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Chinese Dialects, Written Chinese & Translation

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written Chinese calligraphy

What language comes to mind when you think of China? My guess is Mandarin. Mandarin is the official language in China and has been since the 1930s, but many do not know how linguistically diverse the Chinese language really is.

Stemming from the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, the Chinese language has evolved over time to include many, in fact hundreds, of dialects. Mandarin is the most commonly known dialect, and the standard dialect that non-native speakers learn.

Besides the hundreds of dialects of Chinese, there are also subdialects in each dialect group. Though named as dialects by the Chinese government, many Chinese language variations are mutually unintelligible due to the linguistic diversity of each dialect. It is for this reason that linguists often argue each dialect as a separate language. Though due to political reasons, the Chinese government recognises each variation as a dialect. For the purpose of this article, I will refer to the languages as dialects. 

The 7 official dialects

China-dialects
Mandarin

With over 900 million native speakers, Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world.

Mandarin is known in Chinese as 普通 (pǔtōnghuà), meaning common language. It is also referred to as 汉语 (hànyǔ), because it is spoken by the majority Han ethnic group:

汉 (hàn): Han ethnic group

语 (yǔ): language

Mandarin, which was originally based off a dialect spoken in Beijing, is now hailed the official language in mainland China and Taiwan and is commonly spoken across a large geographical area, stretching from the north (Harbin region) across to the west (Gansu, Ningxia) and down to the south (Guangdong). 

Cantonese

Cantonese is another Chinese dialect that holds official status in China. Interestingly though, it is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin. Cantonese maintains 6 tones in comparison to Mandarin's 4, making it arguably a more complicated variant of Chinese. 

It is one of the (yuè) varieties of Chinese, having originated in ancient Guangzhou. As a language, it still retains many features of ancient spoken Chinese.

Wu

The Wu dialect is spoken by 6.1% of the Chinese population in the eastern region of China. It is the second most common variant of Chinese, with 14 subdialects. The Shanghainese variant of Wu has become the most well-known subdialect due to the prestige of Shanghai. Many incorrectly refer to Wu itself as Shanghainese, not knowing that it is in fact a subdialect of Wu. Wu varieties are extremely diverse and because of this, many Wu dialects are mutually unintelligible. 

Min

'Min' is derived from the Min River in Fujian. Min Chinese is widely spoken in the coastal province of Fujian, though it also spoken in neighbouring regions of Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and more. The various Min varieties are mutually unintelligible with each other, as well as with other Chinese dialects.

Xiang

Spoken in Hunan province, there are two varieties of Xiang: Old Xiang and New Xiang. New Xiang has been heavily influenced by Mandarin, whereas Old Xiang shares similarities with Wu Chinese. Xiang uses 5 tones to differentiate between voice inflections. 

Hakka

Hakka (客家 kèjiā) means "guest families", a name given to the Hakka ethnic group when they migrated from the north of China to the southern regions centuries ago to escape social and political upheaval. Hakka speakers are geographically scattered across Guangdong, Fujian, as well as Taiwan and other areas in South-East Asia. Due to this, Hakka varieties differ from one another and as such some are mutually unintelligible. 

Gan

Gan and Hakka ancestors migrated from the north of China around the same time. This commonality led to similarities in today's Gan and Hakka dialects. For this reason, they are known as sister language subfamilies. 

There are two main branches of Gan: Northern Gan and Southern Gan. The Gan dialect is predominantly heard in the Jiangxi province and neighbouring regions, such as in Hubei, Hunan, Anhui, and Fujian. 

Why are there so many dialects?

By now we have established how many variations of standard Chinese exist. There are three main reasons for this variety: time, migration, and geographic isolation.

Historically, China has gone through many dynasties, each transition being incredibly violent. Residents in northern China would often flee as refugees to the southern regions to escape the carnage, and this occurred several times throughout history. This, along with the fact that many regions in southern China are geographically isolated because of the rugged terrain, meant that there was limited contact with neighbouring regions. Over time, unique Chinese language variants developed in these regions, and this explains the high concentration of language variants within the south-east region of China.

Pen to Paper

Chinese character inscriptions date back over 3,000 years ago to the Shang Dynasty, making Chinese the oldest written language in the world. Unlike the variance in spoken Chinese, there are only slight regional variations in written Chinese.

Unlike spoken Chinese, there are only two scripts because Chinese characters are logograms and represent words, not sounds. The vast variations in spoken Chinese come down to the differences in sounds.

Simplified Chinese is the standard written form and is used by all Chinese dialect speakers in mainland China. Traditional Chinese is the written form used by certain regions outside of mainland China, such as Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan.

Simplified Chinese (CHS)Traditional Chinese (CHT)
Tree (Shù)Tree (Shù)

Though often used in areas where Cantonese is spoken, Traditional Chinese is not the written form of Cantonese. For example, Mandarin is spoken in Taiwan, but they write in Traditional Chinese characters. Cantonese does have its own written form, however its use is rather informal.

The difference between Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese is not just the character forms. There is more that needs to be considered in the translation process, including lexical choice, punctuation etcetera.

How to choose which written form to translate into

When translating into Chinese, you need to specify to your translation partner where your target market is located. Generally, content written for an audience within mainland China is translated into CHS. If the target audience is located outside mainland China, CHT may be the optimal choice. These guidelines may vary depending on the type of document you are looking to translate.

Marketing content

Your target audience is extremely important when translating marketing material. For regions like Taiwan and Hong Kong, CHT is the preferred script. However, both these regions have very different histories and therefore the use of the written language also varies. Your translation partner will use this information to make a judgement about how to translate your marketing content.

Business and official documents

Where there is a connection to mainland China, business documents, official government documents and personal documents, such as visas and birth certificates, are commonly translated into Simplified Chinese. However, clients are encouraged to specify their needs to their translation partner when making requests.

Singapore

Chinese is an official language in Singapore, however the majority of business is carried out in English. For this reason, content for the Singapore market should be localised in English.

Conclusion 

The Chinese language comprises of many dialects, which have formed over time due to regional and cultural evolution factors. Officially, there are seven dialect groups, which include many sub-dialects and regional variations of their own.  

With any text translation and localisation into Chinese, understanding which written form of Chinese (simplified or traditional) is used among the target audience is important to decipher which form to translate into. As we know from this article, the spoken dialect and written form varies not only between country, but also across regions.

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