Introduction to China - The Languages of China

The official language of modern China is putonghua, which is a standardized language based on the Beijing dialect. It is also known as Mandarin. It is now taught in most schools and is the language of the media. In everyday usage, people tend to speak regional dialects. China is linguistically diverse. Most people speak languages and dialects belonging to the Chinese branch of the Sino-Tibetan Family. The Chinese languages are all tonal.

The northern varieties of Chinese, also called Mandarin, are spoken as a first language by over three-fourths of the population, in a large area extending east and west across north China from the coastal regions of Shandong to Sichuan in the interior, southward toward the Yangzi River and northward into Dongbei. They are for the most part mutually intelligible, given minor adjustment for tones, pronunciation, idioms, and vocabulary. Most linguists divide Mandarin into four subgroups: Northern Mandarin, which is spoken in the northeast, the Shandong Peninsula, and a wide area around Beijing; the Northwestern Mandarin of the loess plateaus; the Southwestern Mandarin of Sichuan and neighboring regions; and Eastern or Lower Yangzi Mandarin, typified by the dialects around Nanjing. South of the Yangzi, the Chinese languages are more diverse and are not mutually intelligible with each other or with regional forms of Mandarin. The latter include the Wu dialects, spoken in the areas around Shanghai; the Gan dialects of Jiangxi; the Xiang dialects of Hunan; the Yue dialects of Guangdong and Guangxi; the Min dialects of Fujian and south coastal China; and Hakka, which has a discontinuous distribution from southeast China to Sichuan (Ramsey 1987, 87ff).

Although their spoken tongues differ, literate persons share the same writing system. Chinese ideographs convey meaning rather than fixed pronunciation. Each of the many thousands of standardized ideographs is composed of one or more configurations known as radicals. There are 214 radicals; most ideographs use two or three in combination, which in most cases signal sound, meaning, or a combination of both to the reader. Min and Yue writings included some unique ideographs unknown elsewhere. Since the 1950s, the most frequently used ideographs have been simplified. The new forms are in common use in newspapers and other publications, including school texts. As a result, younger people have difficulty reading materials published before the 1950s. A standardized romanization system, known as pinyin, was also introduced in the 1950s. It is based on putonghua pronunciation and seems to be less well known and rarely used except on street signs and shop fronts, along with the ideographs, or in dictionaries and language texts designed for those learning Mandarin.

Except for the Hui and She nationalities, the first languages of the minority peoples belong to language families other than Chinese. In daily life they may also speak the Chinese dialect of their region and have some familiarity with the language of neighboring minorities. In the northern areas of China, almost all the minority languages belong to the Altaic Family, which includes Mongolian, Turkic, and Tungus. Through migration and historical contacts the languages of some of these groups have become rich in loanwords from Chinese and Tibetan as well as from Persian, Indic, Semitic, and Slavic languages.

Most of China's 5,314,000 Mongolian speakers are found in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. Other groups live further to the northeast, or in Qinghai and Gansu and even Yunnan. In addition to Mongolian proper (Khalkha dialect), there are at least five other languages within the Mongolian Branch of Altaic. These are associated with small minority groups: Daur (Dagur), Dongxiang (Santa), Bonan (Bao'an), Monguor, and Yugur. The last group is culturally related to the Turkic-speaking Uigur minority. The Mongolian script, which is still in use today, was borrowed from the Uigurs in the twelfth century. It has twenty-four basic alphabetic symbols, which take variant forms that are dependent on the symbols' positions in words. Despite some problems with it, the script is better suited to a polysyllabic and inflecting language than are the Chinese ideographs. Mongolian is very different from Chinese, despite some borrowing of vocabulary: it does not have tones, and its grammatical structures resemble those of Korean or Japanese rather than those of the Chinese languages.

The majority of the speakers of Turkic languages, the Western Branch of Altaic, are located in the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region and in the western republics of the former Soviet Union. They include Kazaks, Uigurs, Kirgiz, Uzbeks, and Tatars. During the Republican period (1911-1949) all Turkic speakers within China were referred to as "Tatars," but in actuality there are less than 5,000 Chinese Tatars; they live in Xinjiang, near the Soviet border. There are well over a million Kazak speakers within China, along the Mongolian and former Soviet borders, speaking a language closely related to Tatar. Kirgiz, found in western Xinjiang, has 142,000 speakers and is closely related to Tatar and Kazak. China also holds a small population of 14,000 Uzbek speakers, but the vast majority of speakers of this Turkic language live in Uzbekistan. The Uigur, who number over 7 million, are the predominant group of Turkic speakers within China. Their language is relatively unified because of complex commercial relations throughout the region and a long history of alphabetic writing systems. A rich literature of poetry and writings on Buddhist and Nestorian teachings exists in the old Uigur script, which was probably Semitic in origin. An Arabic script replaced it in the thirteenth century when the Uigur converted to Islam.

The Eastern branch of Altaic are the Tungus languages. The largest of these groups is Manchu. The majority of the 9 million Manchu are highly Sinicized, and most are unilingual in Chinese or use Chinese as their first language. Yet in recent years there has been an upsurge of Manchu ethnicity and a revival of the language in both spoken and written forms. There is a large literature in Manchu, which uses a modified version of Mongolian script; much of it is translations of Chinese writings. A few small groups (Ewenki, Oroquen, Hezhen) are also Tungus speakers.

