The many dialects of Chinese

There have always been many regional speeches in China. A Han Dynasty scholar, 扬雄 (53 BCE - 18 CE), first wrote a book about them. This book is 《方言》. And the term “方言” has been used to refer to the many varieties of Chinese ever since, and it is this word being translated into “dialect”, which is different from “accents”.


Many students are worried about their tones. It seems that they will never get all the tones right. Guess what, welcome to the club! Most Chinese people don’t speak Mandarin with all the right tones either. Almost all of them carry some kind of accents.  

Everyone has an accent. It is impossible to speak Mandarin without an accent. Students who have spent too much time trying to get the four tones right will be disappointed that the real world do not speak according to their textbooks. Hardly anybody sound like CCTV newscasters or Chinese teachers, who are often regarded as speaking with the standard accent or with no accent. 

And it is totally all right for students to have their own accents. Indeed, it is too much to ask students to speak like newscasters or their Chinese teachers. It is better to focus on speaking good Chinese, such as using the most appropriate words with good structures, than speaking with the right tones. Speaking good Chinese with a distinctive accent is cool.

The many dialects of Chinese

Accents and dialects are two different concepts. Accent refers only to pronunciation, while dialect refers to pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. For example, Beijinghua is not Putonghua. They are two dialects, but there is a version of Mandarin which has a Beijing accent.

The Chinese writing system does not represent accents well, as Chinese characters do not tell us how people speak in real life. The same sentence, such as 我想吃西红柿炒蛋, can be expressed with different regional accents. Instead, Chinese characters are really good at recording different dialects.

There are a lot of Chinese dialects, hundreds of them. Linguists generally accept that there are seven major modern Chinese dialect groups: Mandarin, Wu, Xiang, Gan, Kejia, Min and Yue. The primary divide is between Mandarin and all of the rest dialect groups, which are all southern dialects.

Comparing with other dialects, Mandarin is in the closest relation to the written form. Almost all spoken Mandarin can be written down. 

Most northern dialects belong to the Mandarin group because they are all quite similar to Mandarin. People from Heilongjiang, JiangXi, Henan, Anhui can understand each other with only minor difficulties. 

Southern Chinese dialects are very different from Mandarin, and are also very different from one another. Sometimes even neighbouring towns have their own dialects. Generally speaking, southern dialects retained more archaic words and pronunciations than northern dialects. 

Technically speaking, there is a difference between Mandarin and Chinese, that Mandarin is one of the dialect groups and Chinese includes all dialects. However, many people, including me, often use both words interchangeably. And I also notice that many Hong Kong people consider Cantonese and Chinese are interchangeable. It looks like we are all affected by our perspectives. 

It is marvellous that China has so many dialects, which show us the depth of Chinese history and the variety of Chinese culture. Chinese people have always accepted these varieties of regional speeches, and there is even a word for it, 南腔北调. For people who enjoy a diversified diet of interactions and who like to explore different cultural identities, they will have the time of their lives in learning Chinese, in its most extensive sense.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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