It's been noted that in China—especially prior to Chairman Mao's national push for standardization of language—you could go a few kilometers to the next village and not be able to communicate with the locals. Sinologist Reed Riggs surveys some of the languages of the land.
I've mixed my own experiences as a language learner with textbook and online research as well as interviews with native speakers of the dialects. Rather than attempt to provide a comprehensive rundown and classification system of the numerous dialects, I've focused on three groups: Mandarin, which breaks down into sub-dialects across most of China's land and population, Central regions, and the Southeastern dialects, most of which have their own writing systems, but are still part of the Sino-Tibetan language family. There's always debate over what should be called a "dialect" or a "language" so I use these words interchangeably.
Note: The Romanizations used on this page are approximations. Of course they are no substitute for being able to hear a native speaker pronounce the phrases with tones, inflections, etc. Finally, trying out local slang—especially if you're a foreign Mandarin learner, but even if you're a native Mandarin speaker—will usually spark at least a laugh from locals.
an estimated billion speakers and counting
The "language of officials" (官话, though most Chinese people today just call Mandarin "Northern language"—北方话) can be split into three main regional dialects—North, Northeast, and Southwest. Each of these can be further divided by province, and then again by locality.
like "the queen's English"—not necessarily spoken by the majority
Anyone from Beijing will pompously remind you that every subtle manipulation of their own tongue is what you and the rest of the country should attempt to approximate. But if you step outside China's capital and crack open a textbook of your own, you'll find that "standard Mandarin" is much more watered down than Beijing's slang-filled throat-speak.
the butt of the jokes
Like that of the flower girl in My Fair Lady, a Henan accent can make people clutch their purses closer for fear of pickpockets. Henan gets a bad rap from extensive TV coverage of crimes committed by the provinces people. Full of throaty "R"s like the rest of northern China's dialects, Henan tones can rise and fall in a kind of "complaining" intonation.
Have you eaten? nen qi le mou 你吃了没
I can speak a little Henanese. - an hui xue he nan hua - 俺会说河南话
What are you doing? nen zua la 你抓啦
Son of a bitch! (lit., "turtle") bie sun! 鳖孙！
Yangzhou is the last stop before the wholly distinct Wu (吴) Dialect of Suzhou, Shanghai and all of Northern Zhejiang province. Where Nanjinghua is a very accessible version of River Mandarin (江淮官话), Yangzhounese is nasally and spoken nervously fast.
Have you eaten? chet gou let? 吃过了？
I can speak a little a little Yangzhounese. - Wu wui jiang dika Yang zeo hua. - 我会讲点嘎扬州话。
What are you doing? Ni zae gien ma? 你在干嘛？
Nasty! Sen si le! 森死了！
According to Jiangxi native Li Jin, "In Nanchang, the capital city of Jiangxi, most people actually speak Putonghua." This is due to practical reasons as well as personal consideration: "I like to speak Putonghua all the time because I think it's quite impolite to speak the regional language with one of your friends while leaving others in the cold," he adds.
Have you eaten? nῘ, qiᾱ, lῘ, mᾰo 你恰了冇?
I can speak a little Jiangxinese. - o gᾲng dέ zhᾰn di'ang ji jiᾴng xί fᾰ - 我讲的占点几江西话
What are you doing? nῘ gᾲo zᾰ lῘ? 你搞咋里?
"I'm gonna kick your ass!" (lit. "I'm gonna slap your cheek") yi bᾱ zhᾰng fὺ sῘ nέi 巴掌拂死内
It's easy to confuse a Hunan accent with a Sichuan one—much like their spicy cuisines—but Hunan dialect is actually a wholly different dialect from the Mandarin families. Changsha native Jia Wang describes it as "opposite to the dialects in the Shanghai, Suzhou area, known for their tenderness and softness."
Have you eaten? Lī qiá dǎ mǎo?
I can speak a little Hunanese Wō fěi gǎn yí diān fúlánfǔa
What are you doing? Lī zǎi gāo mō zī
Flakey xixiade 稀下的
Each of the following Southeastern dialects is distinct from the next. Other than the Cantonese, these people tend to use Mandarin for inter-regional communication.
Spoken in Shanghai, Suzhou, and the north half of Zhejiang
Shanghainese (吴侬话) is probably the most useful of Wu's regional variations, since Shanghai people still use it frequently to distinguish themselves from uncouth outsiders. You'll also meet Shanghainese businesspeople, on occasion throughout China's economic boomtowns. Sidle up to a new business contact with one of these handy phrases:
Have you eaten? Chik gu le va? 吃过勒伐？
I can speak a little Shanghainese. - Ngu wui gang sang hei wa. - 我会讲上海话
the plain language (白话)
The primary language of Hong Kong, Cantonese is repeated on subways and busses for your learning convenience in major cities of the Pearl River Delta—Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan. And, because Hong Kong has traditionally been the hub for translations of foreign names coming into China, and Chinese character names translated into English, Mandarin and English never seem to match up. If you learn their Cantonese equivalents, however, it all starts to make sense. We pronounce "Sun Yat-sen" (孙逸仙), Singapore (新加坡) and the legendary Chinatown dish "chop suey" (杂菜) closer to how the characters are read in Cantonese.
Have you eaten? Sik dzo fan mei a? 食咗饭未呀?
I can speak a little Cantonese - O wui gong yat dim guang dong wa. - 我会讲一点广东话
What are you doing? Lei zuo mie? 你做咩？
Crazy! Qi xin! 漆线！
Cool Mou de tan 无得弹
No problem Mou men tai 无问题
Show off Sai man 晒命
Hakka is the dialect of an ancient, nomadic group of people concentrated mostly in Fujian and Guangdong. Native Hakka speaker and Chengdu resident Ellen described the language as "fun," adding, "it's a very old language. Very few outsiders bother to learn it, due to its lack of currency in the world. And most of us native speakers also speak Cantonese."
Have you eaten? Shi fan ei? 食饭诶！
I can speak a little Hakka. - Ai guang de lai yi diuzi keht-ga wa. - 唉讲得来一铥子客家话。
What are you doing? Ni cai zuo nai gei? 你在做哪个？
Lunatic! Kang zi! 狂子
Hainan was part of Guangdong province until 1988, and prides itself on being the place of origin of many overseas Chinese. A distant outgrowth of Southern Fujian province's Min 闽 dialect, to the uninitiated, it sounds similar to a southeast Asian language peppered with shouts of "Oi!" as acknowledgement, and consenting "Ehhhh"s to express agreement.
Have you eaten? Du jiat mueh le boh? 度食米了不？
I can speak a little Hainanese. - Gua bat gong didi Ai Nam weh. - 寡把讲点点海南话。
What are you doing? Du dou mi leh? 度做密勒？
Psycho! Wet diao! 疯子！
This article by Reed Riggs was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 22 ("china")..