In addition to the national standard spoken language/dialect (Putonghua / Guoyu), every region and locality has its own native variants of spoken Chinese. The map below depicts these subdivisions ("languages" or "dialect groups") within Chinese. The traditionally recognized seven main groups, in order of population size are:
* Mandarin (Simplified Chinese: 北方话or官话; Traditional Chinese: 北方話 or 官話; pinyin: běifānghuà or guānhuà), (c. 800 million), not to be confused with Putonghua / Guoyu, often also called "Mandarin", the official spoken language of China;
* Wu 吳/吴 , which includes Shanghainese, (c. 90 million)
* Cantonese 粵/粤, (c. 80 million)
* Min 閩/闽, which includes Taiwanese, (c. 50 million)
* Hakka 客家 or 客, (c. 35 million)
* Xiang 湘, (c. 35 million)
* Gan 贛/赣, (c. 20 million)
Chinese linguists have recently distinguished 3 more groups from the traditional seven:
* Jin 晉/晋 from Mandarin
* Hui 徽 from Wu
* Ping 平話/平话 partly from Cantonese
There are also many smaller groups that are not yet classified, such as: Danzhou dialect, spoken in Danzhou, on Hainan Island; Xianghua (乡话), not to be confused with Xiang (湘), spoken in western Hunan; and Shaozhou Tuhua, spoken in northern Guangdong. The Dungan language, spoken in Central Asia, is very closely related to Mandarin. However, it is not generally considered "Chinese," because it is written in Cyrillic and spoken by people outside China who are not considered Chinese in any sense. See List of Chinese dialects for a comprehensive listing of individual dialects within these large, broad groupings.
In general, the above languages / dialect groups do not have sharp boundaries. As with many areas that were linguistically diverse for a long time, it is not always clear how the speeches of various parts of China should be classified. The Ethnologue lists a total of 14, but the number varies between seven and seventeen depending on the classification scheme being followed. In any case, some dialects belonging to the same group may nevertheless be mutually unintelligible, while other dialects split up among several groups may in fact share many similarities due to geographical proximity.
In general, mountainous South China displays more linguistic diversity than the flat North China. In parts of South China, a major city's dialect may be marginally intelligible to close neighbours. For instance, Wuzhou is about 120 miles upstream from Guangzhou, but its dialect is more like Standard Cantonese spoken in Guangzhou, than is that of Taishan, 60 miles southwest of Guangzhou and separated by several rivers from it (Ramsey, 1987).
Putonghua / Guoyu, often called "Mandarin", is the official standard language used by the People's Republic of China (where it is called "Putonghua"), the Republic of China (where it is called "Guoyu"), and Singapore (where it is called "Huayu"). It is based on the Beijing dialect, which is the dialect of Mandarin as spoken in Beijing. The governments intend for speakers of all Chinese speech varieties to use it as a common language of communication. It is therefore used in government, in the media, and in instruction in schools.
The situation in China has some characteristics that might be described as bilingualism and diglossia: it is common for speakers of Chinese to be able to speak several varieties of the language, typically Standard Mandarin, the local dialect, and in some regions occasionally a regional lingua franca, such as Cantonese. Such polyglots frequently code switch between Standard Mandarin and the local dialect(s), depending on the situation. A person living in Taiwan, for example, may commonly mix pronunciations, phrases, and words from Standard Mandarin and Taiwanese, and this mixture is considered socially appropriate under many circumstances. Similarly, in Hong Kong, it is not unusual for people to speak Cantonese and English, and sometimes Mandarin.
The diversity of Chinese variants is comparable to the Romance languages, and greater than the North Germanic languages. However, owing to China's sociopolitical and cultural situation, whether these variants should be known as "languages" or "dialects" is a subject of ongoing debate. Some people call Chinese a language and its subdivisions dialects, while others call Chinese a language family and its subdivisions languages. Just as the Roman empire was composed of different ethnic groups, there were once different Chinese and non-Chinese nations before they were united by conquest into the Chinese empire. The Chinese dialects today contain remnants of languages spoken in those former nations.
From a purely descriptive point of view, "languages" and "dialects" are simply arbitrary groups of similar idiolects, and the distinction is irrelevant to linguists who are only concerned with describing regional speeches scientifically. However, the language/dialect distinction has far-reaching implications in socio-political issues, such as the national identity of China, regional identities within China, and the very nature of the (Han) Chinese "nation" or "race." As a result, it has become a subject of contention.
On one hand, there is the tendency to regard dialects as equal variations of a single Chinese language. This is partly because all speakers of different varieties of Chinese use one formal standard written language, although this written language in modern times is itself based on one variety of spoken Chinese. On the other hand, some regions with strong senses of regional cohesiveness have become more aware of regional groupings of dialects.
The idea of a single language has major overtones in politics and self-identity, and explains the amount of emotion over this issue. The idea of Chinese as a language family may suggest that China consists of several different nations, challenge the notion of a single Han Chinese "race," and legitimize secessionist movements. Furthermore, for some, suggesting that Chinese is more correctly described as multiple languages implies that the notion of a single Chinese language and a single Chinese state or nationality is artificial.However, the links between ethnicity, politics, and language can be complex. Many Wu, Min, Hakka, and Cantonese speakers consider their own varieties as separate spoken languages, but the Han Chinese race as one entity. They do not regard these two positions as contradictory, but consider the Han Chinese an entity of great internal diversity. Moreover, the government of the People's Republic of China officially states that China is a multinational state, and that the term "Chinese" refers to a broader concept Zhonghua Minzu that incorporates groups that do not natively speak Chinese, such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongols. (Groups that do speak Chinese are properly called Han Chinese, and are regarded as one component of a multiethnic whole.) Similarly, on Taiwan, some supporters of Chinese reunification promote the local language, while some supporters of Taiwan independence have little interest in the topic. Additionally, the Taiwanese identity incorporates Taiwanese aborigines, who are not considered Han Chinese because they speak Austronesian languages, predate Han Chinese settlement, and are culturally and genetically linked to other Austronesian-speaking peoples such as Polynesians.