern people and forced their culture into the Chinese people's lives, many alterations to the original Chinese language can be observed.
In contrast, the southern part of China has managed to retain the features of the original language (for example, 食 - eat, is the word used in spoken Cantonese and Hakka, yet it should be replaced by the Mandarin 吃 in all written forms. However, 食 is the original word used by ancient Chinese, and is the word featured throughout the developing years). So for investigators, scholars, or other who want to study the language in depth, Cantonese is recommended.
Pronunciation in different dialects: