Languages of China

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Languages of China and Taiwan
China linguistic map.jpg
Map of Linguistic Groups in China and Taiwan
Official languages Standard Mandarin (Mainland), Cantonese (Hong Kong and Macau)[citation needed], English (Hong Kong), Portuguese (Macau), Uyghur (Xinjiang), Tibetan (Tibet), Mongolian (Inner Mongolia), Zhuang (Guangxi)
Indigenous languages Achang, Ai-Cham, Akha, Amis, Atayal, Ayi, Äynu, Babuza, Bai, Baima, Basay, Blang, Bonan, Bunun, Buyang, Buyei, Daur, De'ang, Derung, Dong, Dongxiang, E, Chinese Pidgin English, Ersu, Evenki, Fuyü Gïrgïs, Gelao, Groma, Hani, Hlai, Ili Turki, Iu Mien, Jingpho, Jino, Jurchen, Kanakanabu, Kangjia, Kavalan, Kim Mun, Khitan, Lahu, Lisu, Lop, Macanese, Manchu, Miao, Maonan, Mongolian, Monguor, Monpa, Mulam, Nanai, Naxi, Paiwan, Pazeh, Puyuma, Ong-Be, Oroqen, Qabiao, Qoqmončaq, Northern Qiang, Southern Qiang, Prinmi, Rukai, Saaroa, Saisiyat, Salar, Sarikoli, Seediq, She, Siraya, Sui, Tai Dam, Tai Lü, Tai Nüa, Tao, Tangut, Thao, Amdo Tibetan, Central Tibetan (Standard Tibetan), Khams Tibetan, Tsat, Tsou, Tujia, Uyghur, Waxianghua, Wutun, Xibe, Yi, Eastern Yugur, Western Yugur, Zhaba, Zhuang
Minority languages French, German, Japanese, Kazakh, Korean, Kyrgyz, Russian, Tatar, Tuvan, Uzbek, Wakhi, Vietnamese
Main foreign languages


Portuguese (in Macau)
Sign languages Chinese Sign Language
Tibetan Sign Language
Taiwanese Sign Language
Common keyboard layouts
Chinese input methods

The Languages of China are the languages that are spoken by China's 56 recognized ethnic groups. The predominant language in China, which is divided into seven major dialect groups, is known as Hanyu (simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語; pinyin: Hànyǔ). and its study is considered a distinct academic discipline in China.[3] Hanyu, or Han language, spans eight primary dialect groups, that differ from each other morphologically and phonetically to such a degree that dialects from different regions can often be mutually unintelligible. The languages most studied and supported by the state include Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang. China has 292 living languages according to Ethnologue.[4]

Standard Chinese (known in China as Putonghua), a form of Mandarin Chinese, is the official national spoken language for the mainland and serves as a lingua franca within the Mandarin-speaking regions (and, to a lesser extent, across the other regions of mainland China). Several other autonomous regions have additional official languages. Language laws of China do not apply to either Hong Kong or Macau and hence have different official languages (Cantonese, English and Portuguese) than the mainland. For example, Tibetan has official status within the Tibet Autonomous Region and Mongolian has official status within Inner Mongolia.

Spoken languages[edit]

The spoken languages of nationalities that are a part of the People's Republic of China belong to at least nine families:

Below are lists of ethnic groups in China by linguistic classification. Ethnicities not on the official PRC list of 56 ethnic groups are italicized. Respective Pinyin transliterations and simplified Chinese characters are also given.



(Possibly the ancient Bǎiyuè 百越)





Cháoxiǎn, 朝鲜 ; Traditional Chinese: 朝鮮



(Possibly the ancient Nánmán 南蛮 ; Traditional Chinese: 南蠻)





  • Wutun, Wǔtún, 五屯 (Mongolian-Tibetan mixed language)
  • Macanese, Tǔshēngpú, 土生葡 (Portuguese creole)

Written languages[edit]

Main article: Written Chinese
A sign in Manchu, Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian at the Yonghe monastery in Beijing

The following languages traditionally had written forms that do not involve Chinese characters (hanzi):

Some formerly have used Chinese characters

During Qing dynasty, palaces, temples, and coins have sometimes been inscribed in four scripts:

During the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the official writing system was:

The reverse of a one jiao note with Chinese (Pinyin) at the top and Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Zhuang along the bottom.

Chinese banknotes contain several scripts in addition to Chinese script. These are:

Ten nationalities who never had a written system have, under the PRC's encouragement, developed phonetic alphabets. According to a government white paper published in early 2005, "by the end of 2003, 22 ethnic minorities in China used 28 written languages."

Language policy[edit]

The Chinese language policy in mainland China is heavily influenced by the Soviet nationalities policy and officially encourages the development of standard spoken and written languages for each of the nationalities of China. However, in this schema, Han Chinese are considered a single nationality and the official policy of the People's Republic of China (PRC) treats the different varieties of Chinese differently from the different national languages despite, even though their differences are as significant as those between the various Romance languages of Europe. While official policies in mainland China encourage the development and use of different orthographies for the national languages and their use in educational and academic settings, realistically speaking it would seem that, as elsewhere in the world, the outlook for minority languages perceived as inferior is grim.[6] The Tibetan Government-in-Exile argue that social pressures and political efforts result in a policy of sinicization and feels that Beijing should promote the Tibetan language more. Because many languages exist in China, they also have problems regarding diglossia. Recently, in terms of Fishman's typology of the relationships between bilingualism and diglossia and his taxonomy of diglossia (Fishman 1978, 1980) in China: more and more minority communities have been evolving from "diglossia without bilingualism" to "bilingualism without diglossia." This could be an implication of mainland China's power expanding.[7]

Study of foreign languages[edit]

It is also considered increasingly prestigious and useful to have some ability in English, which is a required subject for persons attending university. During the 1950s and 1960s, Russian had some social status among elites in mainland China as the international language of socialism. Japanese is the second most-studied foreign language in China.[citation needed] However, languages other than English are now considered to be "minor languages" (小语种 ; Traditional Chinese:小語種 xiǎo yǔzhǒng) and are only really studied at the university level apart from some special schools which are called Foreign Language Schools in some well-developed cities.

English is taught in the public schools starting in the third year of primary school.[1][2]

The Economist, issue April 12, 2006, reported that up to one fifth of the population is learning English. Gordon Brown, the former British Prime Minister, estimated that the total English-speaking population in China will outnumber the native speakers in the rest of the world in two decades.[8]

Literary Arabic is studied by Hui students.[9]

Literary Arabic education was promoted by the Kuomintang in Islamic schools when it ruled mainland China.[10]

Portuguese is taught in Macau as one of the official languages there and as a centre of learning of the language in the region.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kane, D. (2006). The Chinese language: its history and current usage. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle. ISBN 0-8048-3853-4
  • Halliday, M. A. K., & Webster, J. (2005). Studies in Chinese language. London: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-5874-2
  • Ramsey, S. Robert (1987). The Languages of China (illustrated, reprint ed.). N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 069101468X. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 
  • Hong, B. (1978). Chinese language use. Canberra: Contemporary China Centre, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University. ISBN 0-909596-29-8
  • Cheng, C. C., & Lehmann, W. P. (1975). Language & linguistics in the People's Republic of China. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-74615-6

See also[edit]


  •  This article incorporates text from Encyclopædia of religion and ethics, Volume 8, by James Hastings, John Alexander Selbie, Louis Herbert Gray, a publication from 1916 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from Burma past and present, by Albert Fytche, a publication from 1878 now in the public domain in the United States.
  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ Dwyer, Arienne (2005). The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse (PDF). Political Studies 15. Washington: East-West Center. pp. 31–32. ISBN 1-932728-29-5. Tertiary institutions with instruction in the languages and literatures of the regional minorities (e.g., Xinjiang University) have faculties entitled Hanyu xi ("Languages of China Department") and Hanyu wenxue xi ("Literatures of the Languages of China Department"). 
  4. ^ Languages of China – from Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International.
  5. ^ a b Western Yugur is a Turkic language, whereas is Eastern Yugur a Mongolic language.
  6. ^ The prospects for the long-term survival of Non-Han minority languages in the south of China
  7. ^ Minglang Zhou, Multilingualism in China the politics of Writing reforms for minority languages 1949-2002 (2003)
  8. ^ "English beginning to be spoken here". The Economist. 2006-04-12. 
  9. ^ Michael Dillon (1999), China's Muslim Hui community: migration, settlement and sects, Richmond: Curzon Press, p. 155, ISBN 0-7007-1026-4, retrieved 2010-06-28 
  10. ^ Stéphane A. Dudoignon, Hisao Komatsu, Yasushi Kosugi (2006). Intellectuals in the modern Islamic world: transmission, transformation, communication. Taylor & Francis. p. 251. ISBN 978-0-415-36835-3. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 

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