Did you know that there are 302 individual languages spoken in China?
With this information, you can probably understand why it used to be a pet peeve of mine when someone asked me if I was learning Chinese when I was a student.
This irked me because I wasn’t learning Chinese; I was learning Mandarin.
But this can be a difficult concept to grasp, especially for beginners and people who haven’t had experience with the language.
The answer to this question comes with a lot of other questions, like:
Why and how are there so many different dialects in China?
Are they similar to each other or vastly different?
What are the most common ones?
And, finally, what’s the best way to answer that big, burning question, “is Chinese a language?”
Don’t fret, though!
I’m about to answer all your questions about China’s languages so that the next time you’re asked whether or not Chinese is a language, you’ll know exactly how to respond.
What Is the Official Language of China?
But even though Mandarin is the official language of three countries and is spoken by so many people, each country and individual regions add their own twists to it.
For example, there are slight differences between Taiwanese Mandarin and Standard Chinese Mandarin.
In Taiwan, words and syllables are pronounced differently, tones are sometimes changed and there are even a few vocabulary words that are different than in Chinese Mandarin.
This is similar to how British English, American English and Australian English are all slightly different.
Although there are over 300 Chinese dialects, every school in China is required to teach Mandarin to students from kindergarten through high school.
As a result, nearly everyone in China can speak Mandarin, whether they use it at home or not.
Some regions are known to speak “better Mandarin” than others. And then there are regions in China where people rarely use it, such as in Hong Kong where Cantonese is the primary dialect.
However, if you want to be able to communicate regardless of where you go in China, learning Mandarin is your best bet.
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The Vastly Interesting History of China’s Dialects
Were there always this many Chinese dialects?
How did there become so many?
Let’s take a look at the history of China’s written language and original spoken languages.
China’s Written Language
According to EthnoMed, Chinese is the world’s oldest written language. It was developed over 6,000 years ago.
China has always used characters for its writing system, and nowadays, a typical full-length dictionary contains 40,000 of them.
However, knowing between 2,000 and 3,000 characters is enough to be able to read a Chinese newspaper.
The writing system is one of China’s most valuable inventions.
Many of the oral dialects are mutually unintelligible—meaning they’re so different from one another that speakers of one can’t understand speakers of another. Interestingly though, all of the languages share the same writing system.
Due to multiple revolutions and political changes, Chinese characters have also been altered over the years.
Historically, traditional characters were used by everyone in China.
However, in the 1950s, simplified characters were declared the main writing system in China after the People’s Republic of China was founded.
Simplified characters have existed for centuries, but weren’t widely used until they were enforced by the government in order to improve literacy rates in the country.
Unlike traditional characters, and as the name suggests, the simplified characters are much easier to learn and write.
The Original Chinese Dialects: Old Chinese and Middle Chinese
EthnoMed also reports that many of China’s dialects were formed between the 8th century and 3rd century BC.
Furthermore, all of them are classified as deriving from the Sino-Tibetan language family.
According to Today Translations, linguists believe there was an even older language, Proto-Sino-Tibetan, that was actually the original Chinese language.
However, linguists have yet to be able to reconstruct it.
Something that has been reconstructed, however, is Old Chinese.
It was the common language of China in the early and middle Zhou Dynasty (11th-7th centuries BC). Its reconstruction was first attempted by linguists during the Qing Dynasty centuries later.
Old Chinese was first discovered by linguists in Shijing poetry, inscribed on bronze artifacts and in parts of the Yijing.
These inscriptions gave hints about the ancient language’s phonetics, such as the discovery that Old Chinese included heavy breathing for differentiating consonants.
During the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties (7th-10th centuries AD), Middle Chinese became the common language.
It was further divided into Early Middle Chinese (Qieyun) and Late Middle Chinese (Guangyun).
From there, hundreds of Chinese dialects evolved.
Is Chinese a Language?
The short and sweet answer is no.
