It turns out this is an almost impossible question to answer.
To give you a scale of the complexity of this question, consider the following.
I spent almost a year and a half in a town near the city of Guilin, Yangshuo and heard many local languages I was unfamiliar with. From the most common to least common these include:
→ Mandarin, spoken by pretty much everyone.
→ Guilinhua (likely a dialect of Gui-Liu), a form of Southwestern Mandarin spoken by true locals.
→ Guibei, a Yue dialect (more similar to Cantonese than Mandarin) spoken mostly by Zhuang or Miao ethnicities and actually related to Tai.
→ Yangshuohua, very similar to Guilinhua, but only spoken by locals an hour south of Guilin in a town called Yangshuo.
→ A language unique to a village near Yangshuo which my friend speaks.
→ A basic language with greetings and a counting system called something like Lijianghua, which is used exclusively by boat merchants who go up and down the Li River.
An hour and a half north, in the Longsheng mountains, there are also:
→ Miao ethnicities speaking both Miaojia and Linglinghua.
→ Yao and Zhuang ethnicities speaking their own local dialect.
So in a rough 150km radius, within the Guilin County, there are at least 10 languages being spoken by locals. There are also countless other villages nearby speaking a modified version of Guilinhua.
The complicated part is, should Yangshuohua and Guilinhua be counted as separate dialects? They can understand each other, but also have vocabulary neither would understand without instruction.
In order to answer that question, you would have to have access to an accurate lexicon of each dialect. This way you could compare dialects and define a standard.
For example you could draw a line and say that if a dialect contains over 85% similar vocabulary and grammar, then it does not count as a separate dialect.
This a monumental task.
It would require people on the ground, surveying to discover different dialects, and based on this knowledge assimilate a dictionary for each individual dialect.
Googling the number of cities in China returns the number 687. If there are differences from town to town and even village to village, It’s hard to imagine the true number of dialects that could be categorised as Chinese.
Despite the scale of the task, a team was actually assembled to create the Linguistic Atlas of Chinese Dialects. It includes 510 maps and took 8 years to create. 46 fieldworkers worked on the project and 930 sites were studied throughout China.
141 dialects are listed in a similar project, the 1987 Language Atlas of China lists 141. However, only 42 of these have individual dictionaries which feature in the Great Dictionary of Modern Chinese Dialects.
So, how many dialects - 方言 (fāng yán) - are there in Chinese really?
Wikipedia boldly states 266, with no hint at the true nature of this question.
Let’s start with the facts.
Spoken Chinese can be separated into these branches:
- 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà) - Standard Mandarin (Beijing Dialect)
- 粤语 (yuè yǔ) - Yue (Cantonese)
- 闽语 (mǐn yǔ) - Min (Hokkien-Taiwanese)
- 吴语 (wú yǔ) - Wu (Shanghainese)
- 徽语 (huī yǔ) - Hui (sometimes classified as Mandarin, Wu or even Gan)
- 客家话 (kè jiā huà) - Hakka (spoken by a significant number of Taiwan natives)
- 湘语 (xiāng yǔ) - Xiang (Hunanese, spoken by Mao Zedong)
- 晋语 (jìn yǔ) - Jin (sometimes considered a dialect of Mandarin)
- 赣语 (gàn yǔ) - Gan (sometimes classified as a variety of Hakka)
The Uyghur language, 维吾尔语 (wéi wú ěr yǔ), is the most popular of these inside China, with over 10 million speakers.
The official People’s Republic of China list includes 56 ethnic groups within China. Most, if not all of these have their own dialects or even languages. There are also a sizeable amount of unrecognized ethnic groups with their own languages.
These are ignored by authorities on the subject when talking about Chinese, despite some of these languages displaying significant influence from Mandarin.
This is strange because some dialects like Shanghainese have strong influence from the Laos-Thai language family, Kra-Dai. So if Shanghainese is included, then it seems at least Zhuang, Bao and Miao-Yao languages should be too.
A head-scratcher we’ll come to later.
