Mandarin Chinese is the second most spoken language in the world, as well as the language with the most native speakers. According to Ethnologue, it has 1,138,000,000 speakers in 2023 – second only to English’s 1,456,000,000 speakers. Mandarin is also one of the fastest growing languages in the world in terms of speaker numbers. Yet Mandarin Chinese is just one of hundreds of languages spoken in China, including 11 official languages.
We’ll explore the languages of China in depth in this article, from national indigenous tongues to foreign languages spoken in China and its autonomous and special administrative regions. We’ll also cover China’s two major writing systems, the impact of its shift in national language policy on the country’s literacy levels, and many more exciting snippets about languages in China.
So, how many Chinese languages are there? The short answer, there are 292 living languages spoken in China in 2023 (our thanks go to Ethnologue for keeping track of this). Of course, this number hides a great deal of complexity. Many different Chinese languages almost blend into one another, so it can be difficult to know where one language or dialect ends and another begins. Other dialects, meanwhile, vary so much that speakers cannot understand one another.
In terms of official languages, China has 11: Standard Mandarin, Cantonese (Hong Kong and Macau), Portuguese (Macau), English (Hong Kong), Mongolian (Inner Mongolia, Haixi in Qinghai, Bayingolin and Bortala in Xinjiang), Korean (Yanbian in Jilin), Tibetan (Tibet, Qinghai), Uyghur (Xinjiang), Zhuang (Guangxi, Wenshan in Yunnan), Kazakh (Ili in Xinjiang), and Yi (Liangshan in Sichuan, Chuxiong and Honghe in Yunnan).
There are many distinct languages in China, as we’ll examine below. Mandarin, Cantonese, and dozens of indigenous languages and dialects are spoken by people across the country and its autonomous and special administrative regions. Let’s break this down…
There is no single Chinese language. Instead, the Chinese language family can be considered as several different groups of languages and dialects. The largest group is Mandarin and its dialects and subdialects. Mandarin became the official language of China in the 1930s and Mandarin Chinese is today spoken by around 70% of people in China.
Other significant language groups in China include Wu, Min, Yue (Cantonese), Xiang, Hakka, and Jin. People who speak these languages and their various dialects of them are often grouped together by geographic region, with different languages spoken in different areas of the mainland and other Chinese communities in Asia.
It’s important to note here that a dialect is not simply a main regional accent. Consider the English spoken in the US and it’s easy to identify a variety of different dialects, from the surfer-twang of California to the drawl of the Deep South to the “Rez accent” associated with Native American and First Nation communities. Despite differences in pronunciation and slang, all the different varieties of language share a common vocabulary and are mutually intelligible.
In China, on the other hand, speakers of different types of Chinese languages are often not able to understand each other. Mandarin and Cantonese, for example, are not mutually intelligible.
So, how many Chinese dialects are there? Hundreds. To understand the complexity behind these types of Chinese, let’s open the history books.
Understanding how many dialects are in China means appreciating the centuries of historical, geographical, and socio-cultural factors that have led the country to where it is today.
The origins of Chinese languages can be traced back to ancient times, with the emergence of Old Chinese during the Shang Dynasty around 1600 BCE. Over time, this single language branched out into different regional variations as people migrated across vast territories, leading to the development of various dialects.
The vastness of China's landscape, with its mountains, plains, and numerous river systems, meant that natural barriers isolated different communities and allowed their languages to evolve independently. Political divisions and cultural diversity further contributed to the divergence of dialects as China’s population grew. With no standard written form until the efforts of the Qin dynasty (221–207 BC) to introduce standardized characters, these dialects meant that linguistic differences – in vocabulary, grammar, and more – flourished from province to province.
The official language of China, Mandarin has played an important role as a lingua franca in China for decades, with the government promoting its use in schools, public bodies, and other outlets. It was during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) that the concept of education for all began to take hold, with China’s national language policy playing a central part in this.
In 1949, China’s literacy rate was between 20% and 40%. Efforts to improve this led to the introduction of simplified Chinese characters into schools in the late 1950s. The difference between the simplified and traditional characters meant that reading became easier as a result of this language reform. According to Global Data, China’s literacy rate has now developed to 99.83%.
The official language policy means that some 70% of Chinese residents can now use Mandarin – known in China as Putonghua – for speech, as well as being able to read it.
China’s two writing systems – traditional and simplified Chinese – don’t use an alphabet or compact syllabary in the way that English does. Instead, the writing systems are roughly logosyllabic, with characters generally each representing one syllable. There are, of course, myriad exceptions to this, as there are with languages around the world (as linguists learning any foreign tongue will readily attest).
