Chinese Dialects

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 16, 2021

While spoken Chinese is a large family of regional, mutually unintelligible languages (aka fāngyán, or "regional languages") all belonging to the Sino-Tibetan language family, within each separate language there may be numerous dialects which, in contrast, are mutually intelligible within the given language – and note that these individual languages may be spread across national borders, especially as regards Southeast Asia.

Fangyan: Regional Languages or Dialects

†† The word fāngyán, here translated as "regional languages", literally means "spoken language". Note that this word is a perfect example of a new word composed of multiple characters which, separately, mean separate things but which, taken together, form a new concept, since, separately,

fāng (方) means "square", "block", etc. (it can also mean "cube"), while yán (言) means "to speak", "to say", and putting this all together, while remembering that the hanzi character was designed to occupy squares, or blocks, of an equal amount of two-dimensional space, we get the result, "spoken language").

Thus there are numerous dialects within, for example, Mandarin, Wu, Yue (aka Cantonese within China and among the Cantonese-Chinese diaspora), and Min, four of the largest Chinese languages. Generally speaking, the greater the geographical spread of the language, the greater the incidence of multiple dialects, though this is not a hard-and-fast rule.

As indicated above, hanzi characters are tonal. This is also the case for all of the Chinese languages. That is, the Chinese character-syllable can have a number of different meanings depending on its pronunciation or intonation. Mandarin, for example, has a mere 4 different tones while Cantonese has 6 different tones (some experts insist that Cantonese has 9 different tones), and Taiwanese (a sub-dialect of Mĭn Nán ("Southern Nan") has 7 different tones.

The largest of the Chinese languages, by far, is Mandarin (Pŭtōnghuà, in Pinyin), which is the first, or primary language, of over 850 million Chinese speakers, and is additionally understood and spoken to one degree or another – i.e., as a secondary language – by numerous other millions of Chinese speakers.

However, due to age-old cultural differences, including matters of cultural pride, the Chinese people who inhabited the coastal region of China (including Hong Kong and Macau) that came to be known in the West as Canton (a Western bastardization of the name "Guangdong", started perhaps by the Portuguese missionaries and repeated thereafter by the other Westerners who would follow) never bothered to learn Mandarin, a habit that has stuck with them to this day. Therefore, when a Cantonese speaker communicates with a Mandarin speaker, the lingua franca is generally English.

Mandarin is arguably the language that is spoken by the largest number of people on earth, being spoken by upwards of 1 billion people, when one factor in those who speak Mandarin as a secondary language. It is of course the official primary language of the Chinese government, meaning that it is also the primary language of the press and the education system in China. Curiously, it is also the primary language in Taiwan, and one of the four official languages of Singapore.

Mandarin's main dialect, Guānhuà†††, is also referred to as Standard Chinese since it is the standard dialect of the country. As the note immediately below indicates, it is also sometimes called "Beijing dialect".

Guānhuà: Official Language or Northern Chinese Dialect

Guānhuà is also often referred to as Běifānghuà, since Běi-fāng-huà = "Northern Chinese dialect":

Northern (as in "Northern capital", Běi jīng) = Běi (北)
Chinese character (or "square") = fāng (方)
dialect ("spoken words") = huà (話).

As can be seen from the map below, gratefully copied from Wikipedia, which shows the bigger-picture distribution of Mandarin within the mainland of china, there are 8 "regional" dialects of Mandarin on the mainland of china alone, though one generally divides Mandarin into a northern, a southern and a southwestern dialect.

Not surprisingly, many if not most Chinese people speak more than one Chinese language, depending on where they live. That is, one speaks the local or regional language of one's birthplace as well as a secondary language – typically Mandarin Chinese, but in some cases (viz., Hong Kong and Macau), even a foreign language such as English or Portuguese can be the secondary language. In other cases, one might speak one's local ethnic language (eg., Hakkanese) as well as the regional language (eg., Shanghainese) and the national language, Mandarin.

The very curious thing about the spread of the Internet and its impact on language is that the major languages are not, as might otherwise have been feared, crowding out the lesser languages. For example, even though Mandarin is spreading throughout China (as well as throughout the world), so are all of the minor Chinese languages, including informal written adaptations of vernacular Chinese languages. This is yet another positive aspect of the Internet and the interest that it generates – via mutual interests/ shared hobbies and the relative ease with which interested parties can interact – in even the most arcane of subjects!

The following is a list of "regional" languages, in order of importance (i.e., measured in terms of the total number of speakers, globally), belonging to the Chinese family of languages:

Pŭtōnghuà (Mandarin) – spoken in the areas depicted on the map above as well as by the Chinese diaspora the world over by about 1 billion people.

Wú– spoken in Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces, in Shanghai, and in parts of Hong Kong by about 77 million people. Its major dialects are Shanghainese and Suzhou.

Yuè (Cantonese) – spoken on the mainland of china in Hong Kong and Macau, in Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces, on Hainan Island ("the mainland of china" distinguishes itself mainly from Taiwan), and elsewhere outside China in Singapore and Malaysia – as well as in numerous other countries – by about 66 million people. Cantonese is the primary official language of Hong Kong, with English as the secondary official language, while Cantonese is the official language of Macau but with Portuguese as the secondary official language, the latter thanks to the early Portuguese influence (Hong Kong was also much influenced by the Portuguese but became a British Colony during the so-called Unequal Treaties (1842-1933) era).