First Let’s tackle Mandarin Chinese
Mandarin is considered a native language by over two-thirds of China’s inhabitants. Some form of it has been the national lingua franca since the 14th century.
Mandarin Chinese is divided into four groups: Southwest, Southern, Northwestern and Northern. All these variations of Chinese have a representative dialect, for example in Standard Mandarin it is the Beijing dialect.
This is probably the most studied area of Chinese dialect differentiation. Based on the distinctions online, there are 93 dialects of Mandarin.
This doesn’t include dialects such as Yangshuohua, Lijianghua or the language only spoken in my friend’s village.
I want to state that I’m not a linguistic professor. I’m putting these numbers together based on other people’s research published on the internet.
It’s not perfect, but it is my hope that this will still be a better answer than I could find anywhere else.
The other subgroups of Chinese tally up as follows:* Jin  * Wu  * Hui  * Gan  * Xiang  * Min  * Yue  * Hakka 
A total of 333 dialects. You can see the breakdown at the bottom of this article.
(Note: In every case, I have included the dialect, eg.. “Hong Kong Cantonese” but not the subgroups, e.g. “Cantonese” in this count)
Controversially, based on the Shanghainese argument I proposed earlier, I’m going to add a few more languages into this tally. You could easily add more if you wanted.
* Bai  * Miao-Yao  * Zhuang 
Those 53 bring the total to 386.
So I propose that the number of Chinese dialects spoken in China is definitely more than 386.
There are undoubtably significant dialects that haven’t made it into this list, due to the scattered and illusive nature of the information.
If you included village-like variations in dialect there could easily be over 1000 dialects in Chinese.
Why are there SO MANY dialects?
For me, the interesting thing in putting this information together was realising why there are multiple languages spoken in one place.
Throughout history, a dominant culture has often been usurped or intermingled with another. When the new culture stays in that place for long enough, language changes.
Slang words form, common words are swapped and modified to better suit the existing habits of each language group. Over time, these differences multiply in the direction of whatever new language is exposed to that location.
Nowadays there are dialects composed of Standard Mandarin and Hakka or of Min-Mandarin-Yue. The lack of any standardisation (until 1949) allowed these mutations to flourish.
As a result of this, It’s likely many smaller languages in China will die out over the next century.
A whole glossary has evolved to describe the process of languages being swallowed up by the current dominant language and the cultural implication this has. A few interesting phrases include:
To sinicize: to become under the influence of Chinese culture.
Mutually unintelligible: One language or dialect is unable to be understood by a speaker of another language or dialect.
Dialect continuum: spread of language varieties spoken across a geographical area.
Diglossia: the situation where two dialects or languages are used by one language community.
Code-switching: Speakers switching between two languages in a conversation.
The Ultimate Breakdown of Chinese Dialects
The sheer number of different language dialects listed below is staggering. The grouping follows a tiered structure where each of the dialects at the same level are the most similar. The most specific form of each group is a language or dialect.
For example, in Yue Chinese, Yuehai is a group within the Yue umbrella term, Cantonese (also called Guangfu) is one of the subgroups within Yuehai and Guangdonghua is a type of cantonese specific to Guangdong.
The changes between Guangdong and the other dialects at that tier: Hong, Kong, Macau etc are significant. In some language groups they are even mutually unintelligible.
An example of this is the umbrella of Yue Chinese, there is also the Siyi grouping. Each of the 6 dialects within this grouping are mutually unintelligible.
Unfortunately, data for specific dialects is hard to come by, but I have included it where possible.
This is by no means a conclusive list.
Nor should the numbers of speakers stated be taken at face value. Often they are estimations that vary based on whatever source I decided looks right. I chose the highest numbers where figures differed.
Mandarin Chinese (93 listed dialects)
Northeastern Mandarin - 东北话 (dōng běi huà)
80 million speakers.
• Jí–Shěn (吉沈) • Jilin • Shenyang (includes words from Manchu)
• Hā–Fù (哈阜) • Harbin (close to Standard Mandarin, with influences from Russian and Manchu)
• Changchun (includes words from Manchu) • Hēi–Sōng (黑松)
• Qiqihar • Taz (purely spoken) marriage of Han and Tungusic peoples.
