Languages of China


For treatment of the various forms of spoken Chinese, see Chinese spoken languages.

Map of Linguistic Groups
Map of Linguistic Groups

The different ethnic groups in China speak a great variety of languages, called the Zhongguo Yuwen (中国语文), meaning "languages of China". These languages span six linguistic families and most of them are dissimilar morphologically and phonetically.

Chinese language policy is heavily influenced by Soviet nationalities policy and officially encourages the development of standard spoken and written languages for each of the nationalities of China. However, in this schema, Han Chinese are considered a single nationality, and official policy treats the different varieties of the Chinese spoken language differently from the different national languages. For example, while Chinese official policies encourage the development and use of different orthographies for the national languages and their use in educational and academic settings, the same is not true for the different Chinese spoken language, despite the fact that they are more different from each other than, for example, the Romance languages of Europe.

Unofficially, there are large economic and social incentives to be functional in Putonghua, a form of Mandarin Chinese, which serves as a lingua franca among the different groups within China. In addition, it is also considered increasing prestigious and useful to have some ability in English, which is a required subject for persons attending university. During the 1950s and 1960s, Russian had some social status among Chinese elites as the international language of socialism.

Putonghua is the official national spoken language. In addition, Chinese autonomous regions and special administrative regions have additional official languages. For example, Tibetan has official status within the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Mongol has official status within the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. In addition to the above, English and Portuguese have official status in parts of China. English is an official language in Hong Kong, and all laws of the HK government are published both in English and Chinese, with both versions having equal status. Portuguese has a similar status in Macao.

Another language which has no official status, but is very important in Buddhism is Sanskrit. Among Chinese Muslims, Arabic is also important as a liturgical language.


Historical Languages

Most of the languages of China have historically influenced each other. During most dynasties, it was the Chinese languages that sinicized the other ethnic groups. (See Ethnic groups in Chinese history.) But during the Mongol Dynasty, it was the Mongolian language that dominated. And during the last dynasty, the Qing, the Manchu language also had a strong influence. Over their two centuries of rule, the ruling Manchu dynasty gradually lost their fluency in Manchu, although until the end of the Qing dynasty all laws were promulagated in both Manchu and Classical Chinese.

As a result of these mutual influences, there is a certain amount of common vocabulary.

Not all Chinese ethnic groups have developed a separate language. For example, the Hui Chinese speak Mandarin Chinese, like the majority of Han Chinese.

During the 17th century, when Chinese and Russians met, there was considerably difficulty finding a common language. The language which was finally selected for dipomatic negotiations was Latin, which the Russians knew from Orthodox priests and which the Chinese knew as a result of Jesuit missionaries.

Another language which was very widely used in southeastern China in the 18th and 19th century to communicate between the unintelligible versions of Min was pidgin English.


However, the term Zhongguo Yuwen is sometimes used to be synonymous with "Chinese language". To clarify, one can use Zhongguo de Yuwen (中国的语文), which unambiguously means "China's (several) languages".

The following are the spoken and written languages (they are not in one-to-one correspondence) used by the modern citizens of China.


The spoken languages of modern Chinese nationalities belong to at least seven families:


The following languages have traditionally had written forms that do not involve Chinese characters (han zi):

Chinese banknotes contain several scripts in addition to Chinese script. These are:

Ten nationalities who never had a written system have, under the PRC's encouragement, developed phonetic alphabets. According to a government white paper ( published in early 2005, "by the end of 2003, 22 ethnic minorities in China used 28 written languages."

Political controversies

Language policy within China is the subject of a number of political controversies mostly having to do with the political status of minority nationalities in China. Some critics of the PRC government, such as the Tibetan Government-in-Exile argue that China's official multilingualism is a sham and that social pressures and political efforts result in a policy of sinicization and often term PRC policies cultural genocide. Supporters of Chinese policies argue that both in theory and in practice that Chinese policies are rather supportive of multilingualism and the development of minority languages, and that China has a far better track record in these issues than some other countries, namely the United States.

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