Over one billion people around the world speak Mandarin Chinese, the national language of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But did you know there are other languages spoken there – almost 300 of them, in fact! Join us as we take a brief look at some of the languages of China and how they’re faring today.
According to Ethnologue, there are 305 languages that are spoken in China today, and 279 of those are indigenous to the country. The most well-known is of course Mandarin Chinese, which has over one billion speakers in China alone, and another hundred million or so worldwide.
You might also have heard of Cantonese, which is spoken in the south of China and Hong Kong, as well as Shanghainese, which is mainly spoken in – you guessed it – Shanghai.
What about the other almost 300 languages? Also, has Mandarin Chinese always enjoyed the status it holds today?
The history of China’s national languages
Currently, the official national language of the PRC is Standard Mandarin. This is a variety of Mandarin Chinese that is based on the Beijing dialect and is used as a lingua franca in the country between people who speak different languages.
The language, which is also known locally as Putonghua, was officially defined in 1956 as follows:
Pǔtōnghuà is the standard form of Modern Chinese with the Beijing phonological system as its norm of pronunciation, and Northern dialects as its base dialect, and looking to exemplary modern works in báihuà ‘vernacular literary language’ for its grammatical norms.
However, Mandarin has not always been China’s national language. The PRC that we know today was preceded by the Qing Dynasty (or Great Qing), which lasted from the 17th century to the early 20th century. Manchu was the official language of the Qing Dynasty from 1626 through to 1909, though its use was restricted to the ethnic Manchu people. Manchu is now estimated to only have a handful of native speakers, and a few thousand second-language speakers.
Mandarin Chinese – specifically the Beijing dialect – was then established as the national language in 1909 and it was known as guóyǔ (國語; 国语), or the ‘national language’.
But the use of Mandarin Chinese as a national language was not new to China.
Mandarin Chinese was in fact the official language during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which preceded the Qing Dynasty. Back then, it was called Guanhua or ‘language of the officials’. Westerners called the language ‘Mandarin’ after the name given to high-ranking officials in the former imperial Chinese civil service. That’s how the modern-day term ‘Mandarin Chinese’ came to be.
Other Chinese languages were also common during this time as it was only the more elite citizens who would have spoken Mandarin.
What are the main languages spoken in China?
There are so many languages spoken in China today that it would be difficult for us to list them all here; instead, we’ve taken ten of the most-spoken languages and we’ll tell you more about a few of them!
|Language||Speakers in China|
|Wu Chinese (inc. Shanghainese)||81,700,000|
|Yue Chinese (Cantonese)||73,300,000|
|Min Nan Chinese (Southern Min)||27,700,000|
|Min Bei Chinese||11,100,000|
Mandarin is the most-spoken language by number of native speakers in the world, and the second most spoken overall, coming in just after English.
It is the official language of the PRC and is spoken by 70% of all Chinese language speakers. It is also the official language of Taiwan and is one of the four official languages of Singapore (the others being Malay, Tamil, and English).
Mandarin has four tones and uses Chinese characters for writing. Generally, a more simplified form of the characters are used in the PRC and traditional characters (which are often more complex) are used in Taiwan.
Like all languages, Mandarin borrows from those around it. If you start learning, you’ll notice lots of loanwords from English! There are also words borrowed from Mongolian and Manchu, such as hútòng (胡同), meaning ‘alley’.
Shanghainese is a variety of Wu Chinese, and it is spoken by around 14 million people, primarily in and around the city of Shanghai. There are over 81 million people who speak varieties of Wu Chinese.
With those 14 million speakers, Shanghainese is the largest single form of Wu Chinese, but although it has historically been used as a lingua franca in the region where it is spoken, its status has begun to decline because most Shanghainese speakers now also speak Mandarin.
Whereas Mandarin has four tones, Shanghainese has five phonetically distinguishable tones for single syllables that are said in isolation. Shanghainese also features many loanwords from different European languages because Shanghai has traditionally (and still is) a major port in China.
Learn more about what Shanghainese is in another blog post from us!
Cantonese is the traditionally prestigious form of Yue Chinese, and is a lingua franca in the province of Guangdong, which is in southeast China. Cantonese is also the dominant and co-official language in both Hong Kong and Macau.
Although Cantonese shares vocabulary with Mandarin, the two languages are mutually unintelligible. This is partly due to phonological differences, but also comes down to differences in grammar and vocabulary.
