The vastness of the land gives rise to diversity in language and dialect. Although 80% of the population use the traditional Chinese language, others speak regional dialects that differ enough in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar so as to make them difficult to understand. A speaker of the Min dialect may find it hard to understand a speaker of Cantonese. Fortunately, speakers of different dialects have the unified written language for communication, which was an accomplishment of the ruler Qin Shihuang over 2200 years ago.
Despite the common written language, there were still problems. Thus, in 1958, the government standardized Chinese by creating a common spoken language (known as Mandarin in many parts of the world). Based on the dialect of Beijing and adjacent areas, it has become the official language used in public settings.
Chinese is older than other languages. Chinese writing is believed to have been in use for 5,000 to 6,000 years. Written text on bones and shells date back to about 1500 B.C., and represent the writings of kings seeking to communicate with gods before important events, such as going to war.
Chinese books have traditionally been bound on the right hand side, with the text starting at the top right corner of the page. Calligraphy and many Taiwanese newspapers still follow the old tradition, but most publications in China follow Western printing conventions today.
Since Chinese does not have a phonetic alphabet, Westerners have used Roman letters to transliterate its sounds. In 1958 China introduced Pinyin, a system for representing Chinese sounds using the Roman alphabet. This system is now used internationally.
The number of sounds used in today's Chinese is 430, but there are many more written characters. Tone and pitch help to differentiate among the different meanings of the same sound. For example, ma, can mean mother or three completely different things, depending on changes in tone.
Chinese uses pictographic writing, which can be quite intricate. Although the system was simplified by the government in 1956, the old style is still used by the Taiwanese and by many Chinese who went abroad.
A character is made up of a number of strokes with the pen. These strokes must be made just so, in the right direction and in the correct sequence. Many characters once resembled a picture of what they represented in the world, e.g., a mountain. Over the centuries they became more stylized and evolved into the modern characters. Each character represents one syllable and one meaning; however, characters can be combined to form a more complex character and idea (e.g., fire + fire = hot) or they can be used together to express a more complex concept (e.g., fire + mountain = volcano).
The information above was taken from: Paul and Shumang Fredlein, Ni hao 1 - An Introduction to Chinese. 1995.