Knowledge base

Current List of Chinese Languages

Considering China’s long and very dynamic history, along with the country’s size and population, it would be quite unreasonable to assume that Chinese people speak only one or maybe just a few languages. With Chinese territory being greater than Europe, the population accounting for nearly 20% of all the Earth’s population, and the history spanning for nearly 5,000 years, China contemporarily accounts for nearly 300 languages spoken across the country, according to the majority of approximations. Most of the Chinese languages are not mutually intelligible, meaning that the speakers in one region will not likely understand those in another region. That is why it is important to take such a multiplicity into consideration when learning Chinese and traveling to the country.

What is the Main Language of China?

With 300 variants of the Chinese language currently being in active use, questioning which language is considered to be the most important one would be somewhat incorrect. That is because the answer to that question would vary depending on the region you’re asking. For instance, the city of Beijing along with other few provinces would say that Standard Mandarin is the main language because it is considered a national language for those regions and the official language of China. At the same time, people in Guangzhou province would tell you that Cantonese variant of Chinese is the most important as it is recognized as the official language there. And this list would go on for very, very long.

On top of all that, there are different perspectives on written language, as well as the braille writing system and, finally, the sign language. These would also vary across the regions of China just as the spoken languages, as well as differentiate on territories where Chinese is recognized as one of the official languages. For instance, Taiwan has its own variation of Chinese, while Singapore also demonstrates some nuances in its own use of the language. So, the correct question would be «what are the top 3 languages spoken in China at least?» That would largely narrow down the list and make this article far easier to read.

How Many Languages are Spoken in China?

Speaking of the top 3 languages spoken across the country, those would be the Standard Mandarin or sometimes simply called Mandarin, Wu Chinese, and Yue Chinese, or Cantonese language. The languages largely vary between each other, so, people from different regions of China may have a difficult time understanding each other. So, if you’d like to travel to China and would like to learn the language at least a little bit, you have to understand, which variation to learn, depending on the region you’d like to visit.

Standard Mandarin

Standard Mandarin language is the one spoken predominantly in Northern Chinese regions, most prominently, in the country’s capital, Beijing. Being spoken by nearly two-thirds of the Chinese population, Mandarin Chinese is also recognized as China’s official language and is supposed to be taught in all schools across the country. Mandarin was declared as the official language on the governmental level in 1955 when the Communist regime has taken over the country and the need to unify China has risen sharply. As a result, today, this variation of Chinese languages accounts for over 1 billion speakers in the country, although, only 10% of them can speak the language fluently, relying mostly on their regional variations.

Wu

At the same time, Wu variation of the Chinese language is predominantly spoken in the Shanghai region, as well as in the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Fujian, and Anhui. All of those territories account for about 81.5 million of Wu Chinese speakers in total, making this variation the second most popular language in China. Accounting for a rather long history, Wu Chinese achieved its widest spread in the 5th century and during the rise of the Ming Dynasty, the latter of which in turn made Shanghai a vital trade and cultural center of the country.

Yue

Finally, Yue or Cantonese variation of Chinese language is widespread in the Guangdong province, which is one of the major provinces of China, as well as in the provinces of Hunan, and Hainan, accounting for about 62 million speakers. The major city where the Cantonese language is spoken in Guangzhou, which is currently considered to be one of the industrial centers in China. The name of this variation came from the former name of Guangdong, which was called Canton. The city was known as the largest port in China throughout history, hence, strongly influencing the spread of Cantonese variation across the country as well as other destinations around the world.

Other Chinese Dialects

Aside from the variations above, there are also Xiang, Min, Gan, and Hakka dialects that are considered the most spoken throughout China. As for the rest, it is hard to tell how many different languages are spoken in China in the first place, without even saying how many people speak which variation. Yet, approximately, 300 languages are currently being in use in the country. This number, of course, may be different, with some of the additional variations being spoken only by a few dozens of people living in rural areas.

With all that being said, the situation with languages in China is made even more complex by the writing systems. Not that they are extremely complex on their own or that there are many writing systems. In fact, there are only two major writing systems in the country, none of which is anything particularly hard. Yet, it’s the use of those systems across the regions and corresponding spoken dialects that make the situation pretty confusing, even for the Chinese people.

Simplified and Traditional Chinese Writing Systems

Although the spoken languages in China are many, people don’t seem like having a hard time writing what they want to say. While it’s really hard to tell how many dialects in China are there, the writing systems are in a much simpler situation, with only two major writing systems being currently in use. The Traditional Chinese writing system was in wide use in China before the mid-20th century, Simplified Chinese was promoted by the Communist government since the 1950s. That was done due to the need to increase the literacy of the population as well as to dispose of any «odd» features of the language. The major difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese is that the Simplified system is… well, simpler. More particularly, this is manifested in the following differences:

  • Reduced number of strokes. Chinese hieroglyphs are often considered very complex as they have to be drawn precisely, following the specific order of lines, as well as their length and intensity. The Simplified writing system has eliminated some strokes in certain hieroglyphs, thus, making them more easily read and written.
  • Reduced number of characters. Along with cutting down the lines within hieroglyphs, Simplified Chinese also cuts the number of the hieroglyphs themselves. This process is still on-going, with the Chinese government constantly updating their list.
  • Character use. As the process of simplifying and unifying of the writing system is dynamic and constant in China, certain characters are dropped gradually, not all at once. This means that certain characters become standardized for certain meanings. As time goes on, these hieroglyphs are used for specific words more often, thus, becoming an overall standard for the use in the formal language.

The writing system of China does not seem to be that complex, however, the main issue here is that every region in China is autonomous regarding its language, hence, different provinces have different writing systems recognized as official. For instance, the Northern region of China that speaks predominantly Mandarin writes in Simplified Chinese. This system is also considered to be official in the country’s mainland. Yet, Hong Kong, for instance, uses Traditional Chinese characters in writing, along with Taiwan and Macao. There’s really no particular rule as to which region uses which writing system. If you want to travel or live in China or to speak and write in Chinese languages, you just have to decide with the region first and then start learning.

Why Does China Have So Many Languages?

It’s really hard to tell how many dialects of Chinese are there, but it’s quite simple to summarize why they are so many. The major reasons for such a strong diversity of Chinese language can be drawn to two main factors. Those would be the dynamics of language as well as the historical perspective.

As for history, China is a very, very old country and one of the oldest civilizations in the world. On top of that, the population of China has always been great in number and was always scattered throughout a vast territory. Finally, some of the regions were largely divided by mountains, rivers, as well as political tensions. So, the language could develop separately in each region and province, or even town and village. This leads us to the second factor, which is the language dynamics.

While the Chinese languages were very diverse throughout almost the entire history of the country, the researchers point out one major version of the language, now called the Classical Chinese, which was the form of the Old Chinese and in which most of the historical records of China are made. While this is an example of the written language, the spoken language probably followed suit and had quite a similar situation.

Modern Trends and the Future of Chinese Languages

Considering the current globalization trends, it is likely that China will speak its standardized language, Standard Mandarin, for the most part in the future. Of course, the provinces, like Guangdong that already have a very solid presence of Cantonese, will likely speak Cantonese for the next few generations at least. Yet, the majority of regional dialects will probably blend or be absorbed by other major dialects. Nevertheless, it will be very hard to make a conclusion as to what is the language of China for sure. Perhaps, the multiplicity of Chinese languages will remain for centuries to come. Considering the history of China, such a situation may be quite possible, even despite the globalization and all unification attempts.