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Languages in Yunnan

Most dialects of the Chinese language spoken in Yunnan belong to the southwestern subdivision of the Mandarin group, and are therefore very similar to the dialects of neighbouring Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. Notable features found in many Yunnan dialects include the partial or complete loss of distinction between finals /n/ and /ŋ/, as well as the lack of /y/. In addition to the local dialects, most people also speak Standard Chinese (Putonghua, commonly called "Mandarin"), which is used in the media, by the government, and as the language of instruction in education.

Yunnan's ethnic diversity is reflected in its linguistic diversity. Languages spoken in Yunnan include Tibeto-Burman languages such as Bai, Yi, Tibetan, Hani, Jingpo, Lisu, Lahu, Naxi; Tai languages like Zhuang, Bouyei, Dong, Shui, Tai Lü and Tai Nüa; as well as Hmong–Mien languages.

The Naxi, in particular, use the Dongba script, which is the only pictographic writing system in use in the world today. The Dongba script was mainly used to provide the Dongba priests with instructions on how to carry out their rituals: today the Dongba script features more as a tourist attraction. Perhaps the best known Western Dongba scholar was Joseph Rock.

The Cultural Rhythm of Yunnanese Dialect

It's a common misconception abroad that Chinese people speak one unified national language. Dazhai locals, and hundreds of millions of their Chinese brethren living all across this enormous country, speak Yunnanese dialect (fangyan), and sometimes Mandarin with quite a heavy accent. The words, tones, and grammar are often quite different from Mandarin. There appears to be little subtlety with which ideas are expressed in Yunnanese dialect, that is to say that it's a no-nonsense language. Of this, however, I'm sure I am mistaken. To my untrained ears, at least, it always seems like there is some sort of dispute going on between whomever happens to be speaking dialect in my vicinity. It's an aggressive language that seems to end each sentence in a burst of energy and emotion. The way the locals speak reflects the culture in which they inhabit. With little to no modern luxuries or leisure time, these hard-working people like to get to the point pretty quickly. Nobody seems to have the time or the energy to pontificate using impractical pleasantries like you might hear in the big city or from speakers of British English, French, Portuguese, or some other nicer sounding language.


Having basically achieved a certain level of fluency in Mandarin Chinese, it's quite daunting for Tom and I to face the prospect of relearning the language several times over so we can be fluent in all the dialects we've encountered. (My favorite, Sichuanese dialect, is probably my favorite only because it's kind of cute sounding, and Sichuan also happens to have millions of cute women who naturally speak cutely in their mother tongue.) So instead of attempting multi-dialect fluency, especially when attending say, dialect-only meetings, we choose ignorance. Now more than ever, I believe in the famous saying, "ignorance is bliss". Being able to feign total cluelessness when we hear dialect affords us a set of unusual rights. For example, Tom and I are the only ones who have a good excuse to pay absolutely zero attention during school meetings. The principal or some other figurehead will drone on about this or that and we can read books and play Sudoku in plain sight. Not that being able to understand what's being said stops the local teachers from not paying attention... Anyways, playing the stupid foreigner card is an important strategy to remember whenever and wherever one finds themselves in China.

Southwestern Mandarin (simplified Chinese: 西南官话), also known as Upper Yangtze Mandarin (simplified Chinese: 上江官话), is a primary branch of Mandarin Chinese spoken in much of central and southwestern China, including in Sichuan, Yunnan, Chongqing, Guizhou, most parts of Hubei, the northwestern part of Hunan, the northern part of Guangxi, and some southern parts of Shaanxi and Gansu.

Varieties of Southwestern Mandarin are spoken by roughly 200 million people.[citation needed] If removed from the larger "Mandarin Chinese group", it would have the 6th-most native speakers in the world, behind Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi, and Bengali.


Modern Southwestern Mandarin was formed by the waves of immigrants brought to the regions during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Because of this comparatively recent move, these dialects show more similarity to modern Standard Mandarin than to languages like Cantonese or Hokkien. For example, like most southern Chinese languages, Southwestern Mandarin does not possess the retroflex consonants (zh, ch, sh, r) of Standard Mandarin, but nor does it retain the entering tone, as most southern languages do. The Chengdu-Chongqing and Hubei dialects are believed to reflect aspects of the Mandarin lingua franca spoken during the Ming Dynasty. However, some scholars believe its origins may be more similar to Lower Yangtze Mandarin.

Though part of the Mandarin language group, Southwestern Mandarin has many striking and pronounced differences with Standard Mandarin, such that until 1955 it was generally categorized alongside Cantonese and Wu Chinese as a group of non-Mandarin dialects.

Southwestern Mandarin is the common language in the (Han-Chinese majority) Kokang district in Northern Myanmar. Southwestern Mandarin is also one of two official languages of the Wa State, an unrecognised autonomous state within Myanmar, alongside Wa language. Because Wa language has no written form, Chinese is the official working language of the Wa State government.



Most Southwestern Mandarin dialects have, like Standard Mandarin, only retained four of the original eight tones of Middle Chinese. However, the entering tone has completely merged with the light-level tone in most Southwestern dialects, while in Standard Mandarin it is seemingly randomly dispersed among the remaining tones.

