The Diversity of the Chinese Language

A Myriad of Spoken Chinese

China is a vast country with the world’s largest population of 1.3 billion people. Furthermore, the Chinese people are not limited to those living in the mainland - there are also a great number of Chinese people living all over the world.

The language that they speak is of a great variety. In fact, there are so many dialects (Putonghua (standard Mandarin)*1, Shanghainese, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Chaozhou, etc.) that communication in ‘Chinese’ can prove difficult even among the Chinese. If this is hard for you to imagine, think of Europe and of how different languages like Spanish, French and Italian are. However, since they are all spoken in one country... China, that is? Even linguists and politicians can't seem to agree whether these variants of Chinese are different languages all together or Chinese dialects, advocating their assertions depending on their position or interests.

Written Chinese

Then what about written Chinese?

Chinese is written solely in kanji (Chinese characters). If there are so many Chinese ‘dialects,’ does that mean that there are many different kinds of written Chinese?

It is possible to write these ‘dialects’ using kanji. However, it is sufficient to simply use the kanji used in standard Mandarin (that Chinese people learn under the Chinese educational system). The train station names written in Chinese that we often see in urban Japanese cities are examples of this.

Many Spoken Variations But Only One Written Language*2

This reminds me that there was a time long ago in Europe when Latin was used for writing regardless of the language spoken in the country. Maybe the situation in China can be said to be somewhat similar to that.

*1 Putonghua or standard Mandarin is the official language of China. The Beijing dialect refers to the Chinese spoken in the Beijing district.
*2 There are two types of written Chinese: simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese. This will require a bit of explaining, so I will tell you more at another time.

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