Confucius Say What?: The Heritage and Future of Chinese Dialects (Part II)

Sam Quillen
7 min readFeb 6, 2021
In 2012, some Chinese expressed excitement to finally have a leader who “speaks Putonghua.”

Change is hard. In spite of heavy political, economic, and social pressure, pushed by a highly motivated state with unlimited power and resources, making everyone in China speak Mandarin has still been an uphill battle. To this day, as many as 30% of Chinese, over four hundred million people, are not proficient in the standard dialect. Many more speak it only as a second language.

China’s non-Mandarin community is massive, but relatively atomised. Aside from Mandarin, there are seven major dialect groups. The biggest and by far the best-known is Cantonese, whose standard variant, based on the dialect traditionally spoken in the great city of Guangzhou (formerly Canton), has over eighty million native speakers.

The Cantonese heartland is in the fertile plains of China’s far south. The mountains and rivers that define the region’s borders also arrested the spread of foreign dialects, allowing Cantonese to flourish in relative isolation. It is still the predominant language across much of the densely populated region (Guangdong Province alone is home to 113 million), though the flood of people from elsewhere into booming cities like Guangdong and Shenzhen has tilted the balance somewhat. I once spent a summer working at a hedge fund in Shenzhen, which was a Cantonese fishing village thirty years ago but today is a metropolis of 12.5 million, and hardly heard a word of Cantonese the whole time.

Cantonese is a pillar of Hong Kong’s resistance to Beijing.

Just over Shenzhen’s border with Hong Kong, however, the situation is quite otherwise. Hong Kong (and nearby Macao) have jealously guarded their Cantonese heritage. One will get much further with English than Mandarin. Indeed, Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders often report being harassed. Given recent events, however, things may soon go another way.

Cantonese is a relatively conservative dialect: it is far closer to Middle Chinese, the Tang-era (A.D. 618–907) language from which most modern dialects are descended, than Mandarin is. It has six tones, and many words end in the consonants k, p, and t, which makes it easy to distinguish even for relatively poor Chinese speakers.

Like many other dialects, it is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin. The reason why we refer to it as a dialect at all is purely political. Cantonese and Mandarin are about as similar to each other as are Spanish and French. Of course, a major difference is that they use the same writing system- although Cantonese often uses different vocabulary and grammar, its speakers typically write standard Chinese. Things are a bit more complicated in Hong Kong and Macao, which exclusively use traditional characters instead of the simplified ones that dominate the Mainland, but although the script schism coincides with the dialectal one, linguistically the two are unrelated. One can (and many people do) write Mandarin in traditional characters, and Cantonese in simplified ones.

The same vista, in 1990 and 2010. One could easily get around the city on top entirely in Shanghainese; the bottom, not so much.

China’s third-largest dialect is the native tongue of the financial capital. Shanghainese, the paterfamilias of the Wu family, is spoken by around 14 million people, but almost all of them also speak Mandarin. It was traditionally the lingua franca of the rich Yangtze Delta, and still commands a high level of prestige thanks to Shanghai’s status as China’s glitziest city. It is unique among Chinese dialects in that it does not really have tones. Emphasis varies according to pitch accents, which also feature in Japanese and Swedish, but in Shanghai at least one is free from having to worry about accidentally calling someone’s mother a horse.

Mandarin is clearly conquering Shanghai, but Shanghai is leaving its own mark on Mandarin. Even young people who speak only Mandarin would not be caught dead speaking the standard Beijing register. The variety of Mandarin that people actually speak across southern China is shaped more in Shanghai than in the capital.

The most unique dialect is Min, native to the rich ports of Fujian Province but now sprinkled across the world. Fujian merchants set up trading colonies across Southeast Asia, and their language put down roots. (Economically-successful but popularly-resented overseas Chinese are sometimes called “the Jews of Southeast Asia”). It has conquered the distant tropical island of Hainan, and traditionally it and related Fujian dialects were predominant in Taiwan, Singapore, and the Indies. As the tongues of merchants and emigrants, Min and Cantonese were traditionally more familiar in the West than Mandarin. Old-fashioned renderings of cities’ names, e.g. Peking (which is still the primary spelling in many European languages), are based on southern pronunciations.

