Languages in China: The Great
Symbol of Diversity

The vast array of spoken languages in China attests its cultural diversity, geographical strength and great past heritage. Today's China is home to nine linguistic families speaking over 290 languages.

Languages in China

Qin Shi Huangdi the first emperor of ancient China during the Qin Dynasty decided that to manage a vast empire he needed a common written script so he chose once script and ordered that scholars who opposed the destruction of the remaining scripts to be burnt. However, the spoken languages in China were left intact (although some have indicated that Qin Shi Huangdi spoke Min-nan).

The immense linguistic diversity of China is the result of its long history, patronage extended by different dynasties and 56 different ethnic groups living within its political boundary. While five languages, Mandarin, Tibetan, Mongolian, Zhuang and Uyghur, continue to flourish under the state patronage, many ancient Chinese languages, such as Jurchen, are already extinct and many dialects and sub-dialects are on the verge of their vanishing point.

Key Linguistic Families

Most spoken languages in China owe their origin to one of the following nine linguistic families.

  • Sino-Tibetan: The largest group with 28 nationalities, including predominant Han speaking Mandarin and Tibetans with their own dialect.
  • Tai-Kadai: A subgroup of the first but later emerged a different entity. Includes Zhuang, Dei, and Dong living in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and southern areas.
  • Hmong-Mien: Known as the dialect of hill people, it is used by people in scattered over, Hunan, Yunnan, Hubei and Sichuan mountains and areas bordering Thailand and Laos.
  • Turkic: Mostly spoken in central Asian region of China dominated by Uyghurs and Salars.
  • Mongolic: Mongols and Dongxiang ethnic groups living in Inner Mongolia and desert region.
  • Tungusic: Mostly found in Manchuria region and includes dialects of Manchus and Hezhe.
  • Austroasiatic:  Spoken in areas bordering Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar
  • Indo-European:  Mainly spoken by Persian origin people in southwestern Xinjiang
  • Austronesian: This group is the smallest and includes Gaoshan, Utsuls and Hui nationalities.

The Official Language of China

Putonghua, which is globally recognized as Mandarin Chinese, is the official language in China. Etymologically meaning common speech, it grew as an interprogeny of various Chinese dialects close to each other by mutually intelligible phonetics. However, only 53 percent of people use the official language leading to unusual scenes of two Chinese often stressed to comprehend each other. Mandarin has been promoted throughout China for education and official communication since the 1909 Qing Imperial Decree.

The Language of Han Groups

The most dominant ethnic group Han was itself divided on the basis of various linguistic groups. While two-thirds of them speak Mandarin, the rest use Cantonese, Shanghainese and Fuzhou dialects. There are also many less prominent Han languages in China, such as Xiang, Gan and Hakka dialectics. Minnan language is mostly spoken by Han groups living in Taiwan, Fujian and other Southeast Asian Countries like Singapore where the sea faring Han groups migrated to.

A national survey in China today showed that after Putonghua, Cantonese, known as Yue in Chinese, was the most spoken major Han languages in China. It is spoken mostly in southern regions. Named after Canton, the English name of Guangzhou, it is the lingua franca for Chinese inhabitants Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau and the vast swath of southern areas surrounding the Pearl River Delta. The majority of Chinese expatriates living overseas speak Cantonese.

Traditionally known as Wu, Shanghainese is the dialect of people living in Shanghai and surrounding areas in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. With more than 14 million speakers, it is one of the most prominent languages in China spoken in the Yangtze River Delta. It is significantly different from other Chinese languages in tone and consonants.

Non-Han Languages in Historical Perspective

Most of the scripts on palaces, temples and coins of China discovered until now belong to Mandarin, Mongol, Tibetan, Manchu and Uyghur Arabic-Turkic languages. Even today’s Chinese bank notes have only these five languages on them. The post-communist takeover period saw massive encouragement to the Han languages at the cost of other ethnic nationalities.

There are frequent protests in Tibetan and Uyghur areas against the Sinicization policy in place of officially stated bilingualism. The focus on forcible imposition of languages was there in China since the imperial age. Mongol language and Phags-pa script was forcefully promoted by the Yuan rulers while the Ming Dynasty reversed it. The Qings went a step further to impose Mandarin through an official decree.

Foreign Languages in China

English language is the most used among foreign languages in China. One of the official languages in Hong Kong, it is widely spoken in all major metropolis of the country. Macau has Portuguese as one of its official languages as a legacy of two centuries of colonial rule. Japanese is the second most understood foreign language in China thanks to economic relations and years of Japanese occupation. 

Read more about ancient Chinese culture.

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