Jiaoliao Mandarin - 胶辽官话 (jiāo liáo guān huà)
Spoken in parts of northeast china.
• Yantai • Dalian • Da-Wa • Chang-Zhuang • Weifang
• Weihai • Dandong • Qingdao • Zhanshan • Xinjiazhuang
• Maidao • Rizhao • Muping Dialect (牟平)
Jilu Mandarin - 冀鲁 (jì lǔ)
Hebei - Shandong.
• Baotang (保唐) • Tianjin (天津) • Baoding (保定)
• Tangshan (唐山) • Shi-Ji (石济) • Xingtai (邢台)
• Shijiazhuang (石家莊) • Jinan • Cang-Hui (沧惠)
Central Plains Mandarin - 中原官话 (zhōng yuán guān huà)
The archaic dialect in Peking Opera is a form of this dialect. It is also sometimes written with an Arabic alphabet by the Hui people.
• Zheng-Cao • Kaifeng • Zhengzhou • Nanyang • Luo-Xu
• Luoyang (recognised as the “most correct” language in China from very roughly 2300-700 years ago).
• Xuzhou • Jiangsu South • Jiangsu North • Xupu (徐普)
• Xin-Beng (信蚌) • Xinyang • Bengbu • Fenge (汾河)
• Linfen • Wanrong • Cai-lu • Zhumadian • Jining
• Qin-Long (秦陇) • Xining • Dunhuang
• Gangou - influcened by Mongol and Amdo Tibetan.
• Guanzhong (关中) - once the official language for the dynasties of Zhou (1046-256BCE), Qin (221-206BC), Han (202-220AD), reaching its peak in the Tang Dynasty (618-904AD).
• Xifu • Dongfu (the oldest language in China)
• Longzhong (陇中) • Tianshui • Nanjiang (南疆)
• Yanqi • Tulufan
Dungan - 东干语 (dōng gān yǔ)
Spoken by some Hui people and the only spoken Chinese written in Cyrillic (used in Eurasia). Derived from Central Plains Mandarin but contains Russian loanwords not found in modern Mandarin.
The written language is based on a dialect in Gansu province, not Standard Mandarin. Before that, Dungan was written in a form of Arabic called Xiao’erjing.
Lanyan Mandarin - 兰银官话 (lán yín guān huà)
Sometimes written in the Arabic alphabet by Hui Chinese.
→ Lanzhou (兰州)
→ Urumqi (乌鲁木齐)
→ Xining (西宁)
→ Yinchuan (银川)
Southwestern Mandarin - 西南官话 (xī nán guān huà)
52.2% different vocabulary from Standard Chinese. Shares more vocabulary with Xiang and Gan. Spoken by around 250m people. Also commonly spoken in northern Myanmar and parts of northern Vietnam.
→ Kun-Gui (昆貴) Kunming and Guiyang
→ Sichuanese (四川话) - lingua franca in Sichuan. Also spoken as a second language in parts of Tibet. Spoken by around 120m people.
→ Cheng—Yu (Chengdu and Chongqing) believed to reflect aspects of the lingua franca during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The most representative dialect of Sichuanese. Used in Sichuan opera. 90m speakers.
→ Minjiang (岷江)
→ Ren-Fu (仁富)
→ Ya-Mian (雅棉)
→ Li-Chuan (丽川)
→ Sichuanese Standard Mandarin (川普)
→ Hubei - also as above
→ Li County
→ New Xiang (Changsha)
→ Western Yunnan
→ Dianxi (滇西)
→ Yao-Li (姚里)
→ Bao-Lu (保潞)
→ Qianbei (黔北) - northern Guizhou.
