During Qin and Han dynasty, most part of today's Eastern Hunan belonged to Changsha-Xian/Changsha-Guo. According to Yang Xiong's Fangyan, people in this region spoke Southern Chu, which is considered the ancestor of Xiang Chinese today.
During the Tang dynasty, a large-scale emigration took place with people emigrating from the north to the south, bringing Middle Chinese into Hunan. Today's Xiang still keeps some Middle Chinese words, such as 嬉 (to have fun), 薅 (to weed), 行 (to walk). Entering tone vowels started weakening in Hunan at this time.
The late Yuan Dynasty peasant uprising caused a great many casualties in Hunan. During the Ming dynasty, a large-scale emigration from Jiangxi to Hunan took place. Gan, which was brought by settlers from Jiangxi, influenced Xiang. The speech in east Hunan differentiated into New Xiang during that period.
Quanzhou County became part of Guangxi province after the adjustment of administrative divisions in the Ming Dynasty. Some features of Xiang at that time were kept in this region.
In Xiang dialects, the voiced initials of Middle Chinese yield unaspirated initials in all tone categories. A few varieties have retained voicing in all tones, but most have voiceless initials in some or all tone categories.
Development of voiced initials in different tones
Pervasive influence from Mandarin dialects has made Xiang dialects difficult to classify. Xiang is traditionally divided into New Xiang, in which voicing has been lost completely, and Old Xiang varieties, which retain voiced initials in at least some tones. Changsha dialect is usually taken as representative of New Xiang, while Shuangfeng dialect represents Old Xiang. Norman describes the boundary between New Xiang and Southwestern Mandarin as one of the weakest in China, with considerable similarities between dialects near either side of the boundary, though more distant dialects are mutually unintelligible. Indeed Zhou Zhenhe and You Rujie (unlike most authors) classified New Xiang as part of Southwestern Mandarin. Within New Xiang and Old Xiang, there are also many different sub-dialects.
The Language Atlas of China identified a third subgroup, Ji-Xu in some places of Western Hunan. Bao & Chen (2007) split out part of New Xiang as a new Hengzhou Xiang subgroup, and part of Old Xiang out as a Yong-Quan Xiang subgroup. They also reclassified parts of the Ji–Xu subgroup as Southwest Mandarin, renaming the remainder of the subgroup as Chen-Xu Xiang. Their five subgroups are:
Xiang is spoken by over 36 million people in China, primarily in the most part of the Hunan province, and in the four counties of Quanzhou, Guanyang, Ziyuan, and Xing'an in northeastern Guangxi province, and in several places of Guizhou and Guangdong provinces. It is abutted by Southwestern Mandarin-speaking areas to the north and west, as well as by Gan in the eastern parts of Hunan and Jiangxi. Xiang is also in contact with the Qo-Xiong Miao and Tujia languages in West Hunan.
Distribution of Xiang subgroups according to Bao & Chen (2007)