The two writing systems differ when it comes to character complexity. Simplified Chinese characters use far fewer strokes, so are easier to read and write. Written Chinese uses one form or the other – not a mix of both.
It should be noted that, while the simplified characters were introduced in mainland China, they are not used by all Chinese communities. Many overseas Chinese speakers still use traditional characters. Traditional Chinese is also still used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and other Chinese regions.
The five most common languages spoken in China (ranked by the total number of people who speak them as a first language) are Mandarin, Min, Wu, Yue, and Jin. All of these are tonal languages (all languages in China are tonal to some degree) yet not all of them are mutually intelligible.
Let’s dive into each of these – which also serves as a look at how many languages in China are spoken by more than 5% of the country’s population (other than these five, each of the different languages of China is spoken by under 4% of the total population).
Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language in China. It is from the Sino-Tibetan language family, as are most of the major languages in Asia. In total, Mandarin has around 800 million native speakers, while many more people also speak it as a second language.
There are four main groups of Mandarin Chinese – Southwest, Southern, Northwestern, and Northern – and, based on research data analysis by Yoyo Chinese, 93 Mandarin dialects. Some of these dialects are mutually intelligible while others are not. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Northeastern Mandarin - This dialect has some 80 million speakers, making it one of the top dialects. It has subdialects including some (such as Taz) that only have a spoken form.
Central Plains Mandarin - If you’ve ever listened to a Chinese opera, it’s likely you’ve heard the Central Plains Mandarin dialect. This archaic dialect is used for Peking opera, which is the dominant form of Chinese opera. Interestingly, the Hui people sometimes write this dialect with an Arabic alphabet instead of Chinese characters.
Dungan - This dialect is derived from Central Plains Mandarin but also incorporates certain Russian loanwords. It is the only Chinese spoken language that is written using Cyrillic script.
Min - China is home to 75 million Min speakers, accounting for 6.2% of the total population. Speakers are clustered around the Hainan, Fujian, and Zhejiang provinces, as well as in the Taiwan area.
How many dialects of Chinese are there in the Min language family? There are 49, meaning Min has one of the greatest levels of diversity of all Chinese language families. Major Min dialects include Southern Min, Eastern Min, Pu-Xian, Central, Hainanese, Shao-jiang, and Leizhou.
Wu Chinese is spoken by 74 million people, or around 6.1% of the total population of China. It is sometimes referred to as Shanghainese, but Shanghainese is actually a dialect of Wu – along with 63 other dialects. These different types of Chinese are some of the most ancient forms of the language that are still in use.
Yue has 68 million speakers, spread across a large swathe of southern China. They account for 5.6% of all Chinese language speakers. The number of Chinese dialects in this grouping is 50, including Cantonese, Yuehai, Siyi, Gao-Yang, Gou-Lou, and Yong-Xun.
The Jin language family includes eight different variations, which together are spoken by around 63 million people, equating to 5.2% of China’s population. Some linguists consider Jin to be a dialect of Mandarin, while others view it as a distinct type of Chinese language.
If you’re planning to visit and/or do business in China, your language needs will depend largely on which region you will be in. Check with your local contacts as well, of course, as even within these main regional language groupings there can be other languages and dialects that you might need to consider.
If you’re visiting central China, your language needs could include Mandarin, Amdo, Tu, Sala, Choni, Baima, Qiang, Jairong, Tibetan, and Kalmyk.
Southern China is home to a huge range of Chinese language types. The types of Chinese language spoken there include Lisu, Naxi, Bai, Lipo, Nasu, Lolopo, Axi, Nisu, Xishanba, Tai-Nua, Riang, Parauk, Vo-Wa, Lahu, Biyo, Lu, Hani, Bugan, Zhuang, Miao, Hmong, and Dong.
How many languages in China are spoken in the south is nearly equaled by the number spoken in the southeast. Yue, Xiang, Gan, Hakka, Mandarin, Min-Nan, Hlai, Pu-Xian, and Min-Zhong are some of the most common.
If you are traveling to eastern China, Mandarin will serve you well in some areas. You might need to speak Wu, Huizhou, Min-Bei, Min-Dong, or other regional tongues.
Mandarin will also be useful in many parts of northeastern China. You may also need to speak Manchu, Mongolian, Korean, Buriat, Daur, Evenki, or Orogen when visiting the region.