→ Ebei (鄂北)
→ Wuhan (Hankou)
→ Huguang (Wuhan)
→ Wu-Tian (武天) Wuhan and Tianmen
→ Cen-Jiang (岑江)
→ Qiannan (黔南)
→ Xiangnan (湘南) Yongzhou and Chenzhou
→ Gui-Liu (桂柳) Guilin and LiuZhou
→ Chang-He (常鹤) Changde and Zhangjiajie
Lower Yangtze or Jianghuai Mandarin - 下江官话 (xià jiāng guān huà)
Number of speakers last estimated to be 67 million. This branch has two forms of pronunciation, the Bai (common) and Wen (literary).
Formed the written standard for Qing dynasty (1644-1912) China. Used in the beginnings of Peking opera.
→ Nankinese (Nanjing)
→ Zaicheng (New Zaicheng Speech)
→ Nanning dialect - 20,000 speakers
Jin Chinese - 晋语 (jìn yǔ), (8 subgroups)
Wu Chinese - 吴语方言 (wú yǔ fāng yán), (64 dialects)
Spoken by roughly 80 million people. Used in Pingtan, Yue and Shanghai opera. Sometimes labelled incorrectly as Shanghainese. The most ancient (3000+ years) of the southern Chinese varieties.
During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Wu speakers made up about 20% of the whole population.
→ Northern Wu (北部吴语)
→ Shanghainese - includes cognates with the Laos-Thai language family, Kra-Dai
→ Maqiao Wu
→ Shadi (Chongming)
→ Suzhou - said to be the most representative and the
linguistic centre of Wu
→ Hangzhounese - estimated to be 1.2 to 1.5 million speakers
→ Linshao (臨紹)
→ Southern Wu (南部吴语)
→ Oujiang - nicknamed “The Devil’s language” for its complexity and difficulty. The most divergent language of Wu and a reputation for being the least comprehensible dialect for the average Mandarin speaker.
→ Wenzhounese - “Fear not the Heavens, fear not the Earth, but fear the Wenzhou man speaking Wenzhounese” (填补怕，地不怕，就怕温州人说温州话)
→ Li’ao Village - interestingly, this and baimen are two villages with a language spoken by people with different surnames
→ Baimen （白们) - surname 姜
→ Wangshai - surname 王 or 黄
→ Jinhua - representative dialect
→ Zaicheng (old Zaicheng Speech)
→ Western Wu (西部吴语)
→ Xuancheng - representative dialect
→ Jing County
→ Lingyang (陵阳)
Huizhou/Hui Chinese - 徽州话 (huī zhōu huà), (30 dialects)
Shares characteristics with Wu, Gan and Lower Yangtze Mandarin. Differs from village to village so from one county or township to the next they often cannot communicate. Estimated 46 million speakers.
→ Yi County
→ Yi County
Gan Chinese - 赣语 (gàn yǔ), (10 dialects)
Gan is the closest variety of Mandarin Chinese. Spoken by around 48 million people. Formed during the Qing Dynasty from 2-140AD as a result of Han Chinese migrating to Jiangxi.
→ Changdu (昌都)
→ Nanchang (representative dialect)
→ Huaiyue (怀岳)
→ Yiliu (宜浏)
→ Fuguang (抚广)
→ Yingyi (鹰弋)
→ Jicha (吉茶)
→ Datong (大通)
→ Leizi (耒资)
→ Dongsui (洞绥)
Xiang Chinese - 湘语 (xiāng yǔ), (14 dialects)
An example of spoken Xiang: 乡音苑 Phonemica which as a Mandarin learner I cannot at all understand.
→ New Xiang (orange on map) 17.8m speakers
→ Old Xiang (yellow) 11.5m speakers
→ Hengzhou - 4.3million speakers
→ Chen-Xu (light red) 3.4million speakers
→ Yong-Quan - 6.5million speakers
Min Chinese - 闽语 (mǐn yǔ), (49 dialects)
Spoken by around 30 million people. Has a greater dialectal diversity than any other subgroup of Chinese. Mountain villages can have varieties that are mutually unintelligible.
