I have always thought, perhaps wrongly, that it was mutual intelligibility that was the deciding factor as to whether a 方言 would be considered a dialect or it's own separate language.

Wikipedia's entry Dialect: Political Factors says:

An opposite example is the case of Chinese, whose variations such as Mandarin and Cantonese are often called dialects and not languages, despite their mutual unintelligibility.

I'm not interested in politics, though; linguistically speaking when can a 方言 be considered a language and not a dialect?

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    Mutual Intelligibility is pretty much the only criterion. Literally the only thing stopping Mandarin and Cantonese from being called separate languages/topolects are political considerations. – Ringil Feb 19 '16 at 12:33
  • Is there a list of mutual unintelligible 方言? – Mo. Feb 19 '16 at 13:11
  • By that norm, Swedish and Norwegian are one language. – user4452 Feb 19 '16 at 16:28
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    Defining the difference between language and dialect has been a very very long dispute among linguists since... like... forever. If you are not a linguist (which seems the case), just don't bother about it. There's no consensus and it won't lead you anywhere. – Enrico Brasil Feb 19 '16 at 18:12
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    @wuerling swedish, norwegian and danish with the their respective variants together form a continuum of dialects of the a common language. The difference isn't larger than the German spoken in the southern Germany and in the northern Germany. – user58955 Feb 21 '16 at 17:54

I'm going to assume that the question you want to ask are how mutually intelligible various 方言 actually are. This 2009 study by Chaoju Tang and Vincent J. Van Heuven has some data on it.

Here's the excerpted table on how mutually intelligible various 方言 are:

Word Classification: Word Classifying Test


Word Understanding: Word Understanding Test

You can read more on the methodology in the paper itself.

For comparison's sake this 1989 John B. Jensen study found that Spanish and Portuguese are

50-60% mutually intelligible at least as measured on...passive listening to electronically re-produced voices

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  • Here is an indication of how these measures of mutual intelligibility can work very differently than you would expect. Listeners from many regions understand Beijing speech better than their own region's. And, for example, on both charts Beijing listeners understand Taiyuan speakers better than Taiyuan listeners do. – Colin McLarty Feb 20 '16 at 6:46

There are always difficulties in classification. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language#Languages_and_dialects). Unintelligibility is one criterion, but there may be others, for example, the similarities in grammar, vocabulary, written forms, etc.

Some people and even linguistics DO consider Cantonese as a language, but in that way, Chinese will be a language family which consists of at least 8-9 major languages, where Mandarin is one of them.

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The misalignment of definition comes from misunderstanding of words.

From the very beginning of Chinese writing, writing is not word by word record of spoken, but specialized form of record eliminating any unnecessary redundancy. This makes Chinese writing more independent from actual pronunciation of languages and allows the evolution of languages without affecting Chinese writing much. It is no surprise that Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese has adopted it for a long time with this adaptable structure.

《方言》 is a book written nearly two thousand years ago, which means the words of various places (in the empire).

When Western linguistics was introduced in Chinese, "方言" was chosen to mean "dialect". While a dialect means a mutually understandable branch within a language, some perceives it is various speeches in China.

It is pretty tricky that while the Chinese writing is understandable across languages but the speakers of various languages are not mutually intelligible in daily life. The political issues on the unification and nationalistic climax of China causes widespread misinformation of 方言.

Nowadays linguistics agrees that they are Chinese languages and linguist groups them in a Chinese language family. Only those with no linguistics knowledge would still debate on the word 方言.

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