We must think of Chinese as an all-encompassing category or group of dialects, as they’re considered in China.
However, there’s really no objective difference between a “language” and a “dialect.” There are thousands of dialects spoken all over the world that linguists strongly believe should be considered languages, but in most cases, they’re classified as “dialects” for almost purely political purposes.
Since many Chinese “dialects” are in fact mutually unintelligible—meaning, two speakers of two different dialects can’t understand one another—they should be considered languages. However, since Mandarin is the official language, the others are classified as “dialects.”
That leads us to the next question.
How Many Chinese Dialects Exist Today?
Although there are over 300 dialects, there are eight primary ones that are generally mutually unintelligible.
According to Asian Absolute, these eight dialects can be further divided into sub-dialects.
But before diving in, take a look at this fun video featuring 25 different Chinese dialects.
You’ll notice how some are more similar to one another than others.
1. Standard Mandarin
The first major Chinese dialect is Mandarin. We already discussed how it’s spoken by nearly 900 million people and that it’s the official language of three countries. If you’re going to learn any Chinese dialect, this is probably the most practical one to learn.
2. Modern Standard Mandarin
There’s a slight difference between Modern Standard Mandarin and Standard Mandarin. This dialect is spoken primarily in Beijing and Northern China and differs greatly from Southern and Central Mandarin because of the accent.
Modern Standard Mandarin uses what’s called 儿化音 (ér huà yīn) — “r” sound.
This means in Beijing people typically add an “r” sound to the end of words, such as:
一点儿 (yī diǎn(r)) — a little
花儿 (huā(r)) — flower
哪儿 (nǎ(r)) — where
However, unlike many of the other dialects, Modern Standard Mandarin and Standard Mandarin are mutually intelligible—meaning speakers of both can understand one another.
Min is the perfect example of dialects that have sub-dialects.
Although many of China’s dialects have numerous variants, Min has the most, including Northern Min, Southern Min, Central Min and Shaojiang Min.
Collectively, it’s spoken by approximately 75 million people and can be heard primarily in the Fujian Province.
Like Min, Wu has a substantial amount of sub-dialects. However, Shanghainese Wu is the most common. It’s used mainly in and around Shanghai, as well as the larger Yangtze river delta.
Primarily spoken in Western China, the Gan dialect has about 60 million speakers, according to Omniglot. Gan is widely used in the provinces of Jiangxi, Anhui, Fujian, Hubei and Hunan.
This dialect is predominately used in the Hunan Province. Xiang is also known as Hunanese. It’s spoken by about 37 million people, which makes it one of the most endangered dialects of the eight primary ones.
7. Hakka or Kejia
This dialect is the most similar to Gan. These two dialects even share a few words.
Originally, it was spoken by the Hakka people, but today the dialect is used by less than 80 million.
Many people who’ve migrated from China to other countries speak Hakka. Because of this, the language can be found in numerous areas, such as Jiangxi, Guizhou, Guangdong and Hong Kong, as well as in many countries in Southeast Asia.
8. Yue (Cantonese)
Last but not least is Cantonese, also known as Yue dialect.
According to Business Insider, Cantonese has about 60 million speakers. This dialect is the most common one in Southern China and is widely used in Guangdong, Macau and Hong Kong.
The capital of Guangdong, Guangzhou, was once named Canton, hence the name Cantonese.
So, the simple answer as you now thoroughly understand is—no, Chinese is not a language, but rather a blanket term for over 300 dialects spoken in China today.
Next time someone asks you, “is Chinese a language,” you’ll be well-equipped to enlighten them with all of this fascinating history and information about the languages of China.
Brooke Bagley is a freelance writer and a passionate language learner. She’s learned Mandarin Chinese for seven years, Spanish for three and Indonesian for one. Aside from languages, Brooke runs her freelance writing business, Writing & Thriving and specializes in B2B copywriting, content marketing and holistic health and wellness.
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