→ Northern (red on map)
→ Eastern (green) - 9.5 million speakers
→ Matsu - spoken on islands near Taiwan
→ Manjiang - 500,000 speakers
→ Central (yellow) - 683,000 speakers
→ Pu-Xian (turquoise) - 2.6 million speakers, 62% cognates with Southern Min, 39% with Eastern Min
→ Southern (light blue)
→ Amoy (Xiamen)
→ Quanzhou - 87.5% intelligibility with Amoy dialect
→ Quanzhou city
→ Zhangzhou city
→ Taiwanese Hokkien - spoken by about 70% of Taiwan
→ Teo-Swa (Chaoshan Min)
→ Leizhou (dark blue)
→ Hainanese (purple) - 5 million speakers
→ Shao-jiang (brown)
Yue Chinese - 粤语 (yuè yǔ), (50 dialects)
→ Yuehai (pink) - around 13million speakers
→ Cantonese (Guangfu) - co-official languages of Hong Kong and Macau
→ Hong Kong - influence from English, French and Japanese
→ Tanka - language of the Tanka boat people of southern China
→ Jiujiang - 50,000 speakers
→ Shiqi - 160,000 speakers
→ Siyi (light purple) - a group of mutually intelligible dialects
→ Gao-Yang (dark purple)
→ Yong-Xun (light green) - 5 million speakers
→ Gou-Lou (lilac) - 6.9 million speakers
→ Bobai - claimed to have the most tones in the Chinese language (8 tones, with two split tones).
→ Qin-Lian (dark green)
→ Wu-Hua (blue)
→ Pinghua - 7 million speakers, often Zhuang or non-han ethnicity
→ Guinan (orange)
→ Nanning (Yongjiang)
→ Rongjiang (liuzhou)
→ Guibei (yellow) - a form of the Northern Zhuang language and related to Tai. Spoken by 1.3 million people.
Hakka Chinese - 客家 (kè jiā), (15 dialects)
Spoken by the Hakka people, 47.8 million people. Sometimes classified as a variety of Gan. An official language in Taiwan. Some dialects are not mutually intelligible with one-another.
→ Meixian - standard dialect
→ Taiwanese Hakka - 2.6 million speakers
→ Hailu - 1.18 million speakers. 41.5% of Hakka people in Taiwan can also speak in Hailu dialect.
→ Raoping - around 1.6% of Hakka people in Taiwan
→ Huizhou - displays characteristics of Yue and Hakka. 7 tones.
Hard to classify, unclassified within the Sino-Tibetan language family or non-Chinese languages spoken in China
Though some of these languages are recognised, respected or even official languages, many are dying out and are virtually unheard of in most Chinese communities, despite a large number of their speakers being Chinese.
This is by no means an extensive list, but hopefully gives you an idea of the scale of the amount of other languages and influence upon existing languages within China.
Bai (12 dialects)
1.3 million speakers, primarily of Bai ethnicity from Yunnan.
→ Northern - 15,000 speakers
→ Zhoucheng (Dali city)
Miao-Yao languages (25 dialects)
→ Linglinghua (伶话)
Spoken by 20,000 ethnic Miao in Longsheng, Guangxi. Having visited Longsheng and heard this dialect, it sounds nothing at all like Mandarin.
Yao communities in the same area speak a totally different dialect and some elderly speakers of Linglinghua that we met could not speak Mandarin.
→ Maojia dialect (猫家)
Spoken by 200,000 people of Miao ethnicity in southwestern Hunan, Ziyuan and Longsheng.
→ Shehua - 400,000 speakers. Influence from both Hakka and Mandarin, but various dialects have been influenced by Hakka, Gan, Wu and Min. As well as much unique vocabulary.
→ Mindong, 184,000 speakers
→ Zhe’nan, 120,000 speakers
→ Yuni She Ethnic Township
→ Badong Yao - Unclassified language spoken by some Yao ethnicity in Hunan.
→ Lowland Yao Languages
→ Yeheni - Unclassified Sinitic language spoken by some Yao people in Hunan
→ Shaozhou Tuhua - sometimes considered an extension of Pinghua
→ Sanqiao - 6,000 speakers. 30% Miao and 40-50% Dong vocabulary.
