Did you know….

…that half of China’s population cannot speak Mandarin? I knew it was a large number, but fifty percent?!

The Discussion: 15 Comments

I just posted this at China Herald, regarding the same story:

Forgive me for my skeptism over this and other alarming authoritative figures that sound perhaps a bit too far-fetched to believe.

Perhaps it’s true, but let’s recall some of the other rather hard-to-swallow statistics we learned in 2004:

– Over 50% of Chinese men are impotent (source: The People’s Hospital of Peking University)

– More than 70% of residents of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are “ill, unfit, or short of breath”. (Red Cross Society of China)

– Average lifespan for Chinese “intellectuals” is just 58 years (Beijing IT workers: 53 years, Shanghai journalists: 45 years!) (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

So often Chinese news articles simply quote a conclusion, never giving details about the study’s sample size, the questions asked, who paid for the study, the margin of error, or other survey methodology details necessary for realistically judging the accuracy or relevance of such claims.

Without this kind of information, a grain or two of salt (or perhaps a large sack of it) might be useful when encountering such surprising claims.

December 29, 2004 @ 8:53 am | Comment

You’re absolutely right, Slim. I always take Chinese statistics with a hefty chunk of rock-salt. With this sort of thing, I don’t see any incentive for them to skew the numbers, but as you say, God alone knows how they actually came up with 50 percent.

December 29, 2004 @ 9:10 am | Comment

I don’t have my estimate, but the figure doesn’t sound unbelievable to me. It’s like to say “only 1% British population speaks American English.” I think people live in rural area can’t or don’t speak Madarian often, which take a high percentage of population.

December 29, 2004 @ 11:23 am | Comment

Oh well. For a second there I stopped feeling guilty for not being as in touch as I should be with my Mother Tongue 🙁

December 29, 2004 @ 12:34 pm | Comment

Statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, yes, but travelling from one end of China to the other will make this one seem entirely believable, or even a little on the low side. Communicating with my in-laws sometimes requires my partner to translate into Mandarin, and they only live a couple of hundred kilometres up the road from Beijing.

December 29, 2004 @ 5:44 pm | Comment

Schmatistics, who knows?! I do know a lot of Chinese can’t understand each other, even if they think they’re speaking Potunghua.

I’d be curious to know how many Chinese are tri- or quadrilingual. Most of my middle school students spoke Potunghua, Beihua, Chaozhouhua, kejianghua, AND their own “countryside language” with no real name.

December 29, 2004 @ 7:05 pm | Comment

Sam, Chinese is one language. All these dialects share the same grammers and the same writing system. But the pronumciations vary so much that people in different areas can’t understand each other. I speak Putonghua. From my experience (not 100% sure), even those who don’t speak Putonghua can understand it, including Catonese.

December 29, 2004 @ 7:55 pm | Comment

But almost all radio and TV broadcast is in Manderin all over China except maybe XiZhang, XinJiang. How could people watch TV?After watching TV for 5 years, you gotta be able to speak Manderin. I speak Manderin with siginificant Southern accent, but I consider myself able to speak Mandarin. Actually North of Yangzi river, most dialects are close to Mandarin.

December 29, 2004 @ 7:59 pm | Comment

I think we may have hit on one of the big problems here: What is Mandarin? I myself have spoken at least 3 versions of it, and still occasionally mix things up. That’s a natural outcome of having learned Mandarin in at least 3 places. But watching TV does not teach you to speak a language, and the grammar of Chinese dialects varies at least as much as the grammar of the various versions of Mandarin (and yes, Outofin, it does vary and very many people can not understand it, and I can attest to that, as can many others, both Chinese and otherwise).

The other day my partner and I were sitting on a local bus here in Beijing’s Tongzhou district. And old man boarded the bus and said something absolutely incomprehensible to everyone but me. I kept my mouth shut because I wasn’t sure of the last syllable. Eventually the other people, Beijinger’s all, figured out where he wanted to go. It was only the last syllable I had wrong- and not far wrong, either- the rest I understood perfectly. Why? He was from Hunan, which is where I began to learn Chinese. So, this old guy, who was in Tongzhou and therefore heard something very close to Putonghua everyday, and was travelling to another place in Tongzhou where he would continue to hear something very close to Putonghua every day, and who undoubtedly had watched TV and listened to the radio and therefore would have heard plenty of Putonghua, still struggled to communicate something as simple as a destination.

I, myself, have run up against similar problems many times in China, not least with my partner’s family (who live, and come from, just a couple of hundred kilometres up the road from here).

It is very, very easy to believe that at least 47% of Chinese do not speak Putonghua, even if we use the loosest definition of Mandarin in the survey.

