Chinese is spoken by about 1.3 billion people mainly in the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (a.k.a. Taiwan), Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia. There are also communities of Chinese speakers in many other parts of the world.
The different varieties of Chinese are known as 方言 (fāngyán), which is translated as 'regional languages', 'toplects', 'dialects' or 'varieties'. The English term dialect normally refers to more or less mutually intelligible varieties of a single language, though the distinction between dialects and languages is often for sociological and political reasons rather than linguistics ones. Chinese people generally refer to Chinese as a single language with a number of different dialects or varieties. As there is little mutual intelligiblity between the different varieties of Chinese and as a result, some non-Chinese linguists refer to them as separate languages.
A distinction is made in Chinese between spoken and written language. In China the written form of Chinese, which is perceived as being uniform throughout the country is referred to as 中文 (zhōngwén), while the terms 语 [語] (yǔ) or 话 [話] (huà) are used in the names of spoken varities of Chinese, e.g. Mandarin Chinese is known as 汉語 [漢語] (hànyǔ) = "Han language", or 普通话 [普通話] (pǔtōnghuà) = "common language" in China, and elsewhere it is refered to as 國語 [国语] (guóyǔ) = "national language" or 華語 [华语] (huáyǔ) = "Chinese language". The word 汉 [漢] (hàn) is used to refer to the Chinese people and comes from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD).
Chinese belongs to the Sinitic or Chinese branch of Sino-Tibetan language family. The modern varieties of Chinese all descended from Middle Chinese (中古漢語 [中古汉语]), which was spoken in China between about the spoken during Southern and Northern Dynasties and the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties (c. 5th - 12th centuries AD), and which developed from Old Chinese (上古漢語 [上古汉语]), which was spoken during the Shang and Zhou Dynasties and the Warring States Period (c. 1600-256 BC).
Varieties of spoken Chinese are traditional grouped into the following major groups:
- Guan / Mandarin (官话 [官話] guānhuà)
- Wu (吴语 [吳語] ng1nyiu2)
- Yue (粤语 [粵語] yuhtyúh)
- Min (闽语 [閩語] bân-gú / mìng-ngṳ̄)
- Hakka (客家話 [湘語] hak7ga1wa3)
- Xiang (湘语 [湘語] xiāngyǔ)
- Gan (赣语 [贛語] gànyǔ)