Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
Asking “What language is spoken in China?” is a bit like asking what language is spoken in Europe — times four. Why? The People’s Republic of China is larger than the whole of Europe, with a history just as profuse and old.
While most European languages were influenced by Latin around 2000 years ago, China had its own influential lingua franca around the same time called Classical Chinese. Scholars and administrators used this language, but it also infiltrated the languages and dialects of the people, creating many local variants. In fact, China is home to 56 ethnic groups who’ve all played a role in shaping Chinese’s many variants.
How Many Languages Are Spoken In China?
In a population of roughly 1.4 billion, China has 302 individual living languages. To put that in perspective globally, an astonishing 20% of the world’s population speaks some form of a Chinese language natively.
Linguists have divided Chinese into eight to 10 main language groups (which we’ll dive into below), with each group having several sub-dialects. Chances are that anyone coming from outside Beijing is bound to speak at least one of these local dialects. Of course, we can’t do all 302 languages justice in this article, but let’s dive into eight of these main lingual groups.
What Are The Most Popular Languages And Dialects?
If you’ve heard of one Chinese language, there’s a pretty good chance it’s this one. The most widely spoken form of Chinese is without a doubt Mandarin. With over 955 million speakers in China alone, it should come as no surprise that it is also the most spoken language worldwide. There are many dialects within Mandarin, and the variant is often split into four subgroups: Northern Mandarin, Northwestern Mandarin, Southwestern Mandarin and Southern.
It’s important to note that Chinese languages are tonal, and Mandarin specifically has four basic tones plus a fifth neutral one. This is perhaps the most difficult factor in learning Chinese languages, as getting the tone wrong can drastically alter the meaning of a word.
Since the late 19th century the official language of China has been Standard Chinese, otherwise known as “common speech.” Standard Chinese is just one of Mandarin’s many dialects, but probably the most important given it’s also the official language of Taiwan, one of four in Singapore, and one of the six in the UN. It’s important to note that while schools and government offices operate in Standard Chinese, locals typically don’t grow up with this variant or speak it at home.
For this reason, it’s not uncommon for residents of one rural village to not understand locals living just a couple of villages away. The Chinese government has said it wants to close this lingual gap in China, with a goal of 80% of its citizens speaking Mandarin by 2020.
Cantonese, or Yue, is another well-known variant of Chinese with over 60 million speakers in China. Sadly, Cantonese is one of a few dying languages in China — collateral damage as Mandarin takes precedence over the country. Its origin is traced to Guangzhou, a city also known as Canton, hence where the variant earned its name. Most Cantonese speakers live in the Guangdong province, predominantly Guangdong, Macau and Hong Kong, with each region having their own dialect.
Cantonese is more similar to Ancient Chinese than any other major Chinese language, so it’s worth noting that speakers usually understand little said to them in a different dialect, including the mutually intelligible Mandarin. Some of the key differences of Cantonese compared with Mandarin include its nine tones and much longer vowel length.
Meanwhile, Gan dominates in many parts of western China. Over 41 million people speak some form of Gan, a distinctly different language from Mandarin and other Chinese varieties. The Jiangxi province is the main hub, along with nearby regions Anhui, Fujian, Hubei and Hunan. According to scholars, there are five primary dialects: Changjing, Yiping, Jiliang, Fuguang and Yingyi, which are all somewhat intelligible with Mandarin and the group Wu. That said, it actually shares most the commonality with Hakka.
There are estimated to be some 47 million Hakka speakers in China, spread out in the provinces of Guangdong, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Hunan and Sichuan, to name a few. The most well-known dialect is the Hakka of Mei county in Guangdong, which bears structural similarities to Cantonese and Standard Chinese. Hakka is also the closest language to Gan — so close that one is sometimes called a variety of the other. Both languages have likely borrowed much of their vocabulary from Cantonese.
Min languages are spoken in the Fujian province, as well as parts of Guangdong, Zhejiang, Hainan and Taiwan. Generally, they are divided into Northern Min, centered around Fuzhou, and Southern Min, with its center at Amoy. In China and Taiwan, there are around 40 million speakers of Southern Min, and this dialect is not mutually intelligible with other varieties of Min, nor Standard Chinese.
The Wu, or Shanghainese, languages are a variety of dialects predominantly spoken in the eastern region of China, around Shanghai (as you would expect) in addition to the southeastern Jiangsu province and the Zhejiang province. The number of Wu speakers in China is estimated to be around 85 million people. Originally, the Wu language spread from the cultural hub Suzhou and grew in importance during the Ming dynasty period when Shanghai earned its place on the map as a metropolitan hotspot.
The Xiang, or Hunanese, languages come from the Hunan province and are divided into New Xiang (heavily influenced by Mandarin) and Old Xiang, bearing a closer resemblance to the Wu languages. Across China, there are said to be over 36 million speakers of Xiang. Like other Chinese languages, Xiang is tonal and has five different tones that denote meaning.
So there you have it. The next time you hear someone ask “what language is spoken in China?” you’ll be able to coolly answer “302,” and offer up a bit of knowledge on the eight main groups.