Bilingua Chinese Dialects

Chinese Dialects: Do You Really Need to Know Any of Them?

Before 1912, China was under the leadership of Qing Dynasty with Mandarin as their official language. The capital of Qing empire was Beijing, hence, the pronunciations of Mandarin language are based on Beijing dialect.

After the fall of this empire, the new People’s Republic of China (Mainland China) came into existence, which emphasized on having a standard language to improve literacy in the country. This is when China’s official language was rebranded and instead of calling Mandarin a national language, it became a common language and or pǔ tōng huà (普通話 / 普通话) took place of Mandarin.

Mandarin is the language of China and is known by different names in different countries. Originally, Mandarin Chinese was called guān huà (官話/官话), meaning “speech of officials.”

However, it is known as simply Chinese in United States; National Language– guó yǔ (國語 / 国语) in Taiwan; Chinese Language– huá yǔ (華語 / 华语) in Singapore and Common Language– pǔ tōng huà (普通話 / 普通话) in China.

You will be amazed to know that Mandarin is actually an English word and is derived from Portuguese.

In Portuguese, mandarim meant the bureaucratic official. During the Portugal reign in China, they referred guān huà (官話/官话) as “the language of the mandarims,” or simply “mandarim” in short. With time, the final “m” got converted to “n.”


Chinese Dialects 2What are Chinese dialects?

The present day scenario is that there are a number of Chinese dialects in China, which are classified into one of the following seven groups-

  1. Putonghua (Mandarin): Mandarin, or Putonghua (“common language”), is thought of as a northern dialect as it is mainly based off of the Beijing dialect.
  2. Gan: You can find the Gan dialect in western parts of China.
  3. Kejia (Hakka): It the language of Hakka people in Taiwan, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Guizhou, and beyond.
  4. Min: The Min dialect is the language in Fujian.
  5. Wu: The Wu dialect/Shanghainese is spoken around the Yangtze delta and Shanghai.
  6. Xiang: This dialect is spoken in the Hunan province.
  7. Yue (Cantonese): It is spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, and Macau.

These dialects are mostly used by the Han people of China, which contribute to about 92 percent of the country’s population. Depending on the region you wish to travel or business with, you can opt to learn their dialect.

Mandarin Vs other Chinese dialects

Because of large geographical area, China accommodates several languages and dialects within. During 1368 – 1644, under Ming Dynasty, Mandarin emerged as the language of the bureaucrats or the ruling class. Under the reign of Ming rulers only, the capital of China was shifted from Nanjing to Beijing. Beijing remained the capital of China in the successive Qing Dynasty from 1644 to 1912.

Since, Mandarin language is based on the Beijing dialect, it became the official language of the court of the Qing rulers.

As mentioned in the previous section, in 1912, the new Republic of China or the Mainland China took over the Qing dynasty and renamed Mandarin from national language- guó yǔ (国语) to common language- pǔ tōng huà (普通话) in the year 1955. But Taiwan continues to use the name- guó yǔ for this language.

What is the difference between Mandarin language and dialects?

Mandarin has a written system but the dialects are spoken not written. Mandarin uses a pictorial representation and the characters are not sounded out, instead, they present an idea.

In Chinese language, thousands of pictorial symbols can be combined into characters to form a complex idea. And this is completely independent from the sounds that speakers might use to describe them. In fact, a single passage written in Chinese can be spoken in over 50 dialects within China itself.

Is Mandarin simpler?

Mandarin is generally thought to have less tones than many of the dialects. If you look at the Southern Chinese Languages, they have greater number of tones and their syllables are complex. But, Mandarin has both- less number of tones and comparatively simpler syllables.

The Sichuan and Harbin dialect speakers were able communicate with ease with the speakers of Mandarin dialect, even before the rise of the standard Chinese language. But, the speakers of the Mandarin dialect could not understand the communication of Hakka Chinese, Shanghainese or Cantonese.

Hence, we can say that Mandarin is also the simplest Chinese language in terms of tone count and intonation, syntax and grammar, words, inventory of sounds along with possible combinations, etc.

Learning the Chinese dialects

Learning Chinese dialects can help you communicate with the Chinese people across the world effectively. Moreover, if you want to establish trade relations with China, the knowledge of the regional dialect could be of great help.

Chinese DialectsBenefits of Learning Chinese Dialects

China is a land of diverse culture and this could be best understood by the variations in dialects here. With the basic knowledge of Chinese dialects, you can enter into more candid business relations than by learning the national language, Mandarin, alone.

An Example of the difference between Mandarin and the Dialects

You might be wondering how difficult it would be to learn not just a language but too many different dialects. Well, it’s not that tough though. Understanding the basic differences between Mandarin and dialects can help you quickly pick up the dialects. Here is an example-

Can a Mandarin speaker understand Cantonese? What about the other way around?

Cantonese is the official language in Hong Kong and Macau. It is also spoken by the ethnic communities in North America. Many words are similar in Mandarin and Cantonese, however, the full sentences differ to an extent that only Mandarin or Cantonese speaker could not understand.

Cantonese is comparatively difficult with six tones, as compared to Mandarin, which has only four. Also, Cantonese has a larger collection of vowels.

How about Shanghainese vs. Mandarin?

Although Shanghai region belongs to the Mainland China, the Shanghainese follows Wu dialect, which is very much different from Mandarin.

Shanghainese uses voiced initials, whereas Mandarin don’t. Also, the words and phrases are affected by changing tones in Shanghainese, but in Mandarin, only the words are affected.

At present, the younger generations of Chinese living in Shanghai are educated in standard Chinese language hence they speak a mix of Shanghainese and Mandarin.

Drawbacks of Learning a Chinese Dialect

Learning Chinese dialects can be cumbersome because there is no standard book to refer. So, it’s harder to sustain the systematic learning of a dialect. There is also no standard romanization system like Pinyin.

Pinyin: It is the most widely-used system of writing Mandarin Chinese using the Latin alphabet. It also helps in learning the accurate pronunciation of Mandarin words.

Conclusion-Language and Dialects

Chinese people are always impressed by a foreigner’s willingness to learn any Chinese dialect. But, can we see a dialect as an extension of a main language? For example, if language is a river then the dialects are its tributaries.

In the world where people prefer standardization, is the distinction between language and dialect sustainable? (even the Chinese government is keen on using the standard Chinese for education and some of the regional dialects are dying, for example Shanghainese). What are your views?


Read more about learning the Mandarin languages here:

Favourite Free Apps to Learning Mandarin on Your Own

How to Say Goodbye in Chinese Mandarin for Different Situations

Chinese, Japanese, Korean: A Language Comparison

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