Chinese Language Day is the 20th April. It’s a time chosen to fit in with the Chinese celebration of Guyu, which honours Cangjie – the four-eyed mythical figure who is traditionally understood to have created Chinese characters in the time of the Yellow Emperor, around 5000 years ago…

The United Nations’ series of “language days” are designed to promote the use of the six official languages of the UN as well as to celebrate cultural and linguistic diversity. In this article, we’ll take a look at the languages spoken in China with a similar goal in mind.

What is the language of China?

Mandarin is the most-spoken language in the world, with over 1.5 billion speakers. When most people think of “Chinese”, it is Mandarin that they are picturing. But Mandarin Chinese is far from the only variant of the Chinese language – or the only language spoken in China…

In fact, there are a great number of Chinese languages. These include eight primary spoken dialects within mainland China, which are – in the main – mutually unintelligible. Remember – this is a country which is both very large and very, very old. Different regions within the vast expanse of terrain that is China can be separated not only by great distances but also by broadly impassable topographical features such as mountain ranges.

Understanding the situation is complicated by the fact that, while many Chinese people in different geographical areas of the country may not understand each other when they speak their regional dialect, they may share the same written language. Even if their pronunciation of different characters within that language may vary.

This is even true across locations as distinct as Taiwan and Hong Kong, for example. Both share, with some important differences, Traditional Chinese characters as their written script. But in Taiwan, Mandarin is spoken. In Hong Kong, most people speak Cantonese.

To get a proper hold on this, let’s break it down a little:

What is the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese?

Let’s start where things are – relatively speaking – simplest. There are only two scripts used to write the Chinese language. These are:

  • Simplified Chinese – was widely promoted in the early 1950s as part of a system of Communist reforms in mainland China designed to improve literacy amongst the country’s huge population.
  • Traditional Chinese – the pre-reform system of Chinese writing.

The Simplified Chinese writing system mandated the following differences to Traditional Chinese:

  1. Reduced strokes – the number of “strokes” (i.e. lines) required to write a character was reduced.
  2. Reduced number of characters – the overall number of characters was lowered.
  3. Character selection – where several characters could previously be used to represent the same idea, one – usually the most popular – was now chosen as being the “correct” one.

But the work to simplify the language in the 1950s was really just one stage in a longer process. It really began in the late 19th century – and it’s still an ongoing one. Regular updates to the list of standardised characters are still happening. The last one, at time of writing, was in 2013.

That is not to say there is only one version of Simplified Chinese and one version of Traditional Chinese though. There are in fact four major written Chinese language versions. The use of each one tends to correspond to a different region.

Where is Simplified Chinese used?

Simplified Mandarin in Mainland China, Malaysia and overseas

This is the written Chinese language variant most often referred to as “Simplified Chinese”. It’s the official script of mainland China. Thus the vocabulary and phrasing of the official spoken dialect of China – Mandarin – is apparent within it.

Simplified Mandarin in Singapore

Also usually referred to as “Simplified Chinese”, though generally with a clear “Singapore” note attached, the written variant of Chinese used in Singapore has a lot in common with that used in mainland China. However, it has evolved its own vocabulary and style not used on the mainland.

This means that while a translation targeting mainland China might be understood in Singapore, it will clearly not be designed with a native eye in mind. Where is Traditional Chinese used? |

Traditional Mandarin in Taiwan

The reforms instituted in mainland China in the 1950s did not affect Taiwan. Thus, Traditional Chinese remains the written script. A native Taiwanese reader will be accustomed to different phrasing and vocabulary from a reader on the mainland too – even though the official spoken dialect of Taiwan is also Mandarin.

Traditional Cantonese in Hong Kong, Macao and overseas

Hong Kong’s long period of British rule means it uses Cantonese as its official spoken and written dialect.

Readers used to the Traditional Mandarin Chinese used in Taiwan will likely be able to understand the Traditional Cantonese used in Hong Kong, however phrasing and vocabulary can be quite different. They will also come across some characters which are completely unknown at home. That’s because quite a few characters in Traditional Cantonese do not exist in Traditional Mandarin at all.

