Last Updated March 7, 2001

Chinese and its Dialects

This page is part of other pages on China and the Chinese language.

Language Dialects and Variations

Written Language

The Han people (an ethnic group that comprises the majority of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) share a common written language. There are variations in vocabulary, and there are two distinct character sets (traditional and simplified), but the written language is mutually intelligible to most “Chinese” people, whether citizens of mainland China or members of the Chinese diaspora.

Oral Dialects

In contrast to the written language, the spoken language has numerous dialects. Unlike say English, French or Spanish, the dialects of Chinese are not mutually intelligible. Learning to speak Mandarin will not help you to speak Cantonese, or vice versa.

According to Ethnologue (published by the Summer Institute of Linguistics), the following are the most commonly used Chinese dialects:

Dialect

Speakers (million)

Location

Mandarin

885

Most of China; Singapore

Wu

77

Yue (Cantonese, Guangdonghua)

66

Guangdong province, southern Guangxi; Hong Kong

Min Nan

49

Southern China (except Guangdong); Taiwan natives, Malaysia

Jinyu

45

Shanxi province

Xiang (Hunan)

36

Hunan, parts of Sichuan

Hakka

34

Eastern and northeastern Guangdong

Gan

20

Jiangxi and southeastern corner of Hubei

Other than Mandarin, the Cantonese dialect is the one most likely to be known by Westerners, largely because for 200 years the people of Canton (Guangdong) province and Hong Kong have been the Chinese most actively trading with the West.

The “Mandarin” Dialect

One dialect (called “Mandarin” in English) is the dialect of the region around China's capital, Beijing, and thus has become the common dialect for oral communication among the Chinese people. However, dialects such as Cantonese (in Southern China) and those around Shangahi and Fuzhou are commonly spoken.

A form of the Mandarin dialect has been taught in Taiwan as the preferred spoken dialect. Similarly, the Singapore government &endash; seeking to unify descendants of Chinese refugees from many parts of China &endash; in 1979 launched its “Speak Mandarin Campaign” to assure a common spoken dialect for its ethnic Chinese citizens.

Mandarin is the version of Chinese in which each syllable is pronounced using one of four possible tones. See more at Online Mandarin Chinese.

Political Issues

Like anything else that divided mainland China from capitalist enclaves of Chinese people elsewhere, the Chinese language and even the terms used to describe the language have political overtones.

Traditional vs. Simplified Characters

There are two written forms of the Chinese characters:

  1. The traditional form of the Chinese characters has been handed down for more than 3,000 years. It was the only form of the characters used until the 20th Century. The traditional characters are still used in Taiwan, Singapore and in other parts of the world. They were customarily used in Hong Kong prior to its 1997 reversion to PRC control, and still may be found there today.
  2. The simplified form is found in the People's Republic of China. After winning China’s civil war and establishing the PRC, the Communist Party made a number of reforms in how the language was taught. One was to establish a new transliteration system to western letters, known as pinyin. The other, more basic change was to simplify the traditional characters to make them easier to learn and draw. The simplifications were made in two rounds in 1956 and 1964; see Zhongwen.com for more information on the simplification and its impact.

As a practical matter, by weight of sheer numbers the simplified characters are used by more people today, but the traditional characters must be learned for reading older printed materials or for anything published in Taiwan.

Names for the Language

The term “Mandarin” is a Western term for the main Chinese dialect that has nothing to do with terms in Chinese for the language; “Cantonese” is a bit more descriptive in that it’s named after the Chinese province (using the Wade-Giles transcription) where it is found.

In Chinese, there are several terms for the language, and, not suprisingly, some of the differences are political:

Traditional

Simplified

Pinyin

Translation

Remarks

Hanyu
(Hànyŭ)

Language of the han people

Most general

Zhongwen
(Zhōngwén)

Middle kingdom writing

Usually refers to written language

Putonghua
(Pŭtōnghuà)

Common language

PRC term for “Mandarin” dialect

Guoyu
(Gúoyŭ)

National language

Taiwan term for “Mandarin” dialect

Pinyin vs. Wade-Giles

For native speakers, Chinese is written using the Chinese characters and never using the roman characters of European languages. However, when communicating with foreigners, Chinese (like Japanese, Russian and other non-Roman scripts) requires some form of transliteration to represent the sounds in a form that can be shown (such as in E-mail).

The oldest transliteration scheme was developed by diplomat Thomas Wade in 1859 and modified by linguist Herbert Giles in 1912. The system of the two Britons was adopted as the standard in the English-speaking world.

As part of its language reforms, in the 1950s People’s Republic replaced the foreign transliteration system with a system developed earlier in the Asian part of the Soviet Union. The new system, pinyin, more accurately captured the linguistic nuances of the language.

The two systems generally produce different transliterations, as shown below:

Wade-Giles

Pinyin

Peking

Beijing

Shanghai

Shanghai

Tientsin

Tianjin

Canton

Guangdong

Szechuan

Sichuan

Confucius

Kung Fu-tse

Mao Tse-Tung

Mao Zedong

Chou En-lai

Zhou Enlai

Chiang Kai-shek

Jiang Jieshi

Kuomintang

Guamindang

Most international groups adopted the PRC system in the 1980s. American and British libaries historically cataloged Chinese documents using Wade-Giles, but since around 1990 have been switching over to Pinyin.

For more information:


This page is among those on Asia-related topics prepared by Joel West of San José State University, College of Business. Please send any comments to <west_j@cob.sjsu.edu>..