What makes Min unique is its history: while all other Chinese dialects share a common ancestor as late as the 9th Century, Min branched off many centuries earlier. It preserves linguistic substrata of the ancient languages that ruled the region before it was even Chinese. Europeans may be surprised to learn that evidence of this is present in our everyday lives: thanks to Min speakers’ commercial clout, the name for our favourite Oriental herbal stimulant is theirs. Every single other Chinese dialect calls it cha. As the clever cartographer whose work I feature above observed, Arabic, Hindi, Russian, and others that contacted China by land follow suit. So do the Portuguese, who picked up the Cantonese version in Macao. English speakers combine the two when they refer to Indian chai tea, which literally means “tea tea.”

Tibetan children learning the common tongue

It is entirely possible that by the end of this century, everyone in China will speak Mandarin. Other dialects have a robust redoubt among the hundreds of millions of uneducated rural poor, but their numbers are falling. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cantonese and Shanghainese draw staying power from cultural clout, but the economic and cultural prestige of their home regions is a double-edged sword. Migrants from elsewhere in China have little interest in learning local dialects, and locals have abundant opportunity and incentive to switch to Mandarin. Even if Cantopop remains popular, Canto’s prevalence as a mode of everyday communication will likely continue to decline. If it remains associated with politically-incorrect politics in Hong Kong, it will do so precipitously.

Around 8% of China’s population is not Han Chinese. Teaching them Mandarin is harder from a linguistic perspective, but the government also has overwhelming will to cram it down their throats. Mandarin classes are a pillar of Xinjiang’s re-education camps. Protests against the state’s assault on the Mongolian language in Inner Mongolia garnered some interest lately, but they will come to nothing. If you want an image of the future, imagine a boot stamping on minority languages, forever.

How far the heirs of Kublai have fallen

Especially in the context of minority regions, linguistic homogenisation is often thought of as a tragedy in the West. Of course, Beijing’s mistreatment of certain groups is lamentable. But even language enthusiasts must have a hard time articulating how it is a bad thing that poor, marginalised people should gain access to vast economic and cultural opportunity. In China as elsewhere, language is often the primary thing that identifies a minority group for abuse. The diversity of human language is fascinating, but one wonders, if we could go back to Babel, would we really build the tower again?

Mandarin has taken over even in places beyond Beijing’s control. Taiwanese used to speak like their relatives across the strait in Fujian, but today everyone speaks Mandarin. For decades the Singaporean government has waged war against traditional dialects, in favour of Mandarin (and the simplified script). Thanks to the Speak Mandarin Campaign, few young people today speak anything else. Even overseas Chinese in the West, many of whom bear no love for the present Chinese government, are switching over to Mandarin.

Given all this, it would probably blow most people’s minds that when Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, many people expressed their excitement finally to have a leader “who speaks Putonghua.” Upon reflection, it makes some sense: the present incarnation of Putonghua is quite new and sort of artificial, tailored for nationwide use by Party linguists in the 1960s. Xi, the son of a revolutionary who grew up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, naturally speaks it well. His two immediate predecessors, who grew up near Shanghai before the Communists took over, not so much. Before them was Deng Xiaoping, the first leader whom most Chinese regularly heard on TV and radio in the 1980s. People complained that his Sichuanese accent was almost impossible to understand.

That accent is familiar to me personally: the first time I encountered a version of Chinese other than straight Mandarin was in the misty mountains of Sichuan Province, where I was making a weekend trip to see pandas in their natural habitat. Traditionally, Sichuanese was considered its own dialect, but thanks to organic dialect levelling it has grown toward Mandarin. It sounds like Mandarin, but many features are bewildering for a newcomer (for instance, the words for “four” and “to be” are very similar, which makes haggling confusing). But the Mandarinisation of Sichuan, as with much of China, is proceeding rapidly, before our very eyes. The first time I visited, in 2013, I thought I was losing my mind. When I returned just a few years later, things were different.

Part I



Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets