01 July, 2007:
Any talk of Chinese language inevitably leads to the question of dialect. As a result, there are many misconceptions about the situation of dialects in China. The most basic of these misconceptions is that there are two dialects: Mandarin and Cantonese. These are the dialects that everyone talks about, and for many people outside of China, it seems that most Chinese speak one or the other. Another misconception is the more frustration notion that every slight variation in speech constitutes a dialect.
A major source of confusion is the fact that the word "dialect" is difficult to define. Sometimes people refer to Cockney or Scots English as dialects, and sometimes they are referred to as accents. Portugese and Spanish are very similar, but they are always referred to as languages and not "dialects of Iberian Romance" (probably because that is an overly complicated phrase). The linguist Max Weinrich came up with the most convincing definition: "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy."
By Weinrich's definition, China has only one language: Chinese, or 汉语 han4yu3. This language has seven major dialects (including Mandarin), but they share a common history and a common written language. In fact, the differences between Chinese dialects are as great as the differences between Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.). Like Romance languages, the modern dialects all descended from a common proto-language. Unlike Romance languages, the speakers remained a united nation throughout their history instead of fighting with each other and dividing up along linguistic lines.
The information in this section should shed more light on the dialects of China. Click on one of the links before to learn more.