Meet the Chinese Language: The Master Guide to Chinese and Its Dialects
There’s so much to uncover with the Chinese language, in both its written and spoken forms.
I’ve lived in China for the majority of my life and I still learn new things every day.
If you find Chinese as mysterious as the dark side of the moon, then you’ve come to the right place!
Ready to explore what Chinese is all about?
- What Is Chinese?
- Is Chinese a Language?
- Chinese Culture
- FAQ About Learning Chinese
What Is Chinese?
A Brief History
Among all modern languages, the Chinese language family is the oldest, with written origins dating back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1046 BCE). That means written Chinese has been around for over 3,600 years, with spoken Chinese being around for much longer.
Although Chinese has branched out into various dialects and sub-dialects, written Chinese has helped maintain communication among the diverse population.
This is how written Chinese developed over the dynasties:
- Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE): Ancestral pictograms carved on animal bones and tortoise shells.
- Zhou Dynasty (1040-771 BCE): Bronze inscriptions with more structure and thicker lines.
- Warring States Period (475-221 BCE): No standard script; each state had its own!
- Qing Dynasty (221-206 BCE): Qin Shi Huang unites China and standardizes script as small seal characters with proportional brushstrokes within diamond shapes. This is the origin of the contemporary writing system.
- Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE): Official script developed to look less like pictograms and more like characters made up of broken and curved brushstrokes. Official script later began transitioning into regular script.
- Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589 CE): Regular script changed stylistically over the years.
- Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE): Regular script reached its final form known as Traditional Chinese.
- Republic of China (1912-today): In the 1950s, the government introduced Simplified Chinese, or characters with fewer brushstrokes, to increase literacy in the country. Pinyin was also introduced.
Where Chinese is Spoken
Primarily, Chinese languages are spoken on the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
Mandarin Chinese is also one of the official languages of Singapore. Mandarin and its varieties are also widely spoken in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. The Philippines also boasts numerous Chinese communities.
But you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to experience the Chinese culture and language. Many major cities and travel hubs in the Americas and Europe have their own little Chinatowns.
Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese
There are two sets of Chinese characters: Traditional and Simplified.
As mentioned earlier, Traditional characters developed into their final form during the Tang Dynasty. But with the rise of print media in the 1950s, the government needed to simplify the writing system so the nation could have access to news and announcements. Around 2,000 characters were simplified.
To compare the complexities between the two, here are a few examples of traditional and simplified characters side by side:
麵 vs. 面 (miàn) — Noodles
腦 vs. 脑 (nǎo) — Brain
國 vs. 国 (guó) — Country
Chinese Language Basics
Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet, but it does have a pronunciation guide that uses the same letters as the Latin alphabet. This guide is known as pinyin. It was introduced in schools shortly after the formation of Simplified Chinese.
Like in English, pinyin is composed of consonants and vowels.
Here are the pinyin consonants, also known as initials:
b p m f
d t n l g k h
j q x zh ch sh r z c s y
In Chinese, vowels can be singular or combinations. Here are the pinyin vowels, also known as finals:
a e i o u ü
ai ei ui ao ou
iu ie üe er
an en in un ün
ang eng ing ong
A pinyin syllable is created by combining one initial and one final.
Although these are familiar letters, they aren’t pronounced like you would in English. To give you an idea of how different phonetics are in Chinese, here are the first four pinyin letters with an English pronunciation guide:
b (“bwo”) p (“pwo”) m (“mwo”) f (“fwo”)
There are only so many combinations you can make with pinyin, and thus many characters share the same spelling. But with tones, you can easily differentiate between words like 好 (hǎo) and 号 (hào), which mean “good” and “number” respectively.
Most Chinese language varieties operate on four main tones and a neutral tone (Cantonese is the exception, but more on that later).
