Unraveling Similarities: The Difference between Mandarin and Chinese

The difference between Mandarin and Chinese is that Mandarin is one of the many Chinese languages. The term “Chinese”, although it is commonly used when referring to Mandarin, actually encompasses many smaller languages in China and Chinese communities outside of it. China is the biggest country in the world by number of inhabitants, with its population being twice as big as that of Europe. Moreover, China is not a country of immigrants, like US or Canada; the Chinese nation have developed throughout thousands of years of history. Is it possible for such a country to have only one spoken language? Absolutely not! China officially has between 6 to 12 dialects that are so different from one another that they could be considered separate languages by some. The exact number of them is disputed, since some dialects are considered to be dialects of other dialects and so on. Moreover, these are just the biggest dialects; in fact, most of the regions and cities outside of Beijing (where modern standard Mandarin developed) have their own dialects. Majority of them don’t even have a developed writing system, since they are only used in an informal everyday context.

Let’s take a look at major dialects of China and how they relate to Mandarin.

  1. Mandarin (普通话)

Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China. It is what the majority of Chinese people speak, yet it is worth mentioning that it is an “official” speaking tongue. It means that a Chinese person must speak it if they want to talk to other Chinese from outside of their own region. It makes Mandarin the most widely spoken language in the country.

It is also the second most widely spoken language in the world after English with total 1.117 million speakers, as well as one of the six official languages of the United Nations. In fact, Mandarin is a standardised dialect of the Chinese capital: Beijing.

The word “mandarin” originally referred to an official in the Chinese empire. It comes from the Portuguese word “mandarim”, which in turn originates from the Sanskrit word “mantrin”, meaning “minister”. Among Chinese speakers, Mandarin Chinese is called Pǔtōnghuà (普通话), meaning “common speech”. Guóyǔ (国语), meaning “national language” is a form more often used in Taiwan. It is also the language most commonly studied by foreigners.

2. Cantonese (广东话,粤语/粵語)

Cantonese is culturally a very important Chinese language and it is also very different from Mandarin. It is spoken by approximately 60 million people in China. It is the official language of Hong Kong and Macau, and is the most widely spoken language in the Chinese province of Canton (Guangdong). In fact, Cantonese is much older than Mandarin, because it evolved in the traditionally more developed south. Moreover, it is widely spoken in Chinese communities outside of China. In the UK, for example, Cantonese is more popular than Mandarin, as many Chinese immigrants arrived in the UK from Hong Kong.

Students often ask how Mandarin Chinese differs from Cantonese. Although both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages, they sound very different. Mandarin speakers use four different tones, while Cantonese speakers use six official tones (actually, other classification of Cantonese lists nine tones!).

The speakers of these two dialects can’t understand each other. Although they are considered dialects of Chinese, there is every reason to say that they are different languages, especially since their speakers cannot really communicate.

There is one thing that Cantonese and Mandarin do have in common: the writing, as they both use Chinese characters (simplified in mainland China). Although they pronounce the characters differently, their meaning is the same.

Wikipedia list showing the most important Chinese dialects.

3. Min (閩/闽)

This dialect, spoken mainly in the south-east of the country (in Fujian province), is said to have more than 70 million speakers. A figure which, although it does not represent much to Westerners, makes Min a very important dialect in the history of China. For instance, many Chinese immigrants to Taiwan were coming from Fujian, what made Min a very important language in the island: it is even called there 台語 táiyǔ, which means “Taiwanese”. Min is also a very old language: linguists believe that the oldest strata of the Min dialect would have diverged from other Chinese languages at the time of the Han dynasty that ruled around 2 000 years ago!

4. Wu (吴语)

Wu is considered to have around 80 million speakers and it is spoken in Shanghai, in most of Zhejiang Province and the city of Hangzhou, in the southernmost part of Jiangsu Province, as well as in parts of Anhui and Jiangxi. The Shanghainese dialect is a simpler version of wu and it is the most representative of Northern Wu variations.

5. Xiang (湘语)

Xiang is also known as Hunan language (湖南话,  húnánhuà). It is spoken by more than 36 million people in China, mainly in the central and southwestern parts of Hunan province, in 20 counties of Sichuan province, four counties of Quanzhou and in northern Guangxi province, and parts of Guangdong province.

6. Gan (赣话)

The Gan language is concentrated in central China and typical of Jiangxi province. Its representative dialect is the Nanchang dialect. It has 22 million native speakers. It is more similar to Mandarin than Cantonese and Min.

7. Hakka (客家语)

Hakka is a very interesting language since its native speakers has spread throughout many regions. It is spoken mostly in southern China by the Hakka people.

Due to its use in isolated regions, the Hakka language has developed numerous variants or dialects spoken in Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan and Guizhou, including the Hainan Islands in China and Taiwan. Hakka is not intelligible with Mandarin, Wu, Minnan, and most variants of the Chinese language. Moreover, there is a difference in pronunciation between the Taiwanese Hakka dialect and the dialect of the Hakka people in mainland China.

As you can see, Chinese is much more than Mandarin! However, learning Mandarin is probably the most popular choice, since it is the main language of China. If you would like to know more about Mandarin, check other articles on Maayot:

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Simplified vs Traditional Chinese