Generally speaking, Cantonese is said to have six tones. Traditional Chinese linguists have classified Cantonese as a nine-tone system, but most contemporary linguists mention that tones 7, 8, and 9 have the same pitch height and contour as tones 1, 3, and 6, respectively. This means that tones 7, 8, and 9 are treated as allotones (alternatives) of tones 1, 3, and 6, and Cantonese is said to have six contrastive tones.
Xiang Chinese is mainly spoken in Hunan Province, but is also spoken in northern Guangxi, and parts of the neighbouring Guizhou and Hubei Provinces. These provinces are all in central and southern China.
Generally, Xiang Chinese is divided into five subgroups:
- Chang-Yi (17.8 million speakers)
- Lou-Shao (11.5 million speakers)
- Hengzhou (4.3 million speakers)
- Chen-Xu (3.4 million speakers)
- Yong-Quan (6.5 million speakers)
Hakka is spoken throughout southern China and Taiwan, and features numerous varieties and dialects. It is not mutually intelligible with Yue, Wu, Southern Min, Mandarin, or other branches of Chinese; it is most closely related to Gan Chinese.
Taiwan is a centre for the study and preservation of Hakka, and there are two major local varieties of Hakka there. These are Sixian and Hailu (also known as Haifeng).
The PRC has taken the Meixian dialect from northeast Guangdong as its ‘standard’ for Hakka.
Like other southern Chinese varieties, Hakka has kept single syllable words from earlier stages of Chinese, like from Middle Chinese. A large number of syllables are distinguished by their tone and final consonant, but there are also many polysyllabic words.
Southern Min is spoken in Fujian Province and most of Taiwan, as well as the eastern Guangdong, Hainan, and southern Zhejiang Provinces. In southeast Asia, the variety of Southern Min that comes from southern Fujian is known as Hokkien, Hokkienese, Fukien, or Fookien.
Like plenty of Chinese languages, it is not mutually intelligible with languages such as Mandarin, but Southern Min is also not mutually intelligible with other branches of Min Chinese, either.
Among all the Chinese varieties, Southern Min has one of the most diverse phonologies, and has more consonants than Mandarin or Cantonese. It has some nasal finals (/m/, /n/, /ŋ/, and /~/) and, generally, Southern Min dialects have five to six tones.
Unlike the rest of the languages on our list, the Zhuang languages are not from the Sinitic language family. They are a member of the Kra-Dai family, just like Thai and Lao (spoken in Thailand and Cambodia, respectively).
The group of languages is divided into northern and southern ‘dialects’. The Wuming dialect of Yongbei Zhuang, which is classified within the ‘Northern Zhuang’ dialect, is considered to be the standard or prestige variety of Zhuang.
Among all the Zhuang languages, there are over 60 distinct tonal systems, with five to 11 tones, depending on the variety spoken.
For more than one thousand years, the Sawndip, or Zhuang characters, were used to write Zhuang languages. This script was not only used by Zhuang speakers; Bouyei people in Guizhou, China also used it, as well as Tay people in Vietnam. The script has never been standardised and is made up of Chinese characters, Chinese-like characters, and other, unrelated symbols.
What does the future hold for China’s languages?
With almost 300 indigenous languages, China is a very linguistically diverse country. However, many of these languages only have a small number of speakers. This, plus the widespread use of Mandarin as an official language and as a lingua franca, means that these languages are increasingly at risk of becoming endangered.
It’s a very thorny issue and there are convincing arguments to support both language diversity and having a single national language.
On the one hand, every language tells us a different story about a people’s culture, history, and soul, and minority languages are particularly precious because their story isn’t common knowledge or is in danger of being lost. Even languages such as Shanghainese, which are spoken by millions of people and have been used in a similar way to Mandarin, are slowly declining. There are movements to support and promote these languages, but they will need to be used across all domains of life if they are to survive.
On the other hand, there are huge benefits to having a standard official language. People can communicate regardless of their native language, which is important in such a diverse country with a huge population. Successful efforts have also been made to use the written form of the national language – simplified Chinese characters – to make the country more literate. At the turn of the 20th century, the illiteracy rate in China was 85-90%. In 2021, this was calculated to have dropped to 0.17% – meaning that 99.83% of the population of the PRC can read and write.
Perhaps the best possible outcome is for the PRC to retain its national language alongside its linguistic diversity with a flourishing bilingual population. We certainly hope that will be the case 50 years from now! In the meantime, if you’d like to go ahead and try learning a language spoken in China, we have a few of them on our app. Click this link to get 40% off and you can start learning Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese or Hakka today!