The evolution of Traditional and Simplified Chinese

Languages are not static objects. Simplified and Traditional Chinese continue to evolve naturally. There are now many new ideas and words in mainland China’s Simplified Chinese which do not occur in Hong Kong Traditional Chinese, for example. Similarly, the ways in which the Chinese variants are used diverge as different countries or regions develop in asymmetrical ways, experiencing different events as well as different political or societal changes.

In fact, this phenomenon is largely the reason why China has so many languages in the first place…

Why does China have so many languages?

If you’ve reached this far into this article, the question “why does China have so many languages” has probably occurred to you well before now. As is perhaps fitting for Chinese, the answer is relatively simple – but also hugely complicated.

To the outside eye, it’s sometimes difficult to truly understand just how big the People’s Republic of China really is. It’s larger than all of Europe put together. With a history and diversity of language that’s consequently just as large – if not larger.

So how can we get a firmer grip on what this means for the Chinese language?

The Latin angle

A way of thinking about the huge variations in written and spoken Chinese which makes sense to a Western mind is the influence of Latin on European languages. Around 2000 years ago, Latin was used by most of Europe’s administrators and scholars. It influenced how all of the languages it touched evolved while not ruling out local variants and divergence.

Likewise, Greater China had its own “Latin” – Classical Chinese, a form of Old Chinese – in which many works of classical Chinese literature are written.

Historical divergence

It’s been about 2000 years since Classical Chinese and Latin had their influences over these huge regions on different sides of the world. Think about the events Europe or the United States have been through in that time (that’s about seven or eight times the total length of history of the United States for anyone that’s counting).

China has been more or less unified for the past 1400 years. The Communist Revolution of 1949 was only the most recent important event as far as language is concerned. There have been many periods of instability in Chinese history, as you would expect from a region bigger than the entirety of the European continent.

The sheer scale of this geography and history have led to huge divergences in the written forms of the language. That’s in addition to perhaps even greater differences in the spoken forms…

Spoken Chinese – dialects or languages?

Range of Chinese dialect groups according to the Language Atlas of China.*

There are eight main variants of spoken Chinese and hundreds of less common ones. However, there is an ongoing debate in linguistic circles as to whether these variants should properly be called dialects or languages.

Many of the dialects of Chinese which we’ll list below have some degree of intelligibility between them. Some, however, are mutually unintelligible. All have huge variations even within them! These can be as subtle as speakers in different regions having unique accents. They could mean that there are some dialect words only known in certain areas They could be similar to the differences between US and UK English. Or they may be much, much greater:

Mandarin

Also known as Putonghua or “common tongue”, Mandarin has been the official language of China since 1913 and all schools in China are supposed to teach in Mandarin (even if some don’t). Thus, it can be heard across the country. You will generally find that most Chinese people will speak at least a little Mandarin, even if it is only some basics with a strong accent.

There are many dialects within Mandarin, with speakers of each usually focused around major cities such as Tianjin or Shenyang.

Standard Chinese (Modern Standard Mandarin)

Standard Mandarin is based on the original Beijing dialect of Mandarin. Its grammar comes from Written Vernacular Chinese, or Standard Written Chinese as it’s sometimes called.

It is the only official language of both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan and one of Singapore’s four official languages. It is also the Chinese language variant which is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Gan

In many western parts of China, you will hear the Gan dialect being spoken. Jiangxi province is the main centre for speakers of Gan, as are nearby regions such as Anhui, Fujian, Hubei and Hunan.

Hakka (Kejia)

The Hakka dialect is the closest to Gan – to the point where one is sometimes termed a variety of the other. Speakers of the Hakka dialect, which was originally the language of the Hakka people, are as spread out as the people themselves. You’ll find them in Jiangxi, Guizhou, Guangdong, Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere.

Min

While many of the dialects listed here have a wide range of variants within them, Min unquestionably has the most. You will mainly find Min spoken in Fujian province on China’s southern coast.

Wu

Also known as Shanghainese, Wu is – unsurprisingly – spoken around Shanghai, as well as the larger Yangtze river delta area.

Xiang

Most speakers of Xiang hail from Hunan province. It’s from this that the dialect’s other name – Hunanese – also arises. Famously, Mao Zedong was a Xiang speaker.

