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I recall an incident that occurred once in (Mainland) China, which I found puzzling and intriguing.

It was in Zhengzhou, I think. There was some kind of sales activity where people were being given freebies, if they would come up in front of everybody and sing a song "in Chinese". I don't recall why there was that qualification because apart from me everybody in the vicinity was a local.

Anyway, somebody got up and sang a few bars of a Hong Kong pop song. But he didn't get a prize, "because I said in Chinese and you sang in Cantonese". The exact words more or less were 我说的是中文歌而你唱的是广东话.

I found this really puzzling and asked about it later. It seemed to me unquestionable that Cantonese was a form of Chinese, it certainly wasn't 外语 so why did the person say that Cantonese wasn't Chinese?

I was given to understand that Mandarin is Chinese because it applies to the whole of China but Cantonese, whatever its origin and relation to Mandarin, is only a regional speech, not in use throughout China, and only belonging to Southern China, whereas Mandarin belongs to all of China.

My question is, was this person's point of view an idiosyncracy or would most Chinese agree. If you are a native speaker, would you call Cantonese "Chinese" or not? And why?

Edit: changed title to reflect actual words used, as the English word "Chinese" maps to multiple Chinese terms, with different implications

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9 Answers 9

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There is no serious dispute that, in linguistic and general usage, Cantonese is a Chinese language in English, or 汉语 in Chinese.

The question is that 中文 and 华语/华文, while generally synonyms of 汉语, can carry different connotations or even has semantically narrowed in some cases.


First as a disclaimer, as a native speaker of Mandarin (northeastern China), I am biased towards my own usage/experience and the usage I am used to, which is necessarily incomplete give the size of China and other Chinese-speaking territories. I will first give my first impressions about this question, then clarify where I can find support from other sources.

My first impressions:

  • "我说的是中文歌而你唱的是广东话" sounded awkward to me, but it was not clear why.
  • "我说的是汉语歌而你唱的是广东话" does not sound awkward to me; but I would have immediately registered it as an incorrect statement.

Similarly, while I would say of course to "粤语是汉语", I have to think and feel I have no choice but to accept "粤语是中文" as true.


Although here I cannot discern the difference clearly, there are clear usage differences between 中文 and 汉语 in many cases (at least in my experience): for example, you would almost always say "中文" when referring to the Chinese version of a website or book.

As the last character indicate, 中文 may put a little bit of emphasis on the written system of Chinese languages, which nowadays, in relatively formal settings, overwhelmingly correspond to the current standard variety, Mandarin. This does not preclude 中文 from being used for the oral language though, e.g. there is nothing wrong with saying 中文歌 or 中文频道。In the latter case (中文频道, Chinese channels), most TV or radio branded with 中文 would be using Mandarin. The meaning of 中文 has narrowed in some cases compared to 汉语 such that you would expect Mandarin for 中文 since 中文 is more widely used and in many usage the standard Chinese is implied by the term.

Semantic narrowing does not have to be logical or technically correct! It is common for absolute synonyms to acquire different specialized meanings or connotations for both to remain in common usage. For example, "meat" in English used to refer to all food; "man" used to mean (and still mean in some cases) all persons, not just adult males


Going back to the incident in the question, there is another point to make.

There was some kind of sales activity where people were being given freebies, if they would come up in front of everybody and sing a song "in Chinese". I don't recall why there was that qualification because apart from me everybody in the vicinity was a local.

I would think that they specified "Chinese" as opposed to English or another foreign language. The Chinese variety spoken in Zhengzhou is Mandarin. So while they said Chinese, they expected Mandarin. Whether Cantonese is Chinese or not is not a question people usually think about. They probably just wanted to hear something they or most of the audience could understand.

In the context of music particularly, Cantonese music (especially pop) is a very popular and distinct genre of music. While you will see 华语 is often used to refer to Chinese and "technically" lexically equivalent to 中文 (中/华+语/文), 华语歌 in my experience overwhelmingly refers to Mandarin songs.

In this context, some people may also have a narrowed sense of what count as 中文歌, since they may consider Cantonese songs to be sufficiently distinct as a group. This is a well-known source of semantic narrowing and can often happen in special cases (Macs are personal computers, too).

While I think 95%+ of Mandarin speakers would agree 粤语是汉语, I would expect a significant amount of Mandarin speakers who would not agree that 粤语歌是中文歌 at first sight, even if they may agree with the statement after brief reflection (or not so brief).


I apologize that the answer is disorganized, but I also hope to share that the relationship between various dialects/topolects/languages in the group of written and oral systems of communications commonly known as Chinese is... complicated. The usage and connotations of words are also hard to discern.