These are the tones in Mandarin Chinese:
- The first or flat tone as seen in 妈 (mā)
- The second or rising tone as seen in 钱 (qián)
- The third or dipping tone as seen in 远 (yuǎn)
- The fourth or falling tone as seen in 慢 (màn)
- The fifth or neutral tone with no mark, as seen in 了 (le)
Tone marks are always placed on vowels. If a pinyin syllable has more than one vowel, the tone mark would be placed according to this order: a, o, e, i, u, ü.
Character Strokes and Stroke Order
Just like with the letters of the alphabet, there’s a proper way to write out Chinese characters.
But first, let’s talk about the different strokes used to form those characters.
Generally, there are eight types of strokes. Many of these can be used together to create compound strokes:
丶, known as 点 (diǎn) or “dot”
一, known as 橫 (héng) or “horizontal stroke”
丨, known as 竖 (shù) or “vertical stroke”
丿, known as 撇 (piě) or “slant,” drawn from right to left
⁄ , known as 提 (tí) or “raise,” drawn from left to right
㇏, known as 捺 (nà) or “forcefully pressing,” drawn from left to right
㇄, known as 弯 (wān) or “curve,” drawn from left to right
亅, known as 钩 (gōu) or “hook,” a part of compound strokes that can go in any direction
As for the stroke order, the basic rules are:
- Left to right, top to bottom
- Horizontal first, vertical second
- Diagonal to the left first, diagonal to the right second
- Center first for vertically symmetrical characters
- Outside to inside before closing the frame for boxed hanzi
A Chinese character can be divided into smaller building blocks known as radicals and components.
Radicals are like the first letter of a word in that they’re your reference for looking words up in the dictionary. Although these days, you can look simply look up Chinese words using pinyin.
There are 214 radicals. Each character can only contain one radical that’s normally found at the left or the top of the character. The other parts are components.
Radicals and components can offer clues on the definition or pronunciation.
Let’s look at the character 床 (chuáng), which means “bed.”
广 is the radical and 木 is the component.
广 (guǎng) — wide
木 (mù) — wood
The radical 广 offers a phonetic clue since 广 and 床 have similar pinyin spellings. 木 is a semantic component since “wood” is related to “bed.” 广 also contributes to the overall meaning as a bed can be “a wide piece of wood.”
I’ve heard one too many times that Chinese has no grammar, which is completely impossible. Every language has some sort of system in place for constructing a sentence.
So while it doesn’t have tenses, genders and plurals in the traditional sense, grammar does exist in Chinese.
The lack of those very common grammar elements often throws people off. But the truth is, it makes Chinese grammar that much easier to learn. The fewer the rules, the less there is to remember!
Another great thing about Chinese grammar is that there are way fewer exceptions to the rules, especially when you compare it to English.
Remember learning “I before E except after C?” It’s totally bogus considering it’s got a ton of exceptions, like the words “seize” and “weird.” And there’s a lot more irregularities in English on top of that. It’s even confusing to native speakers!
Chinese grammar is pretty straightforward in comparison, with only maybe a couple of exceptions here and there for certain rules.
Also, basic sentence structure in Chinese is pretty similar to English.
Is Chinese a Language?
The answer is yes and no. Let me explain.
The reason why it isn’t a language is because “Chinese” is actually the blanket term for all Chinese languages and dialects. Thus, Chinese is a group of languages rather than a singular tongue.
But more often than not, people are referring to the Standard Mandarin dialect when they mention Chinese. So from that perspective, Chinese would be considered a language, though they really should be calling it Standard Mandarin instead.
Under the Chinese language umbrella, there are eight major dialects that each have their own subdialects and regional variations. Technically, these dialects can be considered Chinese languages, while their subdialects can simply be dialects.
Let’s take a look at the eight main Chinese dialects:
1. 官话 (guān huà) — Mandarin Chinese
Colloquially known as 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà) meaning “common speak,” Mandarin Chinese is a family of dialects that are spoken across the mainland, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Linguistically speaking, Mandarin Chinese is not the same as Standard Mandarin, so Standard Mandarin is what people are referring to when they say that Mandarin is the national language of China.
There are roughly 1.1 billion native Mandarin Chinese speakers around the world.
