- There is officially one written version (“Simplified Chinese”) and one spoken version (“Mandarin”).
- The official spoken language is "Mandarin", also referred to a “Putonghua”. There are other regional dialects, e.g. Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fujian, but the common one taught in schools and universal in business is Mandarin. Mandarin is also spoken in Taiwan and Singapore. (Chinese is one of Singapore’s official languages.) Cantonese is still widely spoken in Hong Kong (but more and more can speak Mandarin). So people from Singapore, Taiwan, and China can converse fluently with each other - if the Singaporean learned Chinese. (Whether they get along is another story.)
- There is no such thing as "Written Mandarin", "Written Cantonese", "Written Sichuan", etc. Written Chinese is one and the same regardless of the dialect. Everyone in China uses the same written characters. Written Chinese consist of characters to create "words".
- The standard written version in China is sometimes referred to as “Simplified Chinese” versus the “Traditional Chinese”. “Simplified Chinese” was introduced many years ago with less strokes for many Chinese characters to increase literacy by making words, well, “simpler”. Singapore also uses Simplified Chinese. Taiwan uses Traditional Chinese characters. Hong Kong has been using Traditional Chinese and will increasingly move toward adopting Simplified Chinese.
- There is no guarantee that a document or label written in “Simplified Chinese” can be fully read by someone who learned “Traditional Chinese” and vice versa. Some of the words are the same and many words can be deciphered but not all.
- Spoken dialects can be very different. A Mandarin speaker will most likely not understand a Cantonese dialect speaker (and vice versa) but they can both communicate by writing.
- Finally, don’t expect a Japanese or Korean speaker to read Chinese (or vice versa). There might be a few common written characters but that’s just about it.
Most Chinese names consist of three or two characters or words. Many non-Chinese are confused because the surnames come first. For example, “John Smith” would be “Smith John”. So chances are that the name “Liu De Hua” on a Chinese business card means that the person is “Mr. Liu” (not “Mr. Hua”). I sometimes joke with my confused colleagues not to “Wing” the “Wong” number.
Some adopt an unofficial Western name so “Liu De Hua” may ask you to call him “Andy”. The rule is to ask the person how he or she would like to be called when you are unsure. Just be sure to recognize that this is more a nickname when it comes to email addresses and other official documents.
So these are a few tips to hopefully make things a bit clearer. Feel free to share any related tips or advice!