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Languages of China

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Languages of China
Distribution of language families in China

There are several hundred languages in China. The predominant language is Standard Chinese, which is based on Beijingese, but there are hundreds of related Chinese languages, collectively known as Hanyu (simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語; pinyin: Hànyǔ, 'Han language'), that are spoken by 92% of the population. The Chinese (or 'Sinitic') languages are typically divided into seven major language groups, and their study is a distinct academic discipline.[1] They differ as much from each other morphologically and phonetically as do English, German and Danish, but meanwhile share the same writing system (Hanzi) and are mutually intelligible in written form. There are in addition approximately 300 minority languages spoken by the remaining 8% of the population of China.[2] The ones with greatest state support are Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang.

According to the 2010 edition of Nationalencyklopedin, 955 million out of China's then-population of 1.34 billion spoke some variety of Mandarin Chinese as their first language, accounting for 71% of the country's population.[3] According to the 2019 edition of Ethnologue, 904 million people in China spoke some variety of Mandarin as their first language in 2017.[4]

Standard Chinese, known in China as Putonghua, based on the Mandarin dialect of Beijing,[5] 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. For example, Tibetan has official status within the Tibet Autonomous Region and Mongolian has official status within Inner Mongolia. Language laws of China do not apply to either Hong Kong or Macau, which have different official languages (Cantonese, English and Portuguese) from the mainland.

Spoken languages[edit]

The spoken languages of nationalities that are a part of China belong to at least nine families:

Ethnolinguistic map of China



(Possibly the ancient Bǎiyuè 百越)







(Possibly the ancient Nánmán 南蛮, 南蠻)





  • Jie (Kjet) (extinct) (?)



  • Wutun (Mongolian-Tibetan mixed language)
  • Macanese (Portuguese creole)

Written languages[edit]

The first page of the astronomy section of the 御製五體清文鑑 Yuzhi Wuti Qing Wenjian. The work contains four terms on each of its pages, arranged in the order of Manchu, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chagatai, and Chinese languages. For the Tibetan, it includes both transliteration and a transcription into the Manchu alphabet. For the Chagatai, it includes a line of transcription into the Manchu alphabet.

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

Many modern forms of spoken Chinese languages have their own distinct writing system using Chinese characters that contain colloquial variants. These typically are used as sound characters to help determine the pronunciation of the sentence within that language:

Some non-Sinitic peoples have historically used Chinese characters:

Other languages, all now extinct, used separate logographic scripts influenced by, but not directly derived from, Chinese characters:

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

Other writing system for Chinese languages in China include:

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]

One decade before the demise of the Qing dynasty in 1912, Mandarin was promoted in the planning for China's first public school system.[5]

Mandarin has been promoted as the commonly spoken language for the country since 1956, based phonologically on the dialect of Beijing. The North Chinese language group is set up as the standard grammatically and lexically. Meanwhile, Mao Zedong and Lu Xun writings are used as the basis of the stylistic standard.[5] Pronunciation is taught with the use of the romanized phonetic system known as pinyin. Pinyin has been criticized for fear of an eventual replacement of the traditional character orthography.[5]

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.[5] Language is one of the features used for ethnic identification.[7] In September 1951, the All-China Minorities Education Conference established that all minorities should be taught in their language at the primary and secondary levels when they count with a writing language. Those without a writing language or with an "imperfect" writing language should be helped to develop and reform their writing languages.[7]

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, even though their differences are as significant, if not more so, 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.[8] 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.[9]

In 2010, Tibetan students protested against changes in the Language Policy on the schools that promoted the use of Mandarin Chinese instead of Tibetan. They argued that the measure would erode their culture.[10] In 2013, China's Education Ministry said that about 400 million people were unable to speak the national language Mandarin. In that year, the government pushed linguistic unity in China, focusing on the countryside and areas with ethnic minorities.[11]

Mandarin Chinese is the prestige language in practice, and failure to protect ethnic languages does occur. In summer 2020, the Inner Mongolian government announced an education policy change to phase out Mongolian as the language of instructions for humanities in elementary and middle schools, adopting the national instruction material instead. Thousands of ethnic Mongolians in northern China gathered to protest the policy.[12] The Ministry of Education describes the move as a natural extension of the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language (Chinese: 通用语言文字法) of 2000.[13]

Study of foreign languages[edit]

English has been the most widely-taught foreign language in China, as it is a required subject for students attending university.[14][15] Other languages that have gained some degree of prevalence or interest are Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian.[16][17][18] During the 1950s and 1960s, Russian had some social status among elites in mainland China as the international language of socialism.

