First of all, I wish everyone celebrating, a very Merry Christmas. And, to everyone else, Happy Holidays.
Being an illiterate, albeit an earnest inquirer, I found this piece in the Economist to be highly informative and interesting. In particular, the robust comments for the piece are very instructive.
I HAVE exercised Chinese commenters with a few posts that were seen as either simplistic or biased. So let me offer two competing visions of Chinese that help explain what the two sides disagree on. These are archetypes which few partisans may agree with every word of. But they are the basic poles of thinking about Chinese, I think. I submit them for the good of commenters, who should debate them to shreds.
In brief, Chinese traditionalists believe-
1) Chinese is one language with dialects.
2) Chinese is best written in the character-based on the Hanzi system.
3) All Chinese read and share the same writing system, despite speaking in different ways.
Western linguists tend to respond-
1) Chinese is not a language but a family; the "dialects" are not dialects but languages.
2) Hanzi-based writing is unnecessarily difficult; the characters do not represent "ideas" but "morphemes" (small and combinable units of meaning, like the morphemes of any language). Pinyin(the standard Roman system) could just as easily be used for Chinese. Puns, wordplay and etymology might be sacrificed, but ease of use would be enhanced.
3) Modern Hanzi writing is basically Mandarin with the old characters in a form modified by the People's Republic. Everyone else (Cantonese speakers, say) must either write Mandarin or significantly alter the system to write their own "Chinese".
There are so many arguments packed into these two ideas that it's hard to start, much less finish, in a blog post.