To meaningfully wrap your head around China, digging deep is the only way to go and there is certainly more to it than just crunching some economic numbers. This is why, here on ChinaFund.com, we frequently refer to anything from Chinese dynasties to the cultural dimension because without giving adequate attention to these (vital) variables, your perspective on China will be superficial at best and ignorant if we are to be less politically correct.
As such, it should come as no surprise that it is time to put the various languages spoken in China under the microscope. With “languages” being the operative word because while there is a certain degree of interchangeability between most of them, using the term “dialects” would not be very accurate because if you speak Mandarin, you definitely cannot say you speak Cantonese as well and the same principle is valid when comparing the other languages spoken in China.
The “textbook” approach would be making it clear that languages are usually written as well as spoken, while dialects are only spoken until (unless) they are promoted to languages. But that is a rabbit hole we will avoid, so let’s just say that for the sake of convenience, we will only use the term “languages” from now on. Furthermore, it is important to make it clear right from the beginning that the various languages spoken in China can be so different from one another that even Mao Zedong with his (in)famous humor mentioned that if a war would result in China’s population being reduced dramatically, at least perhaps afterward, the remaining citizens can decide on a common language (as per Henry Kissinger’s recollection). Leaving dark humor aside, language fragmentation is indeed a major problem for any country.
On that note, we will start with the written language dimension and point out that there are two scripts, broadly speaking:
- Simplified Chinese, which was promoted widely by Mao Zedong in the earlier part of his rule in an effort to improve the literacy level of the average Chinese. As the name suggests, the language has been… well, simplified. This means anything from reducing the number of strokes as well as the number of characters to removing characters altogether
- Traditional Chinese or, if you will, pre-reform Chinese
There are of course variations involved. While simplified Chinese (Mandarin) used in mainland China and let’s say Malaysia is interchangeable, the same cannot be said about the simplified Chinese used in mainland China and that used in Singapore, which developed many more particularities. The same way, on the traditional front, we have traditional Mandarin in Taiwan and traditional Cantonese in Hong Kong and Macau. All in all, however, things aren’t that difficult to comprehend in a broad sense when it comes to the written language dimension, with simplified Chinese on the one hand and traditional Chinese on the other.
Moving on to the spoken language dimension, things get tricky.
For the sake of this article, we will limit ourselves to mentioning the eight popular spoken Chinese variants but it is important to know that there are hundreds of less common options. Aside from being different from one another, various forms also have region-to-region differences between them, anything from relatively slight differences (think of it as the differences between US and UK English) to differences so great that we end up in mutual unintelligibility territory.
Without further ado, here are the top eight:
- Mandarin, China’s official language as of 1913, with many Chinese speaking at least a little bit of Mandarin
- Modern Standard Mandarin or Standard Chinese, the official language of the People’s Republic of China as well as Taiwan, one of the official languages of Singapore and one of the six official United Nations languages
- Cantonese or Yue, primarily spoken in Guangdong (with the capital Guangzhou being formerly referred to as Canton), Hong Kong and Macau. For the most part, Cantonese speakers won’t be able to understand all that much if they are spoken to in a different language
- Gan, spoken frequently across Western China, especially in Jiangxi but also regions such as Fujian, Anhui, Hunan or Hubei
- Hakka or Kejia, relatively similar to Gan, spread across anywhere from mainland China regions such as Jiangxi to Taiwan or Hong Kong
- Min, primarily spoken in Fujian, which has the most endogenous variations by far
- Wu or “Shanghainese” which is of course spoken in the Shanghai region but also let’s say the Yangtze delta region
- Xiang or “Hunanese” which is spoken primarily in Hunan and has Mao Zedong as the most popular speaker
With respect to language-related trends, they are all over the place. While increased standardization would be desirable for China as a whole, there are also trends which revolve around moving toward traditionalism in various regions for political pride-related reasons. On a similar note, while there has been major progress with respect to Mandarin fluency in regions such as the Cantonese Hong Kong, there tends to also be backlash against it in the more political volatile regions.
As with most things China-related, “complex” is the operative word and for investors who are interested in gaining exposure to Chinese assets, being thorough is the only reasonable option. Needless to say, should you seek clarity in this department as well as anything else that pertains to China, our team is here to help. For more information about what we can do for you or your organization, visit our Consulting section or to get in touch right away, simply access the Contact section of ChinaFund.com.