So, you’ve finished watching Secret of Three Kingdoms and you have decided to learn Chinese...
But which one do you mean?
Though it’s often treated as a single language, Chinese is actually a gigantic group of dialects. The first question you should be asking, then, is not “How can I learn Chinese?” but “How many Chinese languages are there?”.
Just like many languages spoken in Europe —Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French among them— derive from Latin, Chinese languages derived from Classical Chinese, China’s own influential lingua franca, from which many local variants have developed.
So, how many Chinese dialects are there?
With a population of about 1.5 billion people, China has 302 individual living languages. Of course, we cannot do justice to all of them in one blog, but we have decided to cover the most important dialects so you know what to expect if you’re still thinking about taking up a Chinese language.
If you go to a language school and you say that you need “Chinese lessons”, there’s a pretty good chance that they will offer you a Mandarin course. With almost 1 billion speakers only in China, Mandarin is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.
Of course, being such a large language, it would be naive to expect this language to be a homogeneous variety. In fact, Mandarin’s sub-dialects are often divided into four groups: Northern, Northwestern, Southwestern and Southern.
Like all Chinese languages, Mandarin is tonal, which means that it relies on intonation patterns to convey meaning, which might be the most difficult factor when you learn Chinese languages. Mandarin, in particular, has four basic tones and a neutral one. Learning to use tones well is crucial to learning Mandarin, as getting a tone wrong might drastically change the meaning of a phrase or word.
With around 85 million speakers, Wu is one of the main dialects of Chinese. It gets its name from one of the three kingdoms into which China was divided at the end of the Han dynasty, whose inhabitants spoke a variant that is very similar to the one you can hear today in this region.
Wu is mostly spoken in Shanghai, in most of Zhejiang, in the southern region of Jiangsu, and in parts of Anhui and Jiangxi. In recent decades, migration waves have also taken Wu to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Though we began the article by wondering “How many Chinese languages are there?”, it should be noted that most Chinese linguists would rather ask “How many Chinese dialects are there?” This is for a number of reasons: the fact that all Chinese languages (or dialects) are written in one standard form, their common cultural heritage, and the long history of political unity and centralisation that is inherent to China.
However, it should also be said that most Chinese dialects are not mutually intelligible. Speakers of Wu, for example, would have a hard time understanding someone who speaks any of the variants of Mandarin.
Gan is a smaller dialect that is most widely spoken in western China. It is believed that 41 million people speak some form of Gan, and linguists often state that there are five main dialects within Gan: Yping, Changjing, Fuguang and Yingyi.
Though it has enough distinct characteristics to be considered a different dialect, Gan (in all its sub-dialects) is somewhat intelligible with Wu and Mandarin.
One of the most interesting aspects of Gan is that it uses a number of archaic words and phrases originally found in classical Chinese, which are now rarely or no longer used in other varieties. For instance, the word "clothes" in Gan is "衣裳" while it is "衣服" in Mandarin. Similarly, the verb "sleep" is "睏覺" in Gan while it is "睡覺" in Mandarin.
Min is a broad group of Sinitic dialects spoken by more than 30 million people in the Fujian province. Its name comes from the Min River in Fujian. Min sub-dialects are not mutually intelligible with other varieties nor can they be understood by speakers of other Chinese dialects. This means that, if you want to learn Chinese to be able to communicate with a large number of people, Min might not be the best choice.
Have you already started? Don’t worry, you may find Min speakers abroad in Southeast Asia. They will most probably speak Min Nam, also known as Kokkien-Taiwanese, which is the Southern variety of Min.
Min dialects are well-known for their resemblance with Old Chinese, and a significant number of Min words can be traced back to proto-Min. This explains why the meaning of some words present such noticeable differences when compared to other varieties.
For instance, in Min, 鼎 (wok) preserves the ancient meaning "cooking pot", but in other Chinese dialects, this term has narrowed its meaning to refer to ancient ceremonial tripods.
Hakka is yet another group of Chinese dialects that complicates the answer to our initial question of how many Chinese languages there are. Hakka Chinese is spoken in Southern China and Taiwan and throughout the diaspora areas of Southeast Asia and East Asia. Overseas, it is used by dozens of Chinese communities all around the world. It is estimated that the Hakka languages have 34 million speakers globally.
Because these dialects are mainly spoken in isolated territories where communication with people from other regions is rather limited, Hakka variants have developed distinct characteristics that make the different sub-dialects almost unintelligible. On the whole, however, Hakka Chinese is most closely related to Gan and, in fact, it is sometimes argued that Hakka is a Gan variety. This argument is quite strong if we bear in mind that a couple of northern Hakka sub-dialects look and sound familiar to speakers of Southern Gan varieties.
A salient characteristic of Hakka is that it retains one-syllable words from Old and Middle Chinese. For this reason, a big number of syllables are only distinguished by the tone in which they are said and the final consonant.
Yue, also called Cantonese, is a group of related Sinitic languages mainly spoken in Liangguang, in the south of China and Hong Kong. As it happens with Min, Yue variants are not mutually intelligible with other forms of Chinese, which means Yue is not a great place to start if you want to start to learn Chinese.
Yue dialects are the most conservative varieties among all major Chinese dialects, meaning that they resemble Ancient Chinese more than any modern language in China. Another key difference of Cantonese compared with other varieties is that it has nine tones instead of five, and its vowels are much longer.
In addition, while most Chinese dialects form compound words by putting first the adjective and then the noun, Yue dialects use the reverse pattern. For instance, the Standard Chinese term for "guest" is 客人 (kèrén) "guest-person", but the same words are interchanged in Cantonese: instead of ŋin hak, they say jən hɪk.
Out of interest, Yue is more popularly known as Cantonese instead of Yue because of the region where it is spoken. Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, was formerly called Canton in English, and it was believed that the purest form of Yue was spoken there. Now, however, the most influential area where Yue is spoken is Hong Kong.
If you want to learn Chinese languages to communicate in the provices of Hunan, Guangxi, Guizhou or Hubei, studying Xiang is a great place to start. Spoken by 36 million people across China, this is a group of dialects with two main variants which can be divided into New Xiang, which is heavily influenced by Mandarin, and Old Xiang, which bears a close resemblance to the Wu dialects.
This group of historically and linguistically related dialects is primarily spoken in the Hunan province, in northern Guangxi, and in parts of Guizhou and Hubei provinces.
As you can see, the linguists are right. The question should not be “how many different Chinese languages are there?” but rather, how many Chinese dialects there are, and especially, which ones you should learn.
The answer, of course, will depend on what you want to do with your knowledge. Whether you want to travel, read Chinese literature, or chat with an online friend, our native teachers will be able to help you make the right choice so you can learn the Chinese you need, and not the one that traditional schools want to sell you.
Contact us now and we’ll pair you up with a qualified tutor who’ll help you communicate in any of the Chinese varieties you need. We’ll find the perfect instructor for you who can teach you any form of Chinese, not only Mandarin or Cantonese. You’ll get guidance and materials from our team during your whole learning journey, as well as a syllabus personalised to your needs and interest. Want to get started now? Sign up for one of our Free Trial Chinese Classes and meet your tutor with no strings attached!