An exploration of the history and origins of Chinese Language Day


Along with its thousands of years of history, characteristic features and capability of being spoken by over a billion people, Chinese is one of the world’s oldest and most established languages. The United Nations’ Chinese Language Day is an annual celebration of the language, and it is held on April 20. It is commemorated by various individuals around the world, including those in the UNLV community. 

Chinese Language Day is known for being one of the United Nations’ six “Language Days,” as there was a day that was officially established for each of their six official languages.

It first started in 1946, when the United Nations had designated Chinese as one of its official languages, alongside Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish, for use in official meetings. Each of the six official languages of the United Nations were then established their respective language days in 2010, and this had allowed for Chinese Language Day to emerge.

While Chinese Language Day is known to be on April 20, Arabic Language Day is on Dec. 18, English Language Day and Spanish Language Day are both on April 23, French Language Day is on March 20, and Russian Language Day is on June 6. In regards to the reason for the existence of the six language days as a whole, the United Nations expresses that “Language Days at the United Nations seek to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity as well as to promote equal use of all six official languages throughout the Organization.”

Andrew Kauffman is an assistant professor in residence in the UNLV World Languages and Cultures Department who specializes in teaching Chinese. When asked to describe Chinese Language Day, Kauffman shared that he believes that the day was established by the United Nations as an opportunity to celebrate and provide awareness of the language such that there are many different variations of the Chinese language.

According to the Washington Post, there are over 1.3 billion native Chinese speakers, including all of the dialects of the Chinese language. Considering the 7.2 billion people on the Earth, the Chinese language currently has the most native speakers on the planet. 

Within the Chinese language, Mandarin is known for being the most widely used dialect among its various forms. Chinese is considered the oldest written language globally, distinguishing itself in modern times as the sole language utilizing characters. 

Ao Li, a Chinese UNLV student, while sharing his thoughts on the day mentioned the special aspects of Chinese language, saying, “I think Chinese writing is very special, and its writing form is unique in the world. In ancient China, the earliest writing is believed to have appeared 5,000 to 9,000 years ago and was hieroglyphic.”

According to China Admissions, Chinese is the only language today that uses pictograms, employing images and drawings reminiscent of the hieroglyphic writings of ancient Egypt.

In regards to the spoken word of the Chinese language, Kauffman explains, “As for the key characteristics of the language, spoken Chinese is a tonal language, with a total of 4 tones (5 if you count the neutral tone). There are lots of homonyms in Chinese, so you have to pay close attention to the tones. Also, each syllable in Chinese represents a character. Sometimes a word is comprised of one character or two and more. 

As for the written word of the language, Kauffman shares, “Written Chinese tends to be one of the more difficult aspects of the language, but actually most characters are made up of 2 parts: a phonetic component and a semantic component. Mainland China uses simplified characters while Taiwan and many overseas communities use traditional characters.”

Chinese Language Day was initially chosen to be celebrated on April 20 to pay respects and tribute to Cangjie, who was known for being a prominent individual who lived around the time of ancient China. In many stories about him, Cangjie is often associated with supernatural elements and is said to have been both an official historian of the Yellow Emperor and the one who invented Chinese characters.

 The date for the day was decided upon by Guyu, also known as the “Rain of Millet,” which is referred to as being the sixth of twenty-four solar terms within the traditional East Asian calendars.  

According to the United Nations, there is a legend associated with the “Rain of Millet,” in which Cangjie created the characters, the gods and deities reacted by shedding tears, and “From then on, Chinese people celebrate the day Guyu in honor of Cangjie. In the Gregorian calendar, it usually begins around April 20.”

When asked about Cangjie, Kauffman says, “I actually don’t know too much about Cangjie except for all the lore surrounding him.” He continues to share, “I believe he was the scribe for the mythical Yellow Emperor, credited with creating characters. I’m sure the origin story of Chinese characters is way more nuanced than that.”

Li said that he knows Cangjie as “a tribal leader in ancient times” and continued, “I just learned that he collected, organized and used hieroglyphs in ancient times and played an important role in the creation of Chinese characters. He was revered as the God of Writing by later generations.”

Li, while sharing his thoughts on these inventions that greatly influenced modern Chinese, mentioned another prominent figure in Chinese history, Qin Shi Huang.

Qin Shi Huang, the emperor of the Qin Dynasty, is known in Chinese history for his ruthless policies, major projects such as the construction of the Great Wall of China and other reforms. Additionally, he is renowned for standardizing writing and various measurement units, thus breaking down communication barriers among people.

“Considering the vast size of China, it is easy to understand that people in different regions of ancient China have certain differences in how they write. Later, as the first emperor to unify China, Qin Shi Huang unified the writing system about 2,200 years ago,” Li said.

Li also highlighted the importance of these reforms, stating, “Even though different dialects and accents are still common in China, there is no longer any difference in the way Chinese people write. It facilitates people’s communication and cultural dissemination. Decades ago, in order to further facilitate the writing and use of characters, Chinese characters were further simplified, and simplified Chinese was used in most parts of China nowadays; even [though] now simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese exist in parallel, it is still easier for users of one form of Chinese to recognize the other form.”

Despite its significant status within the United Nations, Chinese Language Day appears to lack popularity in its country of origin. Li said that he had never heard of Chinese Language Day before and believed that such celebrations are not very popular in China. “As far as I know, Chinese people don’t have any day to celebrate any language, no matter Mandarin or any local languages.” 

As for Kauffman, he shared that he had heard of Chinese Language Day but not until more recently during his graduate studies.

Li shared that he does not celebrate many festivals or special occasions, but he believes establishing a day for the Chinese language is important. “I believe the establishment of this day by the UN is a good thing. I’m not sure how many languages have their day in the UN, but there must be a reason that this day for Chinese language exists.”

Upon being asked about what would be important for individuals to take away from the language day, Kauffman expresses, “As for the importance of Chinese Language Day, I think it’s important to raise awareness of just how widespread the language is; that is, Mandarin Chinese is not just spoken in the People’s Republic of China but also Southeast Asia and across the world. He continues, “Another important thing to take away is just the diversity of the language itself. There are many ‘dialects’ in China, and many of them are mutually unintelligible.”

Within its ability to highlight the rich history and prominence that resides within the Chinese language’s existence as well as the importance of language itself, Chinese Language Day allows for an emerging awareness of the depths that lie within Chinese language and culture, along with a promotion of both the diversity of cultures and a celebration of languages as a whole.


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