Chinese Dialects...Explained!

Chinese Dialects...Explained!

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Hello, everyone! Thank you for following our blog and your interest in Chinese language and culture. In an earlier article, I mentioned that in China there is a large variety of dialects方言(fāng yán). Today we dig deeper into the dialects of China, how many of them there actually are and also how different each one can be.

The Chinese language has both spoken and written forms. Written Chinese has evolved in three stages, Classical Chinese古文(gǔ wén), Literary Chinese文言文(wén yán wén) and currently written vernacular Chinese白话文(bái huà wén). Written Chinese is quite standard and consistent across different regions. The main differences between the dialects are with spoken Chinese. A traditional saying in the South of China vividly describes the phenomenon of diverse dialects: “十里不同音,百里不同俗。"/shí lǐ bú tóng yīn ,bǎi lǐ bú tóng sú 。/(The English translation is "10 miles out, the language is different, 100 miles out, the customs are different.” Here "mile" refers to the Chinese mile. 1 Chinese mile is equal to 0.5 kilometers.) There are over a hundred dialects of Chinese spoken in the vast landscape of China.

In general, we recognize seven primary ones: Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Min, Hakka, Xiang and Gan. They are not mutually intelligible, and some of them (especially Min) are themselves composed of a number of non mutually-intelligible subvarieties. Looking at the dialects map, people who speak Mandarin mostly live in the light brown regions diagonally from northeast to southwest across the country. Although there may be difference in accents, a person from Harbin wouldn't have much problem in understanding another person from Beijing or Xi'an. But walking around in the lower eastern and southern area is not that easy. If you speak Wu where Min is the native dialect, you may need some time to figure out your way around there. These dialects are so different that some linguists argue that they should be considered as separate languages, rather than dialects. The reason that until today we still treat them as dialects is that they all originated from the ancient language used by Huaxia. Huaxia is, “a confederation of tribes—living along the Yellow River—who were the ancestors of what later became the Han ethnic group in China. The table shows the proportions of population speaking each dialect. Mandarin is by far the most widely spoken one.

Mandarin 847.8 Million 70.9%
Wu 77.2 Million 6.5%
Min 71.8 Million 6.0%
Yue 60 Million 5.0%
Xiang 36 Million 3.0
Hakka 30.1 Million 2.5%
Gan 20.6 Million 1.7%

  Each of the primary dialect has multiple subdialects and major representatives.


The most distinct difference between these dialects is in their phonetics, followed by vocabulary differences. Only minor variations in dialects can be seen in their grammatical structures.

Just like each country in Europe has its own language which has unique phonetic and pronunciation rules, so do the dialects of Chinese. Let’s look at Wu and Mandarin as an example. Chinese syllables consist of three elements: initial sound生母(shēng mǔ), final sound韵母(yùn mǔ) and tone语调(yǔ diào). The Wu dialect has three types of plosives: voiced [b, d, g], voiceless unaspirated [p, t, k] and voiceless aspirated [p ', t', k '] while Mandarin and Cantonese do not have voiced consonants. This can render certain Wu words unrecognizable for Mandarin speakers. In contrast, when it comes to the final sound, Mandarin has 13 compound finals while most of other dialects have far less. Sounds using compound finals like ai, ei, ao, ou in Mandarin are often pronounced using single finals in other dialects. For example, “开“ /kāi/ (verb, meaning open) in Wu is pronounced as /kē/.

Regarding the tones, Mandarin only has five main tones: dark level, light level, rising, departing and neutral; Yue Dialect, on the other hand, has nine tone types: dark flat, dark rising, dark departing, light flat, light rising, light departing, upper dark entering, lower dark entering, and light entering. The line between certain tones can be very subtle; emphasis on the wrong syllables may cause difficulties in communication and maybe even misunderstanding. In terms of difference in vocabulary, here are some examples. In a Beijing restaurant, you can order “馄饨“/hún tún/which is called 抄手/chāo shǒu/ in Sichuan or 扁食/biǎn shí / in Min region. You can refer to your father in Wu dialect as “阿爹“ /ā diē / but in Yue dialect father is often addressed as 老竇lǎo dǒu.   

The main difference in grammar between different dialects lies in the word order. For example, the sentence “Give this book back to you”. Mandarin: 把书还你(“ to give the book back to you”) Xiang: 书把还你 (“ book to give back to you”) Another well known example is the sentence: "I leave first". Mandarin: 我先走 ("I first leave") Cantonese: 我走先 ("I leave first") These differences in phonetics, vocabulary and word order can create difficulties in communication; when things go extreme, people in the same town are not able to understand each other.

But it is crucial that we protect and reserve the diversity in spoken Chinese, because these dialects are the vehicles of the very unique local culture and art forms. Huangmei Opera黄梅戏(huáng méi xì), one of the five major Chinese opera forms, was designated as Chinese National Intangible Culture Heritage in 2006. It is a form of rural folksong and dance and performed in Hui dialect. Pingtan评弹(píng tán), popular in southern Jiangsu, northern Zhejiang, and Shanghai, an art form of "story telling, joke cracking, music playing and aria singing", is performed in Wu dialect. The Chinese dialect is a highly comprehensive topic.

What I did here is just a brief introduction. My suggestion is that you can start with Mandarin which gives you access to most of China and many excellent works by Chinese writers and artists. When your mastery of Chinese increases, you may find more confidence to explore other dialects and cultures. No matter which way you choose, China, traditional and modern, reserved and open, is a fascinating country and it is worth your effort. Good luck with the journey! 下次再见啦!

Index Variety of Chinese 林林总总的汉语方言 Classical Chinese Written Vernacular Chinese Huaxia Wu-Chinese 汉语 Cantonese Phonology Chinese Phonology Mandarin vs. Chinese Chinese Phonetics 


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