Yue (Cantonese)

While there is a large degree of unintelligibility between the different Chinese dialects, speakers of Yue, in particular, will usually be able to understand very little said to them in a different dialect.

Most Yue speakers in mainland China can be found in Guangdong province. The area’s capital, Guangzhou, was formerly known as Canton, and from this springs the Yue dialect’s better-known name – Cantonese.

You’ll predominantly find Yue or Cantonese speakers in Guangdong, Macau and Hong Kong.

What is the difference between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese?

The two best-known and most-spoken variants of Chinese are Mandarin and Cantonese. These two languages are not mutually intelligible, so they cannot be called dialects.

They have a significant number of differences in both their written and spoken forms, including:

  1. Number of tones: Chinese dialects are tonal languages. In Mandarin, there are 4 basic tones and a fifth neutral tone. Cantonese is often said to have 9 tones, including the so-called “checked tones”. However, there are generally understood to be 6 (by speakers in Hong Kong) or 7 (by speakers in Guangzhou).
  2. Initial consonants: Cantonese has far fewer initial consonants than Mandarin.
  3. Vowel length: Cantonese has a much longer vowel length.

In terms of numbers, Cantonese has around 66 million speakers worldwide. As previously noted, Mandarin has over 1 billion.

The challenges involved in Chinese localisation

This should all go to show that when localising any text into Chinese, you need to closely consider your target audience. Which spoken and which written variant of the language do they use? Because, as we’ve seen, this varies not only by country but by quite small areas of geography within the borders of nations…

And the challenges don’t stop there:

Many modern industries and fields of study have terminology which has not yet been “finalised” in that specific dialect of Chinese. Or, perhaps, only has a “defined” way of being referred to in certain areas. Chinese speakers in Hong Kong, for example, will happily borrow words from English rather than finding a Chinese equivalent. In other areas, the translator might themselves even be helping to form a precedent for the terminology which will be used in the future!

There will also be significantly different sociological and cultural understandings of certain concepts that go beyond the literal meanings of the word. This is only natural given the long and immensely complex and turbulent history of China. The nation’s rises and falls have influenced how both internal and surrounding cultural, ethnic, social and national groups perceive certain ideas.

This means that, much like any project which will be critical to the commercial success of a company, effective Chinese localisation requires the use of linguists who are native to that specific target market. Only they will truly understand how to localise a message most effectively.

Modern trends and the future of the Chinese language

How Chinese develops in the future will be an interesting situation to watch. For instance, though the process of simplifying the Chinese language was beneficial for several generations of young Chinese people learning it, a trend towards using the more traditional forms of characters seems to be developing in some parts of mainland China. A reason for this may be an increase in national pride and a desire to promote the more traditional form of the language.

Conversely, while the predominantly Cantonese-speaking population of Hong Kong has a high degree of Mandarin fluency (it’s estimated that around 50% of the population understand at least some Mandarin) there is a backlash against what is perceived in some circles as mainland China’s overpowering influence. This has led to some young people refusing to speak Mandarin in Hong Kong despite more of them than ever learning it in school.

There have also been recent developments in technology, specifically in relation to computer programs being developed which can correctly identify Traditional and Simplified Chinese scripts. Even if said systems can’t yet manage to translate between the two perfectly. There’s still a lot more learning needed before a computer system can make the correct choices when it comes to vocabulary, orthography and semantics.

Whether all of these developments will bring the speakers of the various Chinese dialects and languages closer together, or reactionary steps will move them further apart, remains to be seen.

How many languages are spoken in China?

“Many” is the answer to our initial question of how many languages are spoken in China. Eight different dialects, any of which might technically be their own language, depending on how you define it. Each of these eight “dialects” contains their own subdialects and regional variations – many of which could officially count as a dialect too. We haven’t even begun to address the minority languages such as Mongolian, Uyghur, Miao or Tibetan!

It’s always worth bearing in mind that China, for all its size as a single nation, is vastly complicated in terms of the differences you’ll find within its borders. To the outside eye, this may make it appear confusing. But to the linguist, it’s a source of unending fascination.

*Image by Wu Yue (original); Gohu1er (SVG)derivative work: Kanguole (talk), CC BY-SA 3.0

**Image by Underbar dk – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0