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  • Thanks for an in-depth and detailed answer! Commented Feb 6 at 18:32
  • If 我说的是中文歌而你唱的是广东话 sounds awkward that may be because I don't recall the exact words. It was definitely about whether 广东话 met the qualification of 中文歌 though. Commented Feb 6 at 18:36
  • Speaking of 汉语, I've only encountered this in an academic context. There is 汉语水平考试 and I had a textbook once called 现代汉语 but I don't recall anyone actually using this term in ordinary life. Commented Feb 6 at 19:49
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    Also I recall one of my teachers telling us in class that 中文 properly only refers to written Chinese and 说中文 is technically incorrect even though people do use it this way. Which would mean, strictly speaking, asking someone to sing a song in 中文 is an impossibility and neither the Cantonese singer nor anybody else ought to have gotten a prize! Commented Feb 6 at 19:52
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    @Kphysics Cantonese is not a dialect of Mandarin, neither is Xiangyu; no serious person claim Cantonese is a dialect of Mandarin, even in Mainland: many people may mistakenly or for lingo-political reasons say Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese, but no one actually argues that Cantonese is a dialect of Mandarin. I don't understand the relevance to your original comment and my reply. The language spoken in most of Henan, and certainly in Zhengzhou, is Mandarin. Yes I've been there, and yes I can understand them, with difficulty, but it is still Mandarin.
    – xngtng
    Commented Feb 8 at 16:18
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Wiktionary, in its entry on 「中文」, says this (uncited) in its 2nd and 3rd definitions:

中文

  1. (Mainland China, Taiwan, proscribed) Mandarin
  2. (Hong Kong, Macau) Cantonese

In Sense (2), the proscribed note is very important. It basically means that in Mainland China and Taiwan, the word 「中文」 is commonly interpreted to mean Mandarin, and not any other variety of Chinese, hence the reaction from the organiser; this is in spite of authorities' recommendation against interpreting 「中文」 as Mandarin rather than the more general idea of Chinese.

Sense (3) matches my experience with Cantonese speakers - when a conversation is conducted in Cantonese, 「中文」 in a spoken sense means Cantonese, not Mandarin.


To sum up:

  • Cantonese is definitely a variety of Chinese, nobody can seriously contest this. The English word "Chinese" broadly refers to any member of the Sinitic languages.
  • The situation you observed basically reveals differences in people's understanding of common words due to different cultural or social conditions. If left to evolve on their own for a long time, cognates eventually become false friends with shared etymology. A more extreme example is the unqualified word 「國語」; this word:
    • Is not really used in Mainland China;
    • Is the most common way to refer to "Mandarin" in Taiwan;
    • Among Chinese-speaking Malaysians, it refers to the Malay Language;
    • In Japanese and Korean, it refers to the Japanese and Korean languages, respectively;
    • In Vietnamese, it refers to the Vietnamese alphabet.
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    I would add that in HK and Macau, Chinese predominantly is used in contrast to English/Portugese. The predominant Chinese variety there is Cantonese.
    – xngtng
    Commented Feb 6 at 14:13
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    I think you’re mixing up prescribed and proscribed. Prescribed means what you describe: it’s taught and considered correct by official standards, but may not reflect actual usage. Proscribed means it’s considered to be incorrect by some authorities, so in this case it would mean that 中文 was not taught to refer specifically to Mandarin, and that such a usage would be considered incorrect by some unnamed authority. Commented Feb 7 at 3:10
  • @JanusBahsJacquet whoops - thanks for the correction! That changes the interpretation a bit, but it still means a large swathe of the population thinks 中文 = Mandarin.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Feb 7 at 3:23
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    Can confirm Sense 3: in all Cantonese conversations I've had, 中文 means either spoken Cantonese or written Chinese (depending on the context), rather than spoken Mandarin.
    – yawnoc
    Commented Feb 9 at 3:07
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Cantonese is one of many Chinese dialects, Mandarin is also one of many Chinese dialects. The difference is Mandarin is the current official language of the entire China.

And yes! Cantonese is a Chinese language!

The exact words more or less were 我说的是中文歌而你唱的是广东话.

广东歌 is also a kind of 中文歌. Mandarin is the representative of the Chinese language but it is not the only Chinese language

You can ask the same question replacing Cantonese with another Chinese dialect, my answer would be the same: "XX dialect" is also a Chinese language

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  • That's exactly what I've always thought! Commented Feb 6 at 2:02
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    It is like the modern representative of "weapon" is the handgun, but you can't say only a handgun is a weapon and a knife is not
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Feb 6 at 2:22
  • There are multiple answers to this question, depending on whether you answer from the point of view of "historical national identity" where language was not a unifying component, or "present day political identity", where language is. An American citizen could often speak Mandarin socially, but when asked what is American, linguistically, the answer has to be "English", linguistically speaking. So, ask a mainland Chinese, (ethnically Cantonese or Hakka), what is his national language, the answer has to be Mandarin or Putonghua. He would not say Cantonese or Hakka. Commented Feb 6 at 6:50
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    I would add that Mandarin, Cantonese and various other Chinese dialects are all spoken languages which share the exact same written language. The Chinese characters are all the same Chinese but they can be read out aloud in either Mandarin or Cantonese or any other dialect.
    – quarague
    Commented Feb 6 at 10:00
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    @quarague That's not correct. Speakers of all Chinese languages are encouraged from school age to write in Modern Standard Chinese (現代標準漢語) across Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. They don't usually write their own language in education and official communications, but they do exist; see e.g. Yue Wikipedia (粵文維基百科), Wu Wikipedia (吳語維基百科), and Gan Wikipedia (贛語版本嗰維基百科).
    – dROOOze
    Commented Feb 6 at 18:14
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Cantonese is Chinese.

