In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dialect Groups of the Chinese Language

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theoretical Textbooks
  • Databases and Dictionaries
  • Linguistic Atlases
  • Synchronic Comparative Studies
  • Quantitative and Experimental Studies
  • Synchronic Language Contact and Dialect Change
  • Dialect Writing
  • Sociolinguistics

Chinese Studies Dialect Groups of the Chinese Language
Hong Xiao
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0024


Spread across a vast expanse of Chinese territory, the Chinese language consists of a number of regional dialect groups. Classifications of the dialect groups have varied. The classification widely adopted divides Chinese into seven regional groups: Mandarin (northern half of China and the southwest), Wu (Jiangsu and Zhejiang, e.g., Shanghai and Suzhou dialects), Gan (Jiangxi and surrounding areas), Xiang (Hunan), Min (mainly Fujian, Hainan and Taiwan), Yue (mainly Guangdong and eastern Guangxi, e.g., Cantonese), and Hakka (or Kejia, scattered in many parts of southern China with largest concentrations in a region covering northeast Guangdong, southern Jiangxi and western Fujian). Three more regional groups have been proposed in recent decades: Jin (Shanxi and surrounding areas), Hui (border region of Anhui, Zhejiang, and Jiangxi) and Pinghua (Guangxi). The status of the newly proposed regional varieties is still being debated. The dialect groups all have their own distinct phonological features, dialect specific vocabulary, and distinctive grammatical characteristics, to the extent that they are not mutually intelligible. For this reason, some linguists refer to Chinese in plural form, e.g., Sinitic languages, and refer to the regional dialect groups of Chinese as different languages rather than dialects of one language. Debates surrounding terminology for Chinese and its regional varieties abound. Each dialect group contains subgroups, which in turn have subdivisions and local dialects. Depending on the complexity of dialect geography and details of classification, as many as five levels of classification have been proposed for Chinese dialects, from major regional varieties to dialects of specific localities. The dialect diversity in the Chinese language today is the result of language spread and localization and the time and again contact between superstrata and substrata, between early layers and later layers, between the literary and the colloquial, between sister dialects, and between Chinese and neighboring languages. Modern Chinese dialect research began in the early 20th century and has been an important part of Chinese linguistics ever since. The Chinese dialect surveys carried out by linguists of the Institute of History and Philology from the late 1920s to 1940s are representative of Chinese dialectology in the first half of the 20th century. After the political changes in 1949, Chinese dialect research resumed both in mainland China and Taiwan. In Taiwan, results of several dialect surveys carried out in the mainland during war times were published in succeeding decades and research began on the local dialects of southern Min and Hakka. In mainland China, the promotion of Putonghua took priority after the founding of the PRC. Nonetheless, a nationwide general dialect survey was completed in the 1950s, as knowledge of local dialects was considered useful for the promotion of Putonghua. From mid-1960s to mid-1970s, Chinese dialect work was again interrupted, due to the political turmoil of the period, but substantial works on Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hakka were published outside China during this period. Since Chinese dialect research was resumed in the mainland in the late 1970s, there has been a change of attitude and orientation in dialect research as dialects have come to be regarded as part of cultural heritage rather than barrier to the promotion of Putonghua as they had been previously perceived. The decades since then have seen unprecedented development in Chinese dialect research, with the publication of specialist journals, extensive dialect surveys in many regions, development of a large number of reference materials such as dialect dictionaries and language atlases, and rapid growth of databases. Early Chinese dialect research had been biased toward phonology. Development has been made in lexical research in recent decades, and grammatical research is also on the rise.

General Overviews

Chao 1943 offers one of the first concise, general overviews of languages and dialects in modern China, while Wang 2010 is an overview of Chinese dialectology in the 20th century, tracing the development of the field and introducing major achievements. In addition, several textbooks provide general overviews of Chinese dialect groups and Chinese dialect research. Yuan 2001 is a classic textbook providing linguistic introduction to the major dialect groups as well as historical backgrounds, both of the groups and the field of research. Norman 1988 and Ramsey 1987 are two classic Chinese linguistics textbooks with chapters on Chinese dialect groups. Norman 1988 focuses on Chinese, while Ramsey 1987 introduces both Chinese and non-Chinese languages. Yan 2006 provides an overview of the field of study and of the major groups.

  • Chao, Yuen Ren. “Languages and Dialects in China.” The Geographical Journal 102.2 (1943): 63–66.

    DOI: 10.2307/1790133

    Chao illustrated geographic distribution of China’s linguistic groups and described major phonological features typical of the southern, central, and northern Chinese dialect groups respectively. Linguistic differences between Chinese dialect groups are compared to those between European languages. Chao’s dialect classification in this article is similar to Li 1973 (originally published in 1937, cited under Classification Schemes). Includes a linguistic map.

  • Norman, Jerry. Chinese. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    Two chapters of this Chinese linguistics textbook are devoted to Chinese dialect groups, one focusing on northern and central groups and the other southern groups. Dialect classification, historical development, dialect geography, the degree of linguistic diversity are also discussed.

  • Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

    Modern dialects are introduced in chapter 6, while cultural, political, and historical backgrounds of the Chinese linguistic situation are provided in the first three introductory chapters. A colloquial text from a representative dialect of each dialect group is provided in IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), with Pinyin annotation in Mandarin and English gloss, followed by an English translation.

  • Wang, Futang 王福堂. “Ershi shiji de Hanyu fangyanxue” 二十世纪的汉语方言学. In Hanyu fangyan lunji 汉语方言论集. By Wang Futang, 34–55. Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan, 2010.

    An overview of Chinese dialect research in the 20th century. Chinese dialect research is divided into three periods: pre-1949, 1950–mid-1960s, and post–late 1970s. The first two periods are defined as initial stages, separated by political changes in 1949, and the third period a stage of development. The three stages have different research priorities given different contexts.

  • Yan, Margaret Mian. Introduction to Chinese Dialectology. Lincom Studies in Asian Linguistics 22. Munich: Lincom Europa, 2006.

    A general introduction to Chinese dialectology, including the state of affairs of Chinese dialect research in both China and the United States and the dialect groups. Linguistic descriptions of the dialect groups focus on the sound systems, although lexical variations within the groups are also discussed. The first and still the only textbook specifically on Chinese dialectology written in English available.

  • Yuan, Jiahua, et al. Hanyu fangyan gaiyao 汉语方言概要. 2d ed. Beijing: Yuwen Chubanshe, 2001.

    Linguistic introduction to the dialect groups. Historical backgrounds of the groups and dialect classification are also provided.

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