Tones of Southwestern Mandarin Dialects
NameDark-LevelLight-LevelRising toneDark-
Entering toneGeographic Distribution
SichuanChengdu dialect˥ (55)˨˩ (21)˦˨ (42)˨˩˧ (213)light-level mergeMain Sichuan Basin, parts of Guizhou
Luzhou dialect˥ (55)˨˩ (21)˦˨ (42)˩˧ (13)˧ (33)Southwest Sichuan Basin
Luding Countydialect˥ (55)˨˩ (21)˥˧ (53)˨˦ (24)dark-level mergeYa'an vicinity
Neijiang dialect˥ (55)˨˩ (21)˦˨ (42)˨˩˧ (213)departing mergeLower Tuo River area
Hanzhong dialect˥ (55)˨˩ (21)˨˦ (24)˨˩˨ (212)level tone mergeSouthern Shaanxi
Kunming dialect˦ (44)˧˩ (31)˥˧ (53)˨˩˨ (212)light-level mergeCentral Yunnan
Gejiu dialect˥ (55)˦˨ (42)˧ (33)˩˨ (12)light-level mergeSouthern Yunnan
Baoshan dialect˧˨ (32)˦ (44)˥˧ (53)˨˥ (25)light-level mergeWestern Yunnan
HuguangWuhan dialect˥ (55)˨˩˧ (213)˦˨ (42)˧˥ (35)light-level mergeCentral Hubei
Shishou dialect˦˥ (45)˩˧ (13)˦˩ (41)˧ (33)˨˩˦ (214)˨˥ (25)Southern Hubei (Jingzhou)
Hanshou dialect˥ (55)˨˩˧ (213)˦˨ (42)˧ (33)˧˥ (35)˥ (55)Northwestern Hunan(Changde)
Li County dialect˥ (55)˩˧ (13)˨˩ (21)˧ (33)˨˩˧ (213)(light) ˧˥ (35)Northwestern Hunan(Changde)
Xiangfan dialect˧˦ (34)˥˨ (52)˥ (55)˨˩˨ (212)light-levelNorthern Hubei
Guilin dialect˧ (33)˨˩ (21)˥ (55)˧˥ (35)light-levelNorthern Guangxi, Southern Guizhou, parts of Southern Hunan
Changsha dialect
(New Xiang)
˧ (33)˩˧ (13)˦˩ (41)˦˥ (45) ~ ˥(55)˨˩ (21) ~ ˩(11)˨˦ (24)


Southwestern Mandarin dialects do not possess the retroflex consonants of Standard Mandarin, but otherwise share most Mandarin phonological features. Most have lost the distinction between the nasal consonant /n/ and the lateral consonant /l/ and the nasal finals /-n/ and /-ŋ/. For example, the sounds "la" and "na" are generally indistinguishable, as well as the sounds "fen" and "feng". Some varieties also lack a distinction between the labiodental sound /f/ and the glottal /h/.


Southwestern Mandarin has been classified into twelve dialect groups:

Chengyu 成渝 (Chengdu and Chongqing)

Dianxi 滇西 (western Yunnan): Yaoli 姚里 and Baolu 保潞 clusters

Qianbei 黔北 (northern Guizhou)

Kungui 昆貴 (Kunming and Guiyang)

Guanchi 灌赤 (southwest Sichuan and northern Yunnan): Minjiang 岷江, Renfu 仁富, Yamian 雅棉, and Lichuan 丽川 clusters

Ebei 鄂北 (northern Hubei)

Wutian 武天 (Wuhan)

Cenjiang 岑江 (eastern Guizhou)

Qiannan 黔南 (southern Guizhou)

Xiangnan 湘南 (southern Hunan)

Guiliu 桂柳 (northern Guangxi: Guilin and Liuzhou)

Changhe 常鹤 (Northern Hunan: Changde)

Though traditionally considered a form of Xiang, New Xiang is linguistically Southwestern Mandarin.

Kunming dialect

The Kunming dialect (simplified Chinese: 昆明话) is an official[clarification needed] dialect of Southwestern Mandarin Chinese. Luo Changpei describes it as having "simple phonemes, elegant vocabulary, and clear grammar. "


The beginnings of the Kunming dialect are closely linked with the migration of the Han Chinese to Yunnan. The differences between "old" Kunming dialect and the "new" dialect began in the 1940s. In the aftermath of the Second Sino-Japanese War, large numbers of refugees from the north of China and the Jiangnan region fled to Kunming, with profound effects for the politics, economy and culture of the city. This large influx of outsiders also had an influence on the local dialect, which slowly developed into the "new" Kunming dialect.

The tones, pronunciation, and lexicon are distinct between Northern Mandarin and Kunming dialect.


The Kunming dialect’s basic vocabulary exhibits a high degree of consistency with northern Chinese and standard dialects. Although words in the Kunming dialect typically possess substantial differences in pronunciation from their counterparts in standard Mandarin and can be unintelligible even to other Chinese speakers, a large portion of the dialect’s morphology and word meanings are identical to those of other northern dialects. The Kunming dialect also preserves an exceptionally high number of classical Chinese words. In particular, a number of phrases dating from northern literary works produced during the Yuan and Ming dynasties remain in common usage in the Kunming dialect’s popular vernacular despite having virtually disappeared from usage in northern China.

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