But from what I read of the survey, the situation is improving a lot, and I feel it is safe to assume that the majority of those who can not speak Putonghua (in some way, shape or form) are middle-aged to elderly, and that more and more youngsters are learning at least enough to communicate.

December 30, 2004 @ 6:47 am | Comment

Would anyone be kind enough to email me the text of this article, the Straits Times site is useless!

December 31, 2004 @ 9:00 pm | Comment

I looked at the original article in China Daily and the 50% was based on a self-reporting survey, and not on any linguistic field work. The statistic looks fishy to me.

January 2, 2005 @ 12:40 am | Comment

The whole premise of this article hinges on what particular definition of Mandarin is used.
Mandarin is a word of Portuguese origin, referring to a high government official or bureaucrat. The first Portuguese contact with China is with the Cantonese speaking residents of what became Macau. Mandarin is the language of the politically dominant North and the language of government, therefore, Cantonese refer to it as the “bureaucrats’ language”.

Given the above origins of the word Mandarin, it should be synonymous with the version as spoken in Beijing, the political capital of past and present. However, the official Putonghua (common speech) taught in schools all over China is not quite the same as how it is spoken in the hutongs of Beijing, having dropped the preponderance of rolling r’s that pepper common speech in the capital.

The 50% mark seems reasonable, especially if it refers only to Mandarin as the primary dialect/language, and not competence as a second or third dialect/language. Even so, this would likely mean the inclusion of only areas of China north of the Yangzi River, which is approximately 50% of the national total. Mandarin in the loose sense usually includes the dialects spoken in the southwest (Sichuan, Yunnan, etc.) which sound quite different from Northern versions but are usually still mutually intelligible to a certain degree. If this is included, the percentage of Mandarin speakers should be closer to 70%.

The southeastern “dialects” of Cantonese, Fukienese, Shanghainese, etc…each with local subdialets, should really be viewed as separate languages, phonetically distinct from Mandarin and from each other.

January 3, 2005 @ 5:48 pm | Comment

Outofin, your blanket assertion “Chinese is one language” annoys me as being imprecise and inaccurate.

What’s the difference between a dialect and a language? Find one that explains why Cantonese and Shanghaiese are dialects of the same language, but German and Dutch and English are different languages? The only reason the different languages in China are called “dialects” and not “languages” is politics. They’re all languages spoken in China, so for ease of reference, they’re called dialects. As for your assertion that all Chinese dialects/languages share the same writing system, the fact is that written Chinese language usually doesn’t reflect how people speak in the different dialects. They’re writing one thing, but saying something different. It is also not entirely correct to say that all Chinese dialects share the same grammar. While they have many common features, there are also differences. This also doesn’t account for other dialects, such as Manzu, which has an entirely different written script, or Mongolian, etc …

January 3, 2005 @ 10:40 pm | Comment

The confusion over dialect or language is due to the Chinese writing system, which is a non-phonetic one. However, if the rule that same writing=same language is applied, Vietnamese would also be considered a dialect of Chinese before the introduction of a romanized phonetic writing system by the French only in the last hundred years or so. So would Korean before the development of Hangul in the 16th? century. So would Japanese before the development of Hiragana and Katakana.

I think it is safe to say that the above rule is not a valid one. Languages should be categorized based on phonetic and grammatical features, which are developed early during the synthesis of spoken languages. Writing systems are developed much later, wether we are talking about Egyptian hieroglyphics or the Cyrillic alphabet.

Therefore, the Chinese “dialects” should really be examined based on phonetics and grammar to determine if they are really “languages” or not. It should be stressed that the non-Sinitic languages spoken by ethnic minorities in China should not be muddled with the present discussion. Manchu and Mongolian are languages of the Ural-Altaic family and have more in common with Turkish and Hungarian than they do with “Chinese”.

What is collectively referred to as “Chinese” is actually a collection of separate languages within the Sinitic subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Within this subfamily are the languages of Mandarin (with local dialect variations such as Beijing, Shangdong, Sichuan, etc…), Yue (Cantonese, Toishan, etc…), Min (Hokkien, Fukien, Teochiu, etc…), Wu (Shanghai, southern Jiangsu, Zhejiang, etc…). Sometimes Xiang (Hunan) and Gan (Jiangxi), which are linguistic transition zones, are also considered to be distinct in their own right while other times they are grouped within Mandarin. As you can see, the distinction between language and dialect can get rather muddled. However, regardless of how many Sinitic languages linguists finally agree to, it is safe to say that “Chinese” is more than just one language.

January 4, 2005 @ 5:49 pm | Comment

According to Wikipedia and just about any other number-of-language-speakers-list, there are 867.2 million Mandarin speakers in China (about 2/3 of China’s total population).

April 10, 2005 @ 2:53 am | Comment

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