→ Baishi Miao
→ Shaozhou Tuhua
→ Dacun (大村)
→ Xiangyang (向阳)
→ Shibei (石陂)
→ Zhoutian (周田)
→ Shitang (石塘)
→ Guitou (桂头)
Zhuang (allegedly 16-36 dialects)
Spoken by Zhuang ethnicities in China. The tones between dialects range from 7 to 11. This means the 11 tone dialect(s) have more tones than any officially recognised Chinese dialects.
→ Northern Zhuang
→ Yongbei - standard Zhuang
→ Southern Zhuang
Tibetan (17 dialects)
Tibetan is divided into four categories with a common script but different phonology, grammar and vocabulary.
→ Standard/Central Tibetan - 1.2 million speakers
→ Amdo Tibetan - 1.8 million speakers
→ North Kokonor
→ West Kokonor
→ SE Kokonor
→ Thewo (similar but maybe not a dialect)
→ Choni (as above)
→ Khams Tibetan - 1.4 million speakers. The following dialects have relatively low mutual intelligibility.
→ Central Khams
→ Southern Khams
→ Northern/ NE Khams
→ Eastern Khams
→ Hor/Western Khams
→ Ladakhi - 110,000 speakers, not mutually intelligible with Standard Tibetan.
→ Dongwang Tibetan - 6,000 speakers in eastern Shangri-La county, Yunnan
Mongolian (8 dialects in Inner Mongolia)
Roughly 2.9 million speakers as the official language in Inner Mongolia.
→ Southern Mongolian
Uyghur (3 subgroups)
10 million speakers
Gyalrongic Languages (22 dialects)
A branch of languages spoken by the Gyalrong people in Western Sichuan related to Tibetan.
→ Situ - more than 100,000 speakers, 7+ dialects
→ Japhug - 4,000-5,000 speakers
→ Tshobdun - 3,000 speakers
→ Gyalrong - 33,000 speakers, 3+ dialects
→ Zbu - 6,000 speakers
Several closely related languages with unintelligible dialect groups. 50,000 speakers.
→ Central Horpa
→ Upper Stongdgu
→ Northern Horpa
→ Western Horpa
→ Northwestern Horpa
→ Eastern Horpa
→ Khroskyabs - 10,000 speakers
→ Core Khroskyabs
Similarities with Wu and Lower Yangtze Mandarin
Spoken by 0.9million people.
→ Jiwei (吉卫)
→ Yangmeng (阳孟)
→ Zhongxin (中心)
→ XIaoshang (小章)
→ Danqing (丹青)
→ Dengshang (蹬上)
The language spoken by an unrecognised minority in China by around 71,500 people.
→ Longshan (龙山土语)
→ Baojing (保靖土语)
Spoken by an ethnic group of the same name in China.
Waxiang Chinese (瓦鄉)
→ Liubaohua (六保话)
Discovered in the 2000’s, there are only 1000 speakers (the Canjia people) of this language in western Guizhou.
Allegedly a family of 50-100 languages spoken in the Yunnan provinces by the Yi ethnicity. Most closely related to Burmese. Nuosu is the representative language and has around 2 million speakers.
700,000 speakers in Hainan, unclassified.
Once classified as Yue, this is no longer agreed upon. 15,000 speakers in southern Hainan.
Mixed language of Mandarin and a Mongolic language called Dongxiang
Chinese-Tibetan-Mongolian hybrid spoken by around 2000 people.
Chinese-Tibetan language spoken by around 2600 people in Sichuan.
Spoken by around 400,000 people in SE China.
There are also various Indonesian or Malaysian influenced languages spoken on southern islands.
With so many dialects, the 'Chinese language' holds endless areas of interest for scholars to investigate. And if you are living in a particular region in China where the local dialect is not Mandarin, you'll certainly find some benefit (and pleasure!) learning some of the local dialect.
For most students, however, learning 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà) - Mandarin is the best choice for opening up communication and exploring Chinese culture. Even if you plan on learning another regional dialect - like Cantonese - Mandarin can serve as your foundation for the language and help you acquire the dialect more easily.
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