Heavenly Street at Mt. Tai (See-Ming Lee / Flickr)
The Many Dialects of China
By Kiril Bolotnikov
The vast majority of people, if asked what language is spoken in China, would say: That's a no-brainer: Chinese, of course!
Some might know enough to differentiate between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese. But the truth is far more complex than that.
Mandarin Chinese alone is the most widely spoken native language in the world: nearly a billion within China alone and 1.2 billion worldwide—a few hundred million people more than the next most widespread languages, Spanish and English.
This is yet another aspect of China and Chinese society that is easy to see as a monolith, but doing so would allow this number to obscure the many complexities and subtleties of the real story. In fact, Mandarin itself is only a dialect—albeit a widespread one—of the overarching language group of "Chinese," which itself comes from the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Mandarin Chinese is known as 普通话 (Pǔtōnghuà), the "common speech," and it has only been the official language of China since the 1930s, when the country established it as the standard dialect and began pushing to make this a reality nationwide.
The point of all this is that Mandarin is one of many dialects, and it is important to understand the diversity of dialects within China. Read on