Hakkanese – spoken by about 60 million people spread all over China and in fact the world. The Hakka, alongside Mandarin speakers, make up one of the broadest, geographically speaking, language diaspora in the world (since the Hakka are also an ethnic minority, they also make up one of the largest ethnic and cultural diaspora in the world). There are large Hakka communities in the US and the UK, in Mauritius and in French Guiana. Hakka women have traditionally enjoyed a more equal footing (also in a very literal sense, since the Hakka did not participate in the widespread Chinese practice of binding women's feet) vis-à-vis their husbands than have their sisters.

Mĭn – spoken by about 59 million people, the Mĭn language has a number of very distinctive dialects corresponding to distinctively different geographical areas (see the Wikimedia map immediately below, noting that "Minnan" means "Southern Min", of which there are numerous sub-dialects, and noting that the inset in the upper right-hand corner of the map shows Hainan Province and peninsular Guangdong Province).
The Mín Bĕi (Northern Min) dialect is spoken by some 10 million people, concentrated in northern Fujian Province and, outside China, mainly in Singapore.
The Mín Zhōng (Central Min) dialect is spoken mainly in west-central Fujian Province by about 10,000 people.
Pŭ-Xián, despite its name, is also an Mín language that is spoken by hardly more than 6000 people concentrated in the coastal part of central Fujian Province in the municipality proper of the prefecture-level city of Putian and in contiguous Xianyou county (hence the name, Pŭ-Xián), which also belongs to the prefecture.
The Mín Dōng (Eastern Min) dialect is spoken by some 260,000 people. In China, these are located mainly in the coastal part of central Fujian Province. In addition, Mín Dōng is spoken by diaspora in Brunei, on Java and Bali (Indonesia), on peninsular Malaysia, in Singapore, and in Thailand.
The Mĭn Nán (Southern Min) dialect is spoken by some 49 million people concentrated mainly in the near-coastal and coastal area of southern China, including the southern portion of Zhejiang and Jiangxi Provinces and much of Fujian and Guangdong Provinces, parts of Taiwan (where it is alternately called Taiwanese and Hoklo) and, beyond China, in Singapore and Malaysia (where it is called Hokkien), and in other countries in the region.

Jìnyŭ – or Jinese, is spoken by about 45 million people concentrated principally in Shanxi Province, in the central part of Inner Mongolia (Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region), and in parts of Hebei, Henan, and Shaanxi Provinces. There is a dispute as to whether Jinese is a separate language or a dialect of Mandarin. Up until the 1980s, for example, it was indeed considered simply a dialect of Mandarin.

Xiāng (Hunanese) – is spoken by about 25 million people concentrated chiefly in Hunan Province, but Hunanese speakers can also be found in Sichuan, Guangxi, and Guangdong Provinces. The arguably most famous Hunanese speaker in history was Mao Zedong.

Gàn (Jiangxinese) – is spoken by about 21 million people, mainly concentrated in Jiangxi Province and in parts of Hubei, Hunan, Anhui, and Fujian Provinces.

Huī-yǔ (Hui) – aka Huizhou Chinese (Huīzhōuhu), is spoken by about 4.6 million people located in 12 counties spread across southern Anhui Province and the neighboring areas of Zhejiang and Jiangxi Provinces. Similar to the case with Jinese above, Hui was formerly considered a dialect of Wú by some and as a dialect of Gàn by others before it was eventually classified as a separate Chinese language, Huizhou Chinese.

Pínghuà (Pinghua) – aka Guǎngxī Pínghuà, is spoken by some 2.3 million people living mainly in parts of Guangxi Province (Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region) and parts of Yunnan Province. In Guangxi Province, Pínghuà is the secondary language to the Zhuang language (Zhuang belongs not to the Chinese language family, but to the Tai language family). The northern sub-dialect of Pínghuà is centered around the city of Guilin, home of China Travel, while the southern sub-dialect of Pínghuà is centered around the city of Nanning, also in Guangxi Province.

Pínghuà is unusual in that it has four distinct, so-called checked tones, or glottal stops, i.e., not tones in the usual phonetic sense, but syllable characters that end abruptly in what is called a stop consonant (p, t, and k). Pínghuà also differs from other Chinese languages in that it borrows freely from the Zhuang language (indeed, the checked tones of Pínghuà may also be borrowed from the Zhuang language), such as, for example, the final particle "wei" that is employed in Pínghuà with imperative-case sentences.

Dungan – is spoken by some 50,000 speakers located mainly in the western region of China and in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Dungan is the only Chinese language that is not written in Chinese characters. Formerly, it was written in Arabic (the Dungan, who call themselves Hui (not to be confused with the Hui who live chiefly in the Huizhou area of Anhui Province and who speak Huizhou Chinese) – but who are decidedly a Chinese ethnic minority with physical traits that proclaim them Chinese – converted to Islam centuries ago) but now it is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, a testimony to the Dungan's identification with the Central Asian cultures of the former Soviet Union, which union encompassed, as the reader will know, both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

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