2. 晋语 (jìn yǔ) — Jin Chinese
Jin Chinese is a broad group of dialects located in Northern China. The majority of Shanxi province, central Inner Mongolia and surrounding areas in Hebei and Henan provinces all speak Jin dialects.
3. 吴语 (wú yǔ) — Wu Chinese
The most widely spoken variety of Wu is Shanghainese, so people will often say “Shanghainese” in place of “Wu.”
Evidently, Wu is spoken in the municipality of Shanghai and surrounding provinces in Central Eastern China, such as Zhejiang. Wu is also spoken in Jiangsu, just south of the Yangtze River. There are an estimated 81.4 million speakers of the Wu dialect throughout China.
4. 赣语 (gàn yǔ) — Gan
Gan dialects are spoken by more than 22 million people in Jiangxi and neighboring provinces like Fujian, Hunan, Hubei and Anhui.
5. 湘语 (xiāng yǔ) — Xiang Chinese or Hunanese
Mostly spoken in Hunan Province, Xiang or Hunanese is also prevalent in Northern Guangxi, as well as some parts of Guizhou and Hubei provinces. This language is spoken by about 37 million people.
6. 闽语 (mǐn yǔ) — Min Chinese
The group of dialects spoken in Southern Zhejiang, Eastern Guangdong, Fujian, Hainan and most of Taiwan is known as Min Chinese. Min varieties of Chinese are spoken by about 75 million people throughout China and southeast Asia.
Over in Taiwan, Min is often referred to as Taiwanese or Taiwanese Hokkien.
7. 客家语 (kè jiā yǔ) — Kejia or Hakka Chinese
In the southeastern coastal region of China, Kejia is spoken by the ethnic group known as Hakka. Hakka dialects are also common in Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities, namely in East and Southeast Asia, and they are spoken by about 48 million people.
8. 粤语 (yuè yǔ) — Yue Chinese
Yue is spoken primarily in the “Canton” region (now known as Guangzhou) and surrounding regions. This includes the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, western Hainan, as well as off the mainland in Hong Kong and Macau.
The most prominent variety of Yue is Cantonese, and a lot of the time, people will use “Yue” and “Cantonese” interchangeably. Cantonese is the second most widely spoken dialect after Standard Mandarin, with an estimated 84 million speakers.
Standard Mandarin vs. Cantonese
As I’ve mentioned, the top two most widely spoken varieties of Chinese are Standard Mandarin and Cantonese, but these dialects definitely have more differences between them than similarities.
Firstly, Cantonese is localized to Guangdong and surrounding areas, whereas Mandarin is the national language is spoken throughout the mainland and several other countries. Mandarin can potentially be the gateway to other dialects but Cantonese would be very specific to Yue subdialects.
Cantonese uses Traditional Chinese writing, while Mandarin uses Simplified Chinese—except in Taiwan where Mandarin speakers use Traditional characters. And since Cantonese is very much a colloquial language, a lot of characters had to be added for modern written Cantonese. In addition to Traditional Chinese characters, Cantonese also has a set of characters specific to the dialect.
Standard Mandarin and Cantonese sound nothing alike and are therefore mutually unintelligible.
Unlike Mandarin which utilizes pinyin, Cantonese doesn’t have one standard romanization system. Although there are multiple being used, probably two of the more mainstream romanization systems used by non-Cantonese speakers are Jyutping and Yale.
Tones are also simpler in Mandarin. Cantonese has “nine sounds, six tones,” which includes both pitch and movement of sound.
There are some similarities between Western and Chinese humor, including sarcasm, hilariously bad jokes and puns. They’re just a little different in China.
When it comes to Chinese sarcasm, it’s more about weakening the quality of something to make it less offensive and more jokey. Sarcasm in America is more about conveying the opposite of what’s being said through tone.
Out West, you’ve got dry humor. But over in China, they’ve got cold jokes.
What’s the difference? Well, dry humor is blunt and unintentionally funny. Cold jokes, on the other hand, aren’t actually funny; however, that’s what makes them funny.
