There are already many questions about the different spoken languages that can be called Chinese. This question on the other hand asks about the written one(s?).

Well, to start, is the written language different at all?

If not - is it because Mandarin is used for writing, or why?

The background of my question: I got told a while ago, that even if the different languages are not mutually understandable when spoken, they are when written.

Is that even true after all? And, well, understandable to what degree? Completeley, mostly, almost?

3 Answers 3


Let me answer the most general question first:

"even if the different languages are not mutually understandable when spoken, they are when written."

To a large extent, this is true - but for two different reasons. Before the modern era, this is true because "written Chinese" was based on classical Chinese; whereas the spoken languages were highly divergent from the written form. This is similar to the situation in pre-Renaissance Italy, where scholars wrote in Latin but spoke in highly divergent (mutually unintelligible) Italian dialects.

During the 1910s-1930s, when China was beginning to modernize, there was an influential literary movement to use "Vernacular Chinese" in place of "Classical Chinese" in writing, because the former was easier to understand for the vast majority of people, who were learning how to write and read for the first time. Of course, this created a problem - there are so many languages/dialects in Vernacular Chinese, so which one do we choose as the standard one? It was agreed, after about 20 years of (often bitter) debates, spanning across different regimes, that the Mandarin (Guanhua) dialect based in Beijing would be the standard form of written Vernacular Chinese. Today this is simply referred to as "Chinese" or "Standard Chinese".

So, yes - a person living in Shanghai, who only speaks Shanghainese, is generally able to write and read in a "written form" of Beijing Mandarin. You can see how this makes things difficult for speakers of non-Mandarin dialects - they speak with a particular grammatical structure and vocabulary, but have to write and read in a completely different way. Often, to make things easier, most non-Mandarin (Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi etc.) regions of China have adopted non-standardized ways of putting their native vernacular languages into writing. This usually happens when using Mandarin Chinese would create confusion or ambiguity, or when the vocabulary and grammar they used is significantly different from Mandarin vocabulary. For example, the Shanghainese would write "再會" for "Goodbye", instead of "再見". In Cantonese, in particular, the written form of Cantonese is highly developed (partially because of Hong Kong's unique history) and widely used in place of Mandarin writing in non-official settings.

For the younger generation, regardless of whether they uses local vocabulary in writing, they usually understand Standard Chinese very well, since they learn it in school. So the mutual intelligibility goes one way - the non-Mandarin speakers can read Mandarin, but the Mandarin speakers usually cannot read local dialects. Summary:


Spoken languages: Many

Written language: Classical Chinese


Spoken languages: Many

Written language: Mandarin is understood by all; local varieties used by some

It may also be of interest to you that there are two different scripts for written Chinese - traditional and simplified. Traditional Chinese is used by people outside of mainland China (Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, overseas communities) whereas Simplified Chinese is used by those within.

  • Many thanks, that even answers some of the questions I wanted to pose later :)
    – Falko
    Commented Apr 7, 2012 at 20:00
  • Very good explanation. I want to add this link to Wikipedia about the Wu language (Shanganese is part of this language): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_Chinese Here they explain more differences with Mandarin Chinese (both about the grammar and the specific vocabulary (characters) they use).
    – BertR
    Commented Apr 8, 2012 at 5:56
  • A side remark: Note that "Wu language" is a relatively new term that is mainly used in academic circles. Among people in the Wu-speaking region, people usually use the specific names of the dialects based on city names (e.g. Suzhou dialect/苏州话) rather than the language name "Wu". Outside of the region, the Wu dialects are often generically referred to as "Shanghainese", just as many Yue dialects are generically referred to as "Cantonese" (Guangzhounese). This degree in which this "generalization" occurs depends on mutual intelligibility - e.g. Wenzhounese is rarely called Shanghainese.
    – Yang
    Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 4:49

All these dialects are direct descendants of Middle Chinese. They are mainly different in their pronunciation of words, not grammar. With regard to vocabulary, there dialects share a common set of content words, and a minorly different set of function words. Almost all neologisms introduced to Chinese from the western world, especially scientific terms, share only one common form among all these dialects. There exist also some words used to represent some local concepts specific to only their own regions. Very similar grammar, similar vocabulary, different pronunciation, so it's understandable why these dialects are not mutually understandable when spoken, they are when written.

@Yang took 再會 and 再見 as example to prove that vocabulary in Shanghainese is significantly different from Mandarin vocabulary. I must remind you that this example may give you the impression that the Shanghainese and Mandarin use different words so they are somewhat mutually unintelligible. This is not true. 再會 and 再見 are both valid words in Mandarin. 再會 is more used in formal occasions and 再見 in non-formal ones. I don't speak Shanghainese. But it seems that Mandarin and Shanghainese choose different words for "Goodbye" during their respective development, but the words they chose are related to each other.

As @Yang said, all there dialects use Standard Chinese as their writing system. Some of the dialects, such as Cantonese and Wu, can also be written in some non-standard and non-official writting system specific to the dialect itself. But because of their similar grammar and similar vocabulary, as long as a dialect is written down in Chinese characters, I can understand it well, thought I have to guess the meaning of some function words. I'll take as an example the Yue dialect(Cantonese) version of Varieties of Chinese in wikipedia. I don't speak Cantonese, and I can't understand it at all if a Cantonese native speaker say something to me. But I can read and understand this wikipedia page well with some guessing works. The following is the first sentence from the wikipedia page.


Chinese dialects refer to the different languages spoken in different regions of China. They are tranditionally classified according whether they are spoken in the south or north of China, that is "southern tones and northern accents". They can be classified into seven varieties if treated in smaller granulariy than just north and south.

Chinese is analytic language. Its grammar is very simple. No case, no tense, no inflection, no conjugation, and so on. I don't know what the word 係 means, but it's easy to guess that it means "是(is)" in Mandarin. In similar ways, I can guess 唔 mean 不(negating),嘅 means 的. The whole sentence reads almost the same with Mandarin, except the three function words 係 唔 嘅, which is very easy to guess. All the other words in this sentence is in completely the same form with Mandarin. The more formal the content written in a dialect is, the easier for the native speakers of other dialects to read it.

In contrast, the Hakka version of the same wikipedia item is totally written in Roman alphabet. It's not understandable to me at all.


Mandarin is the official 'language' in China, both verbal and writing must use Mandarin.

But in southern provinces of China, Cantonese is official too!

Northerner usually can't understand that 'language'

but most of the southerner can understand Mandarin, especially for young people.

  • Not completed, in the Shanghai area (mid-east China, usually called south China, too), people neither say Mandarin nor Cantonese, And mid west area, etc... I think young people can understand Mandarin because school teach this ONLY.
    – Mengdi Gao
    Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 0:22
  • @MdGao yes, that's some kind of dialect, but nowhere use it as a LANGUAGE. nowhere use it in writing, even before 1949. Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 5:18
  • 1
    @Kevin Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc. are languages and it's possible to write in them (hey, there are versions of Wikipedia in Cantonese and Wu), but the writing systems aren't standardized. An example of Shanghainese/Wu: 侬会得讲吴语弗?吴语是汉语族里向个一种闲话. Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 9:45

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