Mandarin is the standard spoken language (dialect) in today's China, meaning distinct regions may have their own dialect, but they can all use Mandarin to communicate with each other.

Since all languages evolve, as a contemporary Cantonese speaker, I would have difficulty understanding Cantonese conversations from just two hundred years ago. How would a conversation between Cao Cao and Liu Bei have sounded like? What standard dialect would they have been using?

Edit: This question is about the history of "standard spoken language" which refers to standardized languages used for official purposes in China. This question is not about the history of many vernacular languages spoke throughout history in China.

  • Given the situation today (i.e. regions having their own dialects), is there any reason to presume that in the past, when broad communication was more difficult, the situation would have been more uniform? As to how the language actually sounded, I'm guess that no one really knows. Much like in Europe, we don't really know how the Romans spoke. The language has survived but we have no way of proving that the way it's pronounced today would be recognisable by a Roman 2000 years ago. – Steve Bird Sep 29 '16 at 5:45
  • At the time, the bulk of the Han population were in the North China Plain, where travel is extremely easy and populations weren't isolated. Many Chinese dialects did not appear until much later, chiefly in the geographically isolated southern regions. – congusbongus Sep 29 '16 at 6:02
  • 1
    I found this Middle Chinese audio, youtube.com/watch?v=eemRbc7XGLk I hope it is what I am looking for. – Tang Ho Sep 29 '16 at 7:04
  • 1
    The three kingdoms were three independent governments in China at that time, and there were only three. Please Google it. – Tang Ho Sep 29 '16 at 8:10
  • Wikipedia: "Confucius, for example, used yǎyán (雅言; "elegant speech") rather than colloquial regional dialects; text during the Han Dynasty also referred to tōngyǔ (通语; "common language")". Perhaps if you Baidu 通语 三国 ? Wikipedia doesn't mention standardization again until the Ming. I wonder what the Tang used as a standard dialect? – axsvl77 Sep 29 '16 at 8:46

中國歷代官方語言 (Wikipedia)



Han standard Chinese was called "正音 (Correct pronunciation), 雅言 (Elegant speech) ", also known as "Common language (通語)", and later the "universal common language (天下通语)". it was used strictly refers to the Chinese standard language. Yang Xiong's book 《Yu Xuan messenger peerless language interpretation of other countries dialect》, mentioned "Dialect(方言)" was in contrast of "Common language (通語)"

The Han standard dialect was "洛語" (Luo language), Luo language inherited the pre-Qin (before 秦) era of elegant speech.

In conclusion:

  • The standard dialect in Han dynasty was "洛語"
  • "洛語" as the Han standard language was the "正音雅言" (correct pronunciation and elegant speech)during the Han dynasty period.

*The Three kingdoms period followed Han dynasty immediately. We can presume during the Three kingdoms period, people were still speaking 洛語 dialect, and it was considered as 正音雅言 (the standard spoken language)

*The conversation between Cao Cao and Liu Bei would also be in 洛語 dialect (similar to 閩南語)

  • 1
    The conversation between Cao Cao and Liu Bei would be between two nobles. – Tang Ho Sep 29 '16 at 9:47
  • There's a very good chance that Cao and Liu had different dialect, therefore, 洛語 would be their common language. – Tang Ho Sep 29 '16 at 9:57
  • Was 天下通语 during the Han a legal standard like putonghua today? Or just the language that happened to be spoken by the elite? – axsvl77 Sep 29 '16 at 9:59
  • 1
    Was 天下通语 during the Han a legal standard like putonghua today? It would be, I mean people could use their own dialect among themselves, but when they were speaking to the ruling class, they must use the standard language, just like all Chinese must use Mandarin to deal with government officials in China now. – Tang Ho Sep 29 '16 at 10:10
  • 1
    @Rathony - I think its reasonable to assume they kept speaking the same language as before in the absence of evidence to the contrary. – T.E.D. Sep 29 '16 at 12:52

I am a hakka and a 61st descendant of Liu Bei. My ancestors settled down south in Hokkien region during the Tang Dynasty. Today, there are now many branches of Liu Bei's descendants in northern Guangdong, where hakka is spoken. My family still speak hakka. My grandfather made it a point that we learnt and spoke hakka just like our ancestors.

My theory is that Liu Bei would have spoken a language similar to hakka or a very old variant of hakka as my family even during the Song dynasty, which is about 1000 years ago, spoke hakka (they never spoke Minnan/Hokkien notwithstanding they were there for almost 400 years before moving south to northern Guangdong).

My good friend is a 27th generation descendant of Zhao Guangyin, the founder of the Song dynasty. They speak a language similar to a cross between Cantonese and Hakka. My friend's ancestral home is in Southern Guangdong.

  • 1
    Welcome to the site. Given that the ethno-genesis of Hakka is is slightly controversial (2003 analysis on Hakka origin by Center for Anthropological Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai) - I wonder if you are quite certain that it was only early-Hakka? Could there be other dialects? – J Asia Mar 21 '18 at 21:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.