After that being said, when somebody says "Chinese" in Mainland China, it is automatically assumed that Chinese refers to putonghua, particularly outside of Guangdong.

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  • Could it be that there is another name for Chinese which is more inclusive of dialects, but 中文 is intended to mean "Standard Chinese"? Commented Feb 6 at 2:09
  • I am not aware of any such terms. Don't forget there are literally thousands of dialacts spoken in China. Cantonese is one of the biggest ones, sure. What about Chaozhou-ise? It's pretty big as well. Then there are sub-dialacts of these dialacts. I know a sub-dialact of Cantonese that sounds distinctly alien to your "standard" Cantonese. Commented Feb 6 at 2:23
  • 中文 is intended to mean "Chinese language"
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Feb 6 at 2:30
  • @fat penguin Sub-dialects of Cantonese are still Cantonese. They are also a Chinese language
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Feb 6 at 2:35
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    @fatpenguin No, ‘Scottish’ (aka [Scottish] Gaelic, pronounced to rhyme with ‘Gallic’) is a separate language belonging to the Goidelic branch of Insular Celtic languages. ‘Scottish English’, however, is English. ;-) Commented Feb 7 at 3:14
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As a native Hongkonger, I can tell you that a local schoolkid would say "I can speak Chinese and Mandarin" or "我識講中文同普通話" for which Chinese/中文 means Cantonese in the local context.

But logically, 中文 is not a language you can speak. Literally it refers to the written language (文), not the spoken language (語). Therefore whether Cantonese is 中文, I would say no. But whether Cantonese is a Chinese, that should be yes.

Similarly speaking, if that happens in Zhengzhou, it is understandable that Chinese is exclusively Mandarin.

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"中文" certainly includes Cantonese.

To add an authority: In ISO 639 for example, there is the macrolanguage Chinese (3-letter code zho, presumably from "中文"). Under zho are 16 groups of Sinitic languages. Two of these groups are Mandarin Chinese and Yue Chinese.

So, at least by ISO 639, Yue Chinese (Cantonese) is no less Chinese or "中文" than Mandarin Chinese.

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  • All native languages used by the native people in the territory of China can be categorized as 中文 . Commented Feb 7 at 8:33
  • What about Uighur or Zhuang? Commented Feb 8 at 19:30
  • @河南宝宝: The Uighur language is uig in ISO 639 and separate from Chinese zho. The Chinese languages are in the Sino-Tibetan family, while Uighur is in the Turkic family. // The Zhuang macrolanguage is zha in ISO 639 (again also separate from Chinese). The Zhuang (or Tai) languages are in the Kra-Dai family (which also contains Thai and Lao).
    – user103496
    Commented Feb 9 at 2:15
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Cantonese is Chinese.

He just don't want to give out prize and finding excuse, such action is common practice here in my home town in China. If the men used Putonghua, he will probably ask for Zhengzhou dialect and so on. The keys is to attract people for more sales and afterward they can say they have fired the men doing this and reputation is back too.

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Technically it is an accent of Chinese that, as it clearly uses Chinese characters but on a vastly different context, despite the pronunciation system have some differences, it is still considered coherent most of the time.

It's actually quite simple to find parallels around the world -- Just think about Cantonese to (Mandarin) Chinese as Quebec French to Metropolitan French (the real French in Europe).

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Mandarin is满族话, not Chinese汉语, which is the language of Han people. Canton means 广东 in French, but has been mistakenly used for 广州 for a long time. 华语 is a word acceptable to all Chinese around the world. 华 is actually a word that is hard to define.

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    满族话 is Manchurian, not Mandarin. Manchurian is a completely different language (not even in the Sino-Tibetan family).
    – user103496
    Commented Feb 7 at 4:28
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    Canton is indeed from 广东 (gwong2 dung1) but through the Portuguese Cantão, not French.
    – user103496
    Commented Feb 7 at 4:35
  • @user103496 As Guangdong and Guangxi, or the Double Guangs两广, were the colony of France in the 19th century, so it was very likely Canton derived from French but not likely from Portuguese. The sphere of influecne of Portugual from that time till 1999 was in Macao, a very small island with small population. Commented Feb 7 at 8:29
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    The name Cantão or Canton obviously arose centuries before the 19th. Since their first contacts with China in 1513, the Portuguese called the city of Guangzhou, 'Cantão' ('Canton') icm.gov.mo/rc/viewer/20033/1289
    – user103496
    Commented Feb 7 at 9:17

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