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Chinese is a group of related but in many cases mutually unintelligible language varieties, forming a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Chinese is spoken by the Han majority and many other ethnic groups in China. Nearly 1.2 billion people (around 16% of the world's population) speak some form of Chinese as their first language.
The varieties of Chinese are usually described by native speakers as dialects of a single Chinese language, but linguists note that they are as diverse as a language family. The internal diversity of Chinese has been likened to that of the Romance languages, but may be even more varied. There are between 7 and 13 main regional groups of Chinese , of which the most spoken by far is Mandarin (about 960 million), followed by Wu (80 million), Yue (60 million) and Min (70 million). Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible, although some, like Xiang and certain Southwest Mandarin dialects, may share common terms and some degree of intelligibility. All varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic.
Standard Chinese (Putonghua/Guoyu/Huayu) is a standardized form of spoken Chinese based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin. It is the official language of China and Taiwan, as well as one of four official languages of Singapore. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. The written form of the standard language , based on the logograms known as Chinese characters , is shared by literate speakers of otherwise unintelligible dialects.
Of the other varieties of Chinese, Cantonese (the prestige variety of Yue) is influential in Guangdong province and is official in neighboring Hong Kong and Macau, and is widely spoken among overseas communities. Southern Min, part of the Min group, is widely spoken in southern Fujian, in neighboring Taiwan (Taiwanese/Hoklo) and in Southeast Asia (Hokkien). Hakka also has a sizeable diaspora in Taiwan and southeast Asia. Shanghainese and other Wu varieties are prominent in the lower Yangtze region of eastern China.
Chinese can be traced back to a hypothetical Sino-Tibetan proto-language. The first written records appeared over 3,000 years ago. As the language evolved over this period, the various local varieties became mutually unintelligible. In reaction, central governments have repeatedly sought to promulgate a unified standard.
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