The Linguistic and Ideological Complexities of the ‘Chinese’ Language

by Hui (Annette) Zhao

United Nations’ Chinese Language Day falls on 20 April, and is one of the six UN language days, celebrating multilingualism and the use of six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish). Here, I want to talk about the term ‘Chinese’, a ‘simple’ term packed with linguistic and ideological complexities.

The Chinese language is in fact a branch of the bigger Sino-Tibetan language family. It includes hundreds of varieties, used by over 1 billion speakers worldwide. The term ‘Chinese’ can cause confusion, and as a (Mandarin) Chinese speaker in the UK, I have had many slightly awkward encounters with strangers. Most of these conversations go like this:

Interlocutor: (in English) So you’re from China? (often in Cantonese) Hello! How are you?

Me: (in English) Sorry I don’t understand.

Interlocutor: (in English, jokingly) But I thought you were Chinese!?

There are two interesting assumptions worth exploring here:
1. Being from China equals speaking a single language called Chinese;
2. All varieties of this language are mutually intelligible.

Unfortunately, neither of these assumptions is correct. Regarding the first one, the term ‘Chinese’ is to blame, since it is used to refer to any of the hundreds of Chinese varieties, including Mandarin (the variety I speak) and Cantonese (used by my interlocutor). Mandarin and Cantonese are the two most spoken Chinese varieties used by 900 million and 62 million speakers respectively. There are five other main varieties: Wu, Xiang, Gan, Hakka, and Min.

The extremely low mutual intelligibility of these two varieties (and many other varieties) is what baffles most non-speakers of Chinese. In Mandarin Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese are called the Northern dialect (beifang fangyan) and Yue dialect (yue fangyang) and are believed to be merely dialects and not different languages. However, linguist Yuen Ren Chao has compared the mutual unintelligibility of these ‘dialects’ to the differences between English and Dutch. Mutual intelligibility has been tested experimentally (e.g. Chin-Chuan Cheng, Tang Chaoju & Vincent J. van Heuven) and the main consensus is a North-South divide. Varieties spoken in the North (mainly Mandarin varieties) are more mutually intelligible among themselves and by Southern variety speakers, while Southern varieties (mainly non-Mandarin varieties) are more mutually unintelligible within and across dialectal boundaries.

How different do these varieties sound? A quick internet search reveals various videos where native speakers produce scripted sentences in dialects (this one has 3 dialects – Putonghua, Cantonese, and Hakka, and this one contains 5 dialects). As a Mandarin/Putonghua speaker, I can only manage 10-20% for non-Mandarin varieties at best.

So why are vastly different varieties classified as dialects rather than languages? The reasons are deeply ideological and political, and unique to China as a nation-state. According to DeFrancis, China has for centuries maintained its status as a ‘single if occasionally disrupted political entity’ with mutually unintelligible languages/dialects, spoken by a mostly monoethnic population (92% Han vs 8% of 55 other ethnicities). Unlike nations where different varieties are closely tied with religious, ethnic, racial, and/or extreme economic differences, leading to an interruption in political and linguistic unity, China and its unity of speakers of different dialects has never been challenged by these extralinguistic factors historically. Although the tension between different social groups (e.g. different economic status) might have been building up recently, the Chinese government’s vigorous promotion of Putonghua as the sole standard and official language has certainly helped maintain its linguistic unity.

The debate of whether to call Cantonese a ‘dialect’ or ‘language’ will perhaps continue, but on this 20 April, what we can do is to recognise the complex linguistic and extralinguistic situation and celebrate multilingualism in China, and, perhaps, to be a bit more specific when asking if someone speaks ‘Chinese’.

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