What Are the Different Chinese Dialects?

An Introduction to 7 Major Dialects Spoken in China

There are many Chinese dialects in China, so many that it is hard to guess how many dialects actually exist. In general, dialects can be roughly classified into one of the seven large groups: Putonghua (Mandarin), Gan, Kejia (Hakka), Min, Wu, Xiang, and Yue (Cantonese). Each language group contains a large number of dialects.

These are the Chinese languages spoken mostly by the Han people, which represents about 92 percent of the total population.

This article will not get into the non-Chinese languages spoken by minorities in China, such as Tibetan, Mongolian and Miao, and all those subsequent dialects.

Even though the dialects from the seven groups are quite different, a non-Mandarin speaker usually can speak some Mandarin, even if with a strong accent. This is largely because Mandarin has been the official national language since 1913.

Despite the large differences among Chinese dialects, there is one thing in common—they all share the same writing system based on Chinese characters. However, the same character is pronounced differently depending on which dialect one speaks. Let's take 我  for example, the word for "I" or "me." In Mandarin, it is pronounced "wo." In Wu, it is pronounced "ngu." In Min, "gua." In Cantonese, "ngo." You get the idea. 

Chinese Dialects and Regionality 

China is a huge country, and similar to the way in which there are different accents across America, there are different dialects spoken in China depending on the region:

  • As mentioned earlier, Mandarin, or Putonghua, can be heard all over China as it is the official language. However, it is thought of as a northern dialect as it is mainly based off of the Beijing dialect.
  • The Gan dialect can be heard in western parts of China. It is spoken particularly heavily in and near Jiangxi province. 
  • Kejia, or Hakka, is the language of Hakka people who are spread out across pockets in Taiwan, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Guizhou, and beyond. 
  • Min is spoken in China's southern coastal province—Fujian. It is the most diverse dialect, meaning within the dialect group there are still many different variations on word pronunciation.
  • Around the Yangtze delta and Shanghai, the Wu dialect can be heard. In fact, Wu is also referred to as Shanghainese. 
  • Xiang is a southern dialect concentrated in Hunan province. 
  • Cantonese, or Yue, is also a southern dialect. It is spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, and Macau. 

Tones

A distinguishing feature across all Chinese languages is tone. For instance, Mandarin has four tones and Cantonese has six tones. Tone, in terms of language, is the pitch in which syllables in words are uttered. In Chinese, different words stress different pitches. Some words even have pitch variation in one single syllable.

Thus, tone is very important in any Chinese dialect. There are many cases when words spelled in pinyin (the standardized alphabetical transliteration of Chinese characters) are the same, but the way it is pronounced changes the meaning. For example, in Mandarin, 妈 (mā) means mother, 马 (mǎ) means horse, and 骂 (mà) means to scold.