Confused? Basically, cold jokes are funny because they’re so bad.
Another funny aspect of Chinese is homophones, or similar-sounding words that can be used as puns.
You know how I mentioned that tones are there to help differentiate between similar pinyin syllables?
Let me give you an example:
老公 (lǎo gōng) and 劳工 (láo gōng) sound very similar, but 老公 means “husband” while 劳工 means “worker.”
As you can see, tones are important, but so is context! Without the context of a sentence or conversation, someone could easily get the two mixed up!
Chinese Gestures and Body Language
A language is always more than just the words that you utter. It’s also about mannerisms and the way you move as you speak.
Here are just a few examples of uniquely Chinese gestures.
To greet a Chinese person without using words, you can simply nod and smile. Hugging is more of a western way of greeting someone or showing affection, so you won’t see a lot of Chinese people hugging each other.
When referencing oneself in conversation, Chinese people will touch their noses.
Another fun gesture is counting with fingers. In Chinese, you can count up to ten by just using one hand!
It always surprises me when people say they don’t like Chinese food, especially when the food is just as diverse as the languages.
The country spans across many climatic zones, from cold to tropical. Each region has access to specific resources, so staples will vary. Historically, the weather, soil and minerals in the North and Northwest were the most ideal for growing wheat instead of rice, meaning noodles were more prevalent in that region over rice. Rice traditionally grew and continues to thrive in central areas like Hunan province.
While both foods are eaten across the country, people up north tend to prefer noodles while those down south prefer rice.
Chinese flavors also differ across the regions. From mala spicy Sichuan dishes to halal Xinjiang food, fresh and soupy Shangdong cuisine to presentation-forward Guangdong eats, there’s so much to experience when it comes to Chinese cuisine.
Food is deeply rooted in history, tradition and culture, as ingredients play a huge role in Traditional Chinese Medicine, tea ceremonies and more. Meals also play a huge role in social customs.
Chinese Popular Culture
With the largest video gaming market in the world, it’s no surprise that video games are extremely popular in China, especially mobile games. One game that school-aged kids are particularly fond of is “Minecraft”.
The film industry has also grown rapidly over the years, with many Chinese production companies financing blockbusters featuring Dwayne Johnson and other Hollywood names. While China favors domestic releases over foreign titles, Marvel movies are a huge hit among Chinese audiences.
In terms of social media, China has developed many successful and intuitive apps. Just look at WeChat, originally a social messaging app that has turned into an all-in-one tool for hailing a cab, paying bills, shopping, booking train tickets, ordering food and so much more.
You know TikTok, right? Lots of people refer to Douyin as the Chinese TikTok. While technically true, TikTok wouldn’t exist without Douyin since it came first in 2016. TikTok only came about when the creators decided to expand into the international market a year later.
FAQ About Learning Chinese
Why Learn Chinese?
There are plenty of reasons why you should learn Chinese!
Learning Chinese opens you up to a new world of business, culture, education, relationships, travel and more. There are over 1.3 billion native Chinese speakers scattered around the world—that’s a lot of people you can potentially connect with. Whether that’s for business or pleasure, survival or effective communication, that’s up to you!
Also, I won’t go as far as saying knowing Chinese makes you smarter, but it’s said that it takes more brainpower to be able to communicate in Chinese. Take that piece of information as you will.
Which Variety of Chinese Should I Learn?
This completely depends on your intentions for learning Chinese.
Maybe you plan on moving to Hong Kong in the future, making Cantonese your go-to language to learn.
Perhaps you’re planning on trekking through Inner Mongolia, in which case, a Jin dialect would be helpful on your trip.
Or maybe your in-laws are immigrants who would greatly appreciate you learning their local dialect rather than Standard Mandarin.
The Chinese language you learn depends entirely on who you plan on communicating with. But if you’re just hoping to converse with Chinese people in general, Standard Mandarin is a great place to start.
How Hard Is It to Learn Chinese?
