Attention: This article contains Chinese text. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Chinese characters.
It all began with a question while I was in a cab from the Cambridge railway station to my college. The driver, after asking where I come from and what my field of study is, asked me a quite simple yet difficult question that kept me busy for the rest of my trip: “so, how many languages are there in China?”
Most people I have met, even Chinese people themselves, do not have a clear idea about the linguistic situation and diversity in China. After all, there is a language named after the country, the so-called “Chinese language”, which is also the lingua franca in China. This description, however, is far from accurate with regards to the real situation of languages spoken in China – China is not a monolingual country, although it is monolingual in some areas. The definition of Chinese language is more complicated than you can imagine, even though everyone knows that the national language of China is called “Standard Chinese”.
In this post, I focus on several myths about the languages in China, and show that neither “Chinese language” nor “languages in China” are simple concepts.
How many languages are there in China?
There are 298 languages in total, currently spoken by native people in China; some languages are national and regional lingua francas with millions and billions of speakers, while some languages are used by only a few thousands of people in small counties (Lewis, Simons and Fennig, 2014). This number does not include those languages spoken by immigrants, such as English, Arabic or Yoruba; however, it does include some languages that are spoken by ethnic minorities in China which are official languages of other countries, such as Russian, Uzbek and Korean. (There are ethnic minorities of Russian, Uzbek and Korean origins in China whose native languages are recognised among the languages of China.)
Do all the languages in China use Chinese characters?
This is definitely not the case; or, to be more precise, the Chinese language is the only language that uses Chinese characters nowadays. Most of the commonly used languages in China have their own written forms, like Tibetan, Mongolian and Uyghur (using Arabic alphabets); some languages like Zhuang once used Chinese characters for documentation, but Chinese characters have gradually been replaced by Latin characters.
Is there an official language of China?
China does not have a confirmed “official language” – I have double checked the Constitution but there is not a single article with regards to the issue of the official language of the country. However, China does have a standard language: according to Article 2 of Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language (2000), the spoken form of standard Chinese language is Putonghua and the written form should be in Standardised Chinese Character.
In actual use, however, the language policy is more flexible; especially in the areas where ethnic minorities reside, languages other than Standard Chinese are used in both informal and institutional contexts. A good example comes from Renminbi, the currency of China: If we carefully examine a bank note, we will find that it is more similar to Swiss Franc than to Pound Sterling – it is multilingual. A number of languages appear on the note: Chinese (in the form of pinyin), Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang. Apart from Chinese, the other four languages are important minority languages in China, and some of them have obtained institutional status in the provinces they are mostly spoken; for instance, Tibetan is an official language in Tibet, part of Qinghai and some areas in Gansu.
So what is “Chinese language”?
The term “Chinese language”, or Hanyu (汉语), is a loosely defined concept. In linguistics, the name refers to a group of linguistic varieties that come from one single ancient origin; the vocabulary and sentential structure of these varieties is generally the same. In general, these linguistic varieties can be classified into seven large subgroups: Mandarin, Wu, Yue (Cantonese), Min, Gan, Xiang, Kejia (Hakka). Here is a family tree of the Chinese languages proposed by You (2000), showing the history and development of these different subgroups.
Due to geographical factors, some varieties of the Chinese language have been isolated from others, and this isolation has led to changes in the way these varieties sound; for example, a native speaker of Shaoxing Chinese may find episodes of TV series in Wenzhou Chinese difficult to follow, if she watches them without subtitles, although the distance between the two cities is only a bit more than 300 km (which is a rather short distance for Chinese standards). This phenomenon is quite common in Southern China, and is called “different pronunciations within five kilometers”.
In traditional linguistic research on Chinese language, these subgroups are labelled “dialects of Chinese language”. I prefer to avoid the term “dialect” because it is not the case that all these linguistic varieties are mutually intelligible, which is the criterion that some Western sociolinguists might use to define “dialects” of the same language.
So you mean we can’t contrast “Chinese” with “Cantonese”?
Yes, this is indeed the case. Cantonese is a member of the Chinese language group, so it is a branch of the Chinese language; it does not make sense to say “I can speak Chinese and Cantonese” – to Chinese people this sounds equivalent to “I can speak English and London English”. However, we can still contrast “Mandarin” and “Cantonese”, or “Standard Chinese” and “Cantonese”, because these terms refer to different varieties of the Chinese language.
But what is Mandarin Chinese? Is there any difference between Mandarin and Putonghua?
Mandarin is a subgroup of the Chinese language that is widely spoken in Northern and South-western China; in Chinese, we call it Guanhua (官话), which means “the (Chinese) language spoken by officials”. Varieties of Mandarin do not have a unified pronunciation, but usually native speakers of different varieties of Mandarin can roughly understand each other.
The spoken form of contemporary standard Chinese is Putonghua, whose phonological system is based on Northern Mandarin, and, more specifically, on the varieties spoken in and around Beijing. A simple way to describe the relationship between Mandarin and Putonghua is that Putonghua is a member of the Mandarin group of languages, while Mandarin is a member of the group of Chinese languages. Nowadays, Putonghua is the most representative form of the Chinese language, and when we talk about “learning to speak Chinese”, we always refer to Putonghua.
This was only a sample of the questions that I have been asked to answer over the years, being both a linguistics student and Chinese. I could go on about the languages in China for hours, but I’m afraid I should stop here due to space and time limitations. If you are interested in learning more about the development and categorisation of varieties of the Chinese language, I sincerely recommend Jerry Norman’s Chinese – it is a wonderful introduction to this ancient and beautiful language which will be interesting even for speakers of ‘Chinese languages’ themselves.
Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). (2014). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Seventeenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com.
Norman, J. (1988). Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language. 2000. The People’s Republic of China.
You, R. (2000). Chinese Dialectology. Shanghai: Shanghai Education Publishing.