Using the Chinese Language in the Online Market

Over 1.2 billion people (around 16% if the word’s population) speak some form of Chinese as their first language. There are many regional dialects of spoken Chinese, but the most prevalent ones are Mandarin, Wu, Yue (Cantonese), and Min.

These dialects are not interchangeable, and some linguists even refer to them as completely distinct and separate languages.

However, because they all share a common written form of Mandarin, these varieties are predominantly perceived to be dialects of a single Chinese language.


Mandarin is the world’s most spoken language. Of all the different Chinese dialects, Mandarin is by far and away the most widely spoken. It’s the official language of the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and is one of four official languages in Singapore.

There are 955 million native Mandarin speakers. By comparison, the world’s second most spoken language, Spanish, only has 407 million native speakers worldwide. Mandarin is natively spoken by 14.4% of the world’s population.

Both Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers adopt Mandarin as their formal writing system, which was divided into two versions in 1956:

  • Traditional Chinese
  • Simplified Chinese

The difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is in the accent or pronunciation of the written mandarin words, not in the writing system itself.


Traditional Chinese characters date back more than 2000 years. And the modern shapes of the characters have been more or less stable since the 5th century.

Simplified Chinese, on the other hand, was introduced by the Government of the People’s Republic of Chinese in the 1950s, as an attempt to improve literacy; the characters are easier to learn and write, as they contain fewer strokes.

The strong anti-tradition sentiment continued during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, and the communists strengthened this approach, upholding the adoption of the Simplified Chinese character set, as part of their linguistic reform, wih the same intention of reducing illiteracy among Mainland Chinese.

Today, Simplified Mandarin Chinese is the official written language in Mainland China, and is taught at all stages of education and is used in newspapers and by official institutions.

However, the Traditional Chinese characters survive, and thrive in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and overseas Chinese communities.

Mandarin and Simplified Chinese have been on the rise in Hong Kong

With the 1997 handover, Hong Kong developed closer economic ties with the rest of China. The Hong Kong Government began to promote the use of Mandarin as a business skill. The language of Mandarin became a subject taught in many primary schools from 1998 onwards, and in 2000, it was integrated into the HKCEE examinations. Students have been encouraged to become bi-literate and tri-lingual, thus adding Mandarin as one of the essential languages. It’s well known that Mandarin has become an important business language for adults, and the usage of Mandarin has been introduced to public service announcements, such as public transport signage.

Simplified Chinese is seen in posters, leaflets, flyers, ad signs in tourist areas. Students are also allowed to use Simplified Chinese in time-constrained exams.

However, Hong Kong natives feel a strong sense of cultural attachment to traditional Chinese, and businesses that target these particular traditionalist consumers using Simplified Chinese do so at their own risk.

One example of this is Facebook’s disastrous Hong Kong App update in December 2012. Facebook released an update to their Android App, and users who had previously been using Traditional Chinese were suddenly faced with the entire interface in Simplified Chinese.

Many Facebook Android users reacted angrily, some felt disrespected, and media headlines included such sentiments as, “Netizens Criticize Mainlandisation of Facebook App”. Facebook was forced to reverse their thinking, and released another update a week later, returning to the original Traditional Chinese.


There are an estimated 40 million Chinese people living outside the greater China region. Half of these, approximately 20 million, reside in Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

The US has the largest Chinese population in the Western world, with about 3.8 million. Apart from the people of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, who use Traditional Chinese, you’ll be ignoring a substantial amount of business potential for overseas Chinese by not offering this version.


If you’re investing large sums of money in translating and localizing your website, it stands to reason that your country/language navigation menu needs to be accurate and work intuitively so that your visitors end up in the right place. Sadly, too many who are trying to offer their customers multi-language content get it horribly wrong.

Things to Make Sure You Do Right

Make sure you use the local language of a particular country‘s name.

For example: - Offer Hong Kong users both an English version (GOLD) and Traditional Chinese version (GREEN), so that they have the choice. - Write China in Simplified Characters (RED) - Write Taiwan in Traditional Characters (BLACK)

Ensure all links lead to well-optimised and locally relevant sites for each locale

Mistakes to Avoid

Make sure all your different language options are easy to identify within your main geo-selection navigation menu, and that they are correctly represented. Doing so will ensure your users enjoy their web experience with your business, and will be more likely to revisit the site, or recommend it to their friends and colleagues.

For example:

Don’t ever make your language options impossible to locate by burying them on various sub-pages. Don’t ever use the wrong flag to represent a language option in your navigation menu, i.e. using a Chinese flag to represent Traditional Chinese is a mistake and demonstrates a lack of respect for the differences within the China region. Instead, the Taiwan or Hong Kong flag should be used in this instance. Don’t ever use the wrong Chinese character to represent either Traditional or Simplified Chinese language versions, i.e. use the Traditional character if you want to indicate that this particular site is in Traditional Chinese. When in doubt about the correct language option or flag representation to use, be sure to check, re-check, and then check it again. Don’t risk making an embarrassing mistake that not only could alienate your Chinese language audience, but one that could prove a costly mistake that your business can never recover from.

Want to hear more about how can help you achieve success with Chinese-speaking markets?

Call Digital Fuel’s Hong Kong Office: (+852) 8191 1192 Email: [email protected]

Author: Digital Fuel

Words by the Digital Fuel team members