Even though hanzi, or Chinese characters, are such a large departure from the English alphabet, Mandarin Chinese isn’t actually that hard to learn. At least, not as hard as many make it out to be.
Honestly, the hardest part of Mandarin isn’t even the reading and writing. It’s actually listening and pronunciation. Everything else about Chinese is fairly straightforward and logical. As long as you put in the time for listening to authentic dialogues and conversing with native speakers, you’ll be able to train your brain to pronounce words correctly and improve your accent overall.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Chinese?
As someone who first learned Mandarin as a kid and is now living in China, I’ve never stopped learning Chinese. It’s basically been a lifelong learning process.
It’s difficult to put a timeline on when your learning is “complete.” Academically, I was considered an intermediate when I learned Chinese in elementary school. Some might say that was quick, but I learned in an international school in Shanghai. Plus, you pick up languages more easily as a kid than as an adult.
There are lots of programs these days that focus on conversational fluency, so it’s possible to be conversationally fluent in just a few months. But being able to verbally communicate doesn’t mean your reading and writing skills are up to par.
Overall, I’d say it can be as quick as a few weeks for you to master basic communication but it takes years to reach the native speaker level.
How Many Characters Do I Need to Know?
There are over 50,000 Chinese characters in total. The magic number to be able to communicate effectively and read texts like newspapers is at least 2,000.
But the number of characters you need to know depends on the level of proficiency you want to achieve.
If you’re basing it on the HSK or 汉语水平考试 (hàn yǔ shuǐ píng kǎo shì), the official Chinese proficiency test, this is the expected character count for each level:
- HSK 1: 150+
- HSK 2: 300+
- HSK 3: 600+
- HSK 4: 1000+
- HSK 5: 1500+
- HSK 6: 2500+
Do note that the character count is different from the number of vocabulary words you need to know. The required vocab terms are about double the number of characters per level.
HSK standards are also currently being updated, so these numbers will be changing in the next couple of years.
Which Jobs Require Chinese?
First and foremost, Chinese is required for Chinese language education jobs. In order to become a Chinese language instructor, you’ll need at least a Bachelor’s degree in Chinese and a teaching certificate.
If you plan on teaching English to Chinese students, knowing Chinese would be helpful for translating words they can’t understand.
Outside of the education sector, Chinese would be required for translators and interpreters. Subtitlers and transcribers need a strong command of Chinese as well.
Although Chinese isn’t mandatory for other industries such as sales and finance, being proficient in Mandarin certainly opens doors for you and widens your pool of potential employers.
How Do I Write My Name in Chinese?
First, do a syllable breakdown of your name. From there, you can use your best judgment to match those syllables to pinyin. Then you can look up and pick characters based on your name in pinyin.
Just remember to check the definitions of characters you end up choosing. Make sure you don’t come up with a name that’s embarrassing, offensive or nonsensical!
You might have to take some creative liberties when spelling your name in pinyin. For example, the name “Stephanie” might be translated as shi fan ni since “Steph” is really difficult to sound out in pinyin.
If any syllables in your name don’t match anything in pinyin, feel free to use two pinyin syllables. For instance, none of the pinyin syllables on their own sound like “Mike,” but you can use a combination of pinyin syllables like mai ke.
You can ask a native speaker to help you out if you’re not up to the task.
What’s the Best Way to Start Learning Chinese?
Because Chinese sounds so different from English, the best way to start learning Chinese is by immersing yourself in a Chinese environment.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to move to a Chinese-speaking country—it simply means incorporating your chosen Chinese language into your current lifestyle. That can be in the form of taking an actual immersion course, actively participating on Chinese social media, listening to the top 100 hits in China or anything else that will give you as much exposure to the language as possible.
It also helps to align your method with your hobbies and interests. Some people even choose to learn Chinese through their favorite video games by switching the language settings.
That was a lot of information to get through, but believe me — we’ve only scratched the surface. There’s so much to learn about Chinese, but hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough for you to delve into that world yourself!