Throughout history, China experienced many periods of disunity. This, in addition to its huge landmass, means that Chinese has a huge variety of dialects. Linguists disagree how to divide various Chinese into various dialects, but it is agree that there are around 10 different groups of dialects. Generally speaking these are not mutually intelligible. In fact, even within these groupings there are huge differences and people that speak the same dialect might not be able to communicate depending on their region.
These dialects (and the Chinese language in general) are closely associated with the Han people, China’s largest ethnic group. Other ethnic groups have their own languages, though those that live side-by-side with Han people generally learn one or more types of Chinese.
Note that various debates among linguists about Chinese dialects are not yet resolved. Where the geographical boundaries for a dialect are, which dialects are related and which aren’t, and even whether the various Chinese dialects should be considered one language or many are all discussed by linguists. This is just an introduction to a few of the more well-known dialects.
Mandarin is the name linguists give to the dialect spoken in China ranging from the northeast, down through Beijing and parts of Inner Mongolia and into China’s southwest. In English the term Mandarin can also be used to describe Standard Chinese or Putonghua, but it is more correct to say that Putonghua is a type of Mandarin.
Mandarin is also spoken in areas where there has been a relatively recent influx of Han Chinese migrants, such as western China’s Xinjiang region or Shenzhen in southern China. In total, there about 850 million native Mandarin speakers in China.
Cantonese is a dialect mostly spoken in Guangdong province in southern China as well as the territories of Hong Kong and Macau. Cantonese itself is split into many different sub-categories, but the standard form is spoken natively in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province.
Cantonese has eight distinct tones and many features that Mandarin dialects do not (such as non-nasal consonant endings). Some claim that Cantonese represents Chinese traditions better since it has many linguistic features of ancient Chinese dialects that no longer exist in Mandarin.
A strong identity revolves around Cantonese. Guangdong culture is closely linked to it and movies, songs and other media that use Cantonese have a strong following, both in China and worldwide. Many Chinese immigrants abroad also speak this dialect. There are about 70 million Cantonese speakers in China.
The Wu dialect is spoken in eastern China, concentrating on Zhejiang, parts of Jiangsu, Anhui, Jiangxi and Fujian, as well as Shanghai municipality. Other Chinese speakers often consider this dialect to be smooth and pleasant sounding (and there is even a word to describe this quality, wunongruanyu).
Wu, like Cantonese, is said to be similar to older forms of Chinese than Mandarin is. Though in China is it spoken by a relatively small minority (about 90 million people), it is also one of the most populous languages in the world.
Spoken in Fujian, Taiwan, Guangdong, Hainan and parts of Zhejiang, Min is one of the most diverse Chinese dialects and can be divided into a huge variety of different categories, many of which are not mutually intelligible. A resident of one town in Fujian province can drive to a nearby town and not understand the local language.
Min is spoken by many overseas communities. Many Chinese living in Malaysia and Singapore speak this dialect.