China’s diverse tongues

Earlier this year in February, during the Spring Festival, I traveled to Anhui province to visit Huangshan, one of China’s most famous and beautiful mountains. It was a very good trip, though not without some hassles and frustrations. It was my first time in Anhui, and I had a big surprise.
As soon as I arrived there, I heard most people speaking a language that was not Mandarin (China’s official language). Apparently Anhui has its own language, which is not surprising given many provinces and regions have their distinct language or dialect. The big surprise was that over the four days there, I heard hardly any Mandarin. Instead I continued to hear other languages being spoken by the multitudes of Chinese tourists. There was Cantonese, what sounded like Minnan (southern Fujian language which is also spoken in Taiwan), and possibly Zhejianese and Shanghainese. Anhui may be a bit underdeveloped but it is not a remote place, being  basically in Central China, situated right next to Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, which are near Shanghai.

When it comes to language, China is just as diverse as other nations like India, though it has one official language.  Also keep in mind that many of these languages (Cantonese, Shanghainese, Minnan, Wenzhou dialect etc) are spoken by the main ethnic group, the Han, while the minorities also speak their own languages like Tibetan, Mongolian and Uighur. Different provinces have their own language, while within these provinces, there’ll be different dialects.

China has one official language Mandarin and a multitude of languages and dialects, with Cantonese and Shanghainese being the more well-known ones. However, the hardest language seems to be Wenzhou dialect, which is spoken in Wenzhou, a city in Zhejiang Province. It’s supposedly so difficult and strange, it’s been deemed a “devil language” and has even been mistaken as Korean, by a Korean!

I’ve heard Zhejiang people speak before, and I swear it sounded a bit like Korean. It’s good to know my ears weren’t tricking me as I was probably overhearing Wenzhou dialect then. Amazingly, the writer of the second article, a Wenzhounese, says that people in Wenzhou, which together with its surrounding areas have a population 9 million, sometimes can’t even understand each other clearly. And of course, other cities in Zhejiang also have dialects, which is similar to Shanghainese in a way, being part of the Wu group. I’ve even read that Zhejiang, due to its mountainous and coastal terrain, is said to have a different dialect in every village and district. Wenzhou is famous for its intrepid entrepreneurs, though they have been going through some hard times, as well as where a tragic high-speed train crash happened in 2011.


2 thoughts on “China’s diverse tongues

  1. How’s your Mandarin? Was it the kind of situation where you tried to use Mandarin to communicate, and the locals couldn’t even understand? That’s always frustrating.


    1. No, the locals could definitely speak Mandarin so communicating with them was no problem. I have been in that situation once while traveling in China, but it was in a rural part of Henan (it was fine in the city I went to); I’m not sure whether it was because of the accent or if it was a dialect.


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