In the late 1960s, English replaced the position of Russian to become the most studied foreign language in China.[citation needed] After the Reform and Opening-up policy in 1988, English was taught in public schools starting in the third year of primary school.[19][20]

Russian, French, and German language classes have been made widely available in universities and colleges.[21] In Northeast China, there are many bilingual schools (Mandarin-Japanese; Mandarin-Korean; Mandarin-Russian), in these schools, students learn languages other than English.

The Economist reported in 2006 that up to one fifth of the population was learning English. Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister, estimated that the total English-speaking population in China would outnumber the native speakers in the rest of the world in two decades.[22]

There have been a growing number of students studying Arabic, due to reasons of cultural interest and belief in better job opportunities.[23] The language is also widely studied amongst the Hui people.[24] In the past, literary Arabic education was promoted in Islamic schools by the Kuomintang when it ruled mainland China.[25]

There have also been a growing number of students choosing to learn Urdu, due to interest in Pakistani culture, close ties between the respective nations, and job opportunities provided by the CPEC.[26]

Interest in Portuguese and Spanish have increased greatly, due in part to Chinese investment in Latin America as well as in African nations such as Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde. Portuguese is also one of the official languages in Macau, although its use had stagnated since the nation's transfer from Portugal to the PRC. It was estimated in 2016 that 2.3% of Macau's locals spoke the language,[27] although with government backing since then, interest in it has increased.[28]

Esperanto became prominent in certain circles in the early 20th century and reached its peak in the 1980s, though by 2024 its prominence had declined.[29]

Use of English[edit]

