The terms Mandarin and Chinese are often used interchangeably but they’re not the same. It’s like saying milk is a dairy product. Yes, milk is dairy, but dairy isn’t always milk. The difference between Mandarin and Chinese is also like that.
“Chinese” is a family of languages that includes Mandarin
See here in more detail how to say “Chinese” in Chinese.
A more detailed explanation can be found below, but in short, Chinese consists (among others) of:
- Mandarin language, mainly spoken in Mainland China
- Cantonese, mainly spoken in the south of Mainland China in provinces like Guangdong, and in regions like Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan
- Some local dialects spoken in provinces
In Mainland China, even though people in Guangdong speak Cantonese, young people are also taught Mandarin in schools, so nearly all young peopl can speak Mandarin as well (even if with a small accent).
Then, there’s also the difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters. And it all gets mixed, kinda! But here’s an overview to keep it simple:
Chinese isn’t just one language
Some Chinese people think of Chinese as a single language with some variations and dialects, because all its speakers share a common culture and history. But many linguistics will divert Chinese into seven language groups, because they are as different as English is from German.
Mandarin, which is called Putonghua as well, is a standardized form of spoken Chinese based on the Beijing dialect. It is the official language of Mainland China. The most well-known dialect is undoubtedly Cantonese, which is commonly known as Guangdonghua. It is spoken within Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, Macau, and some areas in southeastern China. It is the official language in Hong Kong. Mandarin is by far the most widely spoken language, with up to 960 million speakers in China, while Cantonese is a relatively small language, with 80 million native speakers.
All groups of Chinese language are:
- Mandarin: By far the biggest language group. In this is Standard Chinese, also known as the Beijing Dialect (or simply known as ‘Mandarin’).
- Min: This is a very diverse language group, spoken in the coastal areas of Fuijian, Hainan and Taiwan.
- Wu: This group is spoken in and around Shanghai, in the surrounding provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui. It has a group of 80 million people native speakers.
- Gan: These varieties are spoken in the province of Jiangxi (and surroundings).
- Xiang: Spoken in Hubei and Hunan.
- Hakka: Spoken by in northeastern Guangdong and surroundings.
- Yue: This is a large group of languages that includes Cantonese, spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau.
Besides the main dialects, there are some other languages used by various ethnic groups. China is made up of 56 ethinc groups with over 90% of the population belonging to the majority group, Han. Many of the minority groups have their own language, such as Tibetan, Muslim chinese population (Hui), Mongolian, etc. However everyone learns Mandarin when they go to school since Mandarin is the official language all over China.
Most Chinese can understand Mandarin but not everyone can speak Mandarin well. For instance, most people in Guangzhou speak Mandarin with a very strong Cantonese accent, which might be pretty hard to understand for foreigners. Generally, northern dialects are much easier to understand than southern dialects. So If you plan on doing business in China or traveling around, Mandarin is the main language to learn.
See our explanation here if you’re looking how to say Chinese language in Chinese, because it’s not that simple.