The minority languages of the south and southwest were formerly grouped with Chinese in the Sino-Tibetan Language Family, Linguists are no longer in agreement that this is correct. Many of the spoken languages of the region derive from proto-Tai, and these are now placed separately in their own family. In the People's Republic of China, this family is known as Zhuang-Dong, which is divided into three branches. All are tone languages.

The largest branch is Zhuang-Dai. Zhuang is spoken in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which covers the western two-thirds of Guangxi Province, and by related populations in adjacent areas of Guizhou and Yunnan. Potentially, it has over 15.5 million speakers. However, as was the case with the Manchu, the Zhuang have assimilated to Chinese culture over the centuries. Almost all can speak the local Chinese dialect of their region, and many ethnic Zhuang could speak only that until recently. Since the early 1950s, Zhuang ethnicity has strengthened, with encouragement from the state. The language has been revived and is in more common usage in daily life, a process facilitated by the introduction of a standardized pinyin writing system for the main dialect of northern Zhuang, and use of the language in publications, radio broadcasts, and the dubbing of films. It is recognized as one of China's major official languages. The neighboring Bouyei, who are even more Sinicized than the Zhuang, are similarly encouraged to use what the state recognizes as their own language, though some linguists feel it should be classed as a dialect variant of northern Zhuang (Ramsey 1987, 243).

Dai is the language of the Dai of southwestern Yunnan. They are culturally and linguistically similar to the Thai of northern Thailand, though divided by dialect variation internally and across national borders. Their writing system uses variants of Thai script, and until recently literacy was limited to males, all of whom were expected to spend some years studying at the local Buddhist monasteries. There are at least a million speakers of Dai.

The second branch, called Kam-Sui, is less well known and is the most northern and eastern extension of the Tai languages, found in the area where Hunan, Guizhou, and Guangxi intersect. Kam (also called Dong, in Chinese) has about 2.5 million speakers. It is distinguished in having the most elaborated tone system of any language in China, with fifteen tones: other Tai languages and some of the southern Chinese languages, such as Hokkien and Cantonese, have eight, whereas Mandarin has only four. The Sui languages are associated with smaller groups in the area, such as Mulam and Maonan, and most of these peoples are bilingual in Chinese or Zhuang. The third branch is Li, spoken by groups in Hainan. Although treated as one language by the state, it is actually a grouping of at least five different Tai languages, divergent by reason of long separation.

Another large segment of China's south and southwestern minorities are speakers of languages belonging to the Miao-Yao Family. These too were formerly classed with Chinese, perhaps because they are tone languages and show both ancient and modern word borrowings from Chinese, but linguists now view them as more typically Southeast Asian, closer to the Tai languages. Yao, used as an ethnic category, includes some speakers of Miao or even Kam. It is estimated that no more than 44 percent of China's 2 million ethnic Yao speak Mien, as the indigenous language is called in China and Southeast Asia. Mien shares features with Miao and both Cantonese and Hakka. The Miao languages are found among the 7 million Miao in China, as well as among the Hmong of Southeast Asia. Miao languages are classed into three major groupings, each containing many "dialects" that coincide roughly with marked cultural differences and geographical distribution across Guizhou and Yunnan and northward into Sichuan. Across and within the three major groups they are not usually mutually intelligible. In syntax, Miao too is more similar to Tai than to Chinese but contains many ancient and recent borrowings of words from Chinese and loan translations of Chinese idioms.

Mon-Khmer languages, another separate family, are found along the southwestern border of Yunnan among such peoples as the Benglong, Blang, and the Wa (Va), who are a segment of a much larger population in Myanmar (Burma). These languages are far less influenced by Chinese.

The remainder of the languages of southwest China are classed as Tibeto-Burman. The majority are tone languages. The PRC recognizes sixteen languages within this family, divided among four branches. The best-known to foreign scholars is the Tibetan Branch (also known as Bodish), which includes Moinba and the Jiarong speakers of the Qiang minority nationality as well as some 4.5 million ethnic Tibetans. The largest branch, overall, is the Yi Branch (also known as Loloish), which shows more affinities with Burmese than with Tibetan. It includes a number of dialects or languages spoken by the 6.5 million ethnie Yi, who are distributed through the mountain areas of Sichuan, northern Yunnan, and western Guizhou. Additionally, it includes the closely related languages of several other minority nationalities. These are Lisu, Lahu, Jino, Hani, and Naxi, all of them located in Yunnan. Lisu, Lahu, and Hani (Akha) are also found in Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. With the exception of the Naxi, they are hill and mountain peoples. Both Tibetan proper and the Yi Branch produced indigenous writing systems that are still in use. The Tibetan script, based on Indic models, emerged some time in the seventh century. The Yi syllabary script, which may be a thousand years old, was closely associated with religion and divination, but it was flexible enough to be used for other writings. The Naxi devised a pictographic script, quite different from Chinese ideographs, as well as a syllabic script influenced by Tibetan and Yi writing. However, literacy was limited to a relatively small group.

Within Chinese territory, there are two smaller branches of Tibeto-Burman. The Jingpo Branch is more commonly found in Myanmar, among the people known as Kachin, and is of interest to linguists because of its ties to Burmese, Tibetan, and Loloish. Dulong (Drung) is included in this branch. Finally, there is Qiang, a category holding two "dialects" that are not mutually intelligible.

Some of the spoken languages within China have yet to be definitively classified: Gelao, which seems to be distantly related to Tai; Tujia, Nu and Achang, which are sometimes placed in Tibeto-Burman; and Bai, which remains problematic. Chinese linguists group it with Loloish, while some others argue that it is an ancient branch of Sinitic (Ramsey 1987, 288-291).

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