In China, English is used as a lingua franca in several fields, especially for business settings,[30] and in schools to teach Standard Mandarin to people who are not Chinese citizens.[31] English is also one of the official languages in Hong Kong.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Dwyer, Arienne (2005). The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse (PDF). Political Studies 15. Washington, D.C.: East-West Center Washington. pp. 31–32. ISBN 1-932728-29-5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 July 2007. 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").
  2. ^ Lewis, M. Paul, ed. (2009). "Languages of China". Ethnologue: Languages of the World (16th ed.). Dallas, Texas: SIL International. The number of individual languages listed for China is 299.
  3. ^ Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin. Asterisks mark the 2010 estimates for the top dozen languages.
  4. ^ Eberhard, David M.; Simons, Gary F.; Fennig, Charles D., eds. (2019). "China: Languages". Ethnologue: Languages of the World (22nd ed.). Dallas, Texas: SIL International.
  5. ^ a b c d e Barnes, Dayle (1978). "The Language of Instruction in Chinese Communities". International Review of Education. 24 (3): 371–374. Bibcode:1978IREdu..24..371B. doi:10.1007/BF00598052. JSTOR 3443833. S2CID 144750671.
  6. ^ a b Western Yugur is a Turkic language, whereas Eastern Yugur is a Mongolic language.
  7. ^ a b Dreyer, June Teufel (1978). "Language Planning for China's Ethnic Minorities". Pacific Affairs. 51 (3): 369–383. doi:10.2307/2757936. JSTOR 2757936.
  8. ^ "The Prospects for the Long-Term Survival of Non-Han Minority Languages in the South of China" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 August 2008 – via linguapax.org.
  9. ^ Zhou, Minglang (2003). Multilingualism in China: The Politics of Writing Reforms for Minority Languages, 1949–2002. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-092459-6.
  10. ^ Branigan, Tania (20 October 2010). "Tibetans Protest Against Language Curbs in Chinese Schools". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 12 November 2020. Retrieved 15 January 2021.
  11. ^ "Beijing Says 400 Million Chinese Cannot Speak Mandarin". BBC News. 6 September 2013. Retrieved 15 January 2021.
  12. ^ Qin, Amy (4 September 2020). "Curbs on Mongolian Language Teaching Prompt Large Protests in China". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 19 September 2020. Retrieved 18 September 2020.
  13. ^ Lin, Jin 林瑾 (24 September 2020). "Nèiménggǔ jiàogǎi fēngbō zhēngyì yánshāo – Zhōngguó jiàoyùbù: Bùtóng kànfǎ shì zhànshí de" 内蒙古教改风波争议延烧 中国教育部: 不同看法是暂时的. Duōwéi xīnwén 多维新闻.
  14. ^ Faisal Kidwai (22 October 2018). "Retooling English Learning in China". Chinadaily.com.cn. Archived from the original on 23 June 2019. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
  15. ^ "What Languages Are Spoken in China?". WorldAtlas. Archived from the original on 23 June 2019. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
  16. ^ Phillips, Tom (2 September 2018). "Study of Portuguese and Spanish Explodes as China Expands Role in Latin America". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 23 June 2019. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  17. ^ Zhou, Lihua; Zhou, Sally (9 July 2017). "Increasing Number of Middle Schools Offer Russian Language Courses". Chinadaily.com.cn. Archived from the original on 23 June 2019. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  18. ^ "Top 6 Most Popular Foreign Language Teachers in China". At0086.com. Archived from the original on 23 June 2019. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  19. ^ "English Craze Hits Chinese Language Standards". YaleGlobal Online. Archived from the original on 25 February 2020. Retrieved 27 July 2018.
  20. ^ The Miami Herald (25 April 2004). "Asians Offer Region a Lesson – in English". YaleGlobal Online. Archived from the original on 19 February 2010. Retrieved 6 March 2010.
  21. ^ "German Language Study on the Rise Worldwide". ICEF Monitor. 30 April 2015. Archived from the original on 23 June 2019. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  22. ^ "English Beginning to be Spoken Here". Economist.com. 12 April 2006. Archived from the original on 17 April 2006.
  23. ^ Walker, Alyssa (18 December 2017). "More Chinese Students Study Arabic". Academiccourses.com. Archived from the original on 23 June 2019. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  24. ^ Dillon, Michael (1999). China's Muslim Hui Community: Migration, Settlement and Sects. Richmond: Curzon Press. p. 155. ISBN 0-7007-1026-4.
  25. ^ Dudoignon, Stéphane A.; Komatsu, Hisao; Kosugi, Yasushi, eds. (2006). Intellectuals in the Modern Islamic World: Transmission, Transformation, Communication. London: Taylor & Francis. p. 251. ISBN 978-0-415-36835-3.
  26. ^ "Chinese Students Eager to Learn Urdu Anticipating Job Opportunities Under Cpec". Dawn. Agence France-Presse. 11 June 2017. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  27. ^ Statistics and Census Service (2017). "2016 Population By-Census Detailed Results".
  28. ^ "In Macau, the Old Colonial Tongue Is Back in Vogue". The Economist. 8 November 2018. Archived from the original on 10 November 2018. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  29. ^ He, Kai; Wu, Huiyuan (15 September 2023). "China's Last Esperanto Students". Sixth Tone. Retrieved 6 January 2023.
  30. ^ Wang, Wenpu; Wei, Lin (2016). "Chinese English in As Lingua Franca in Global Business Setting: A Case Study of Ongoing Emails of A Foreign Company in China". In Liu, X.; Wang, J.; Li, N. (eds.). SHS Web of Conferences. Vol. 25. p. 01013. doi:10.1051/shsconf/20162501013.
  31. ^ Wang, Danping (2013). "The Use of English as a Lingua Franca in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language: A Case Study of Native Chinese Teachers in Beijing". In Haberland, Hartmut; Lønsmann, Dorte; Preisler, Bent (eds.). Language Alternation, Language Choice and Language Encounter in International Tertiary Education. Multilingual Education. Vol. 5. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 161–177. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-6476-7_8. ISBN 978-94-007-6475-0.


  •  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.

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 978-1-84714-449-2.
  • Ramsey, S. Robert (1987). The Languages of China (illustrated, reprint ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691014685.
  • 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.

External links[edit]