Northern China is home to large numbers of Mandarin, Mongolian, and Jinyu speakers, as well as speakers of Yugur.
To the northeast of China, some of the most common types of Chinese languages spoken include Mandarin, Daur, Xibe, Kalmyk, Uygur, Kyrgyz, and Wakhi. Kazakh is also spoken by many people in the northeast.
If you’re visiting western China, you may need to speak Mandarin, Uygur, Kalmyk, Tibetan, or Panang, depending on your destination.
Along China’s southwestern border, you will find large numbers of speakers of Tibetan, along with Sherpa, Lhomi, Groma, Luoba, and Drung.
You may have spotted above that Portuguese is one of China’s official languages. That’s because Macanese Portuguese is a co-official language (alongside Cantonese) in Macau. Around 2.3% of Macau’s population speak it.
Other foreign languages spoken in China in 2023 are mainly from the surrounding countries, although you will also hear English spoken in urban areas of Hong Kong, where it has official language status alongside Yue (Cantonese). Depending on where you visit, you may also hear Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Hindi, German, and Russian.
China’s National Bureau of Statistics reports that there are around 2.77 million foreigners living in China. Given the size of China’s total population, if you don’t speak one of the different languages in China then the chance of there being a sizable community that speaks your native tongue are probably slim.
If you are planning to do business in China, then you will need to navigate China’s linguistic diversity seamlessly. Using a Chinese translation service that you can depend on for accuracy and reliability is key. Just be sure that you let your translation service know which of the vast number of dialects in China you need.
Remember also to engage a translator with appropriately focused skills. For example, if you need your accounts and other financial documents translated into Chinese, use a specialist financial translation service rather than a more generic service.
Doing business in China means focussing on etiquette as well as language, so even if you are using an interpreter, be sure to learn a few simple greeting words and business phrases.
If you are moving to China or even just holidaying there, it’s important to pick up the basics before you go. Choose the type of Chinese you learn based on the province you plan to visit and memorize basic greetings and key travel-related phrases.
With the wealth of apps available these days, you should be able to find one that can scan and translate Chinese for you, helping you to read signs, menus, and other paperwork. For more detailed documents – such as rental contracts for apartments – you can use professional translation services to ensure you understand the intricacies of what is outlined in the paperwork.
If you’re trading or setting up a business in China, having a decent translation and interpretation service by your side is essential. Just because Mandarin is the most spoken language in China, don’t assume that’s the language you will need. Find out the most spoken languages in China for the area you plan to operate in, then focus on your translation needs accordingly.
As we pointed out above, it’s also important to access the translation services that are most appropriate to the topic of what you’re working on, whether that’s legal, website, marketing, financial, or any other kind of translation.
Between the world’s 1.5 billion English speakers and 1.1 billion Chinese language speakers, much can be lost in translation. Here are key areas of which language industry stakeholders and global trade and policymakers should be mindful…
The Chinese languages’ share of content in the world wide web is about 1.4% based on W3Techs data from June 2023, compared to 54.9% of web content that is in English. As only 6% of China’s population speaks English, this means that much of the internet’s content is inaccessible to people in China (the Great Firewall of China plays a key role in this too).
For content to become accessible, it must be translated free of mistakes and discrepancies, in order to avoid complications in business discussions, policy discussions, and more.
Countries often translate their foreign policy statements and documents for foreign audiences. Interestingly, this process may encourage discrepancies in the translation process. That’s because the original document is intended for a domestic audience while the translation is intended for an international one. There are often differences in the nuance of the documents as a result, as the translation process involves refocusing the policy statements to better suit the new audience, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the country issuing the statements and its objectives on the global stage.
Technical publications are another area where discrepancies can creep in as a result of the global language gap. Again, foreign audiences must rely on translations of original papers when they don’t speak the languages they are written in. With China now leading the world in terms of the most cited scientific papers globally, those who don’t speak Chinese need to bear in mind the quality of the translations that they are working with.
Global trade agreements can keep essential goods flowing smoothly around the planet – or not, if misunderstandings and disagreements arise. This is why discrepancies caused by language gaps must be addressed meticulously and with careful attention to the related politics of the situation.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through the languages of China. We’ve covered a wide range of topics, including:
The official languages of China
The top languages spoken in China
How many dialects are spoken in China
How many dialects in China are spoken within the main language groupings
What are the different Chinese languages in each region
Chinese writing systems
Chinese language policy
A list of language spoken in China that aren’t native to the country