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Whilst most of China is quite culturally and ethnically diverse, there are significant areas especially on the coast and river plains which are mostly Han Chinese. These provinces are also united by a strong central government for much of their history, and did not spend any significant amount of time divided since the start of the Song Dynasty. Yet, they remained linguistically divided for centuries until the Communist Party declared that everyone should speak Putonghua/Guoyu/Mandarin, and even then local dialects are still very popular in the south. As an example, my family emigrated from China in the 1930s and can only speak a dialect known as Hakka, whilst my colleagues in Guangzhou are more comfortable with Cantonese than Mandarin.

I can understand why different ethnic groups have different dialects, but why is their a difference in the Han Chinese themselves? Presumably the coastal and river cities would be heavily involved in commerce with each other, necessitating a common language? Yet Guangzhou and Beijing speak differently. Why?

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    You are kind of asking an unanswerable question which solicits theories that are a matter of opinion, not historical facts. – Tyler Durden Mar 5 '15 at 19:57
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    ...I really don't think this is a matter of opinion, there are facts which lead up to the present day status quo, the fact that China is linguistically divided didn't magically happen and the histories of each dynasty are quite well recorded. The opinions you are looking for are if I asked "What is the MAIN REASON...", not "Why?". – Evil Washing Machine Mar 5 '15 at 21:19
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    I believe this is more of a Chinese language question than a history one (maybe try Chinese Language or Linguistics stacks). The only implied history question I see is "why did no one attempt to linguistically unite China before the communists" - which is a faulty premise anyway. – congusbongus Mar 5 '15 at 23:23
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    "The entirety of China is culturally and ethnically very similar" is only true in the same sense that the entirety of Europe plus North Africa/Turkey is "culturally and ethnically very similar to each other". i.imgur.com/OEdxvnE.gif – Semaphore Mar 6 '15 at 0:33
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I'm not an expert in either Chinese language or culture, but I know that there is discussion about whether Chinese has so many dialects or if those are different languages that share a common writing system.

Prior to the spread of telecommunications (e.g., radio, television) and automobiles, there was no way to transmit audio on such a broad scale. I expect that the central government encouraged the use of a common writing system, but each area read it their own way. For the most part, the government didn't have to worry about how the words were said so long as they read the same way.

Dialects form with small groups of people that are mostly separated from each other. Even with a short 150 years, America developed a large number of dialects of English. England and Japan had a much longer period of time to do the same thing.

With the spread of telecommunications came the implied need for the language to sound the same or, at least, for people to be able to understand a "standard" accent. The greater range of motion afforded by an automobile also helped dialects merge with each other. "Going to the big city" is now a day trip, not necessarily the move of a lifetime.

I expect that the common writing system, regardless of pronunciation, explains why you will see some Chinese programming with Chinese subtitles. Even today, the media provides a "crutch" for Chinese-speakers who don't understand Mandarin Chinese.

  • This is IMHO mostly the answer. It isn't that there was a wide area that was all different languages that was conquered and failed to jell. More like there was a wide area settled by Sinitic-speakers, whose dialects slowly drifted apart. Much like the proto-Indo Europeans. – T.E.D. Mar 6 '15 at 2:05
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Despite appearances the “Han Chinese” don’t really conform to the stereotype of an ethnic group. The fact that they speak diverse local languages is just one aspect of this.

South-central China can be divided into a number of regional systems, each typically centered around the drainage basin of a major river, that do not correspond to administrative divisions. G. William Skinner pioneered the study of these macroregions, although we should note that he was primarily interested in economic and social relations, not linguistic ones.

In the introduction to an innovative study of the history of Hakka migration and ethnicity in the Lingnan region by Sow-Theng Leong, Skinner notes that speech group boundaries and regional ones line up:

For the most part, each of the major speech groups of southeastern China dominated one macroregional or subregional core. In the Lower Yangzi, it was Wu speakers of the Taihu subgroup. In the Ou-Ling subregion of the Southeast Coast macroregion, it was Wu speakers of the Oujiang subgroup. The core areas of the other three subregions of the Southeast Coast were each dominated by a distinct Min-speaking group: Hokchius in the Min basin, Hokkiens in the Zhang-Quan subregion, and Teochius in the Hanjiang basin. For the rest, Cantonese dominated the regional core of Lingnan, Gan speakers that of the Gan Yangzi, and Xiang speakers that of the Xiang basin subregion of the Middle Yangzi. Of all the major cultural/linguistic groups of South-Central China, only the Hakkas had no substantial drainage basin of their own. (p.3)

The Hakkas were the exception because their heartland was actually a mountainous area peripheral to several river systems. In the early Qing period, they migrated in large numbers to several different areas that were expanding economically, but by the 19th century changed economic conditions and overpopulation led to conflict between immigrant Hakkas and the core speech group (Cantonese in the Lingnan region, for example.) This conflict took on an ethnic character, so we could actually say that the speech groups within what is now called “the Han Chinese” behaved like ethnic groups in some ways. Yet according to Leong, there wasn’t much in the way of pan-Hakka solidarity across regions, even when the Hakkas in, say, Lingnan banded together for self-defense in the face of Cantonese discrimination.

So generally, linguistic/ethnic divisions within the “Han Chinese” can be explained by looking at regional systems within China.

Reference: Sow-Theng Leong, Migration and Ethnicity in Chinese History: Hakkas, Pengmin and their Neighbors (Stanford UP 1997)

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