In light of this question being hot on the meta now, my question is which languages/dialects/varieties are considered as 'Chinese language'? Obviously we include Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, etc. I'm wondering about languages such as Tibetan that are distantly related to Chinese and are used by minorities in China. The one question I found specifically about Tibetan seems to have survived a close vote for being off-topic. Nothing in the policy seems to specify how broadly we define 'Chinese language'.

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My opinion is that we should stick to the definition of Sinitic Languages, which is the most rigorous and politically neutral way to deal with the topic. And it echoes the title of the website.

The easy ones

As @dROOOze says, Sinitic languages are surely on-topic, as they are all branches of what is commonly referred to as "Chinese".

Languages with historical significance, as Middle Chinese and Old Chinese are also on-topic. In fact those are the necessary references for talking about the classics of Chinese literature, evolution of characters, philosophy, etc.

Many of those have tags on the main site. I think these are not controversial (in order of tag popularity):

  • (questions about the varieties of Chinese spoken in Taiwan. It should exclude native languages of Formosa, as those are Austroanesian)
  • (loosely related to Hong Kong Cantonese)
  • (used as an umbrella term for Wu)
  • (belongs to the Min branch)
  • (客家话)

The hard ones


As it stands now, it seems is the only non-Sinitic language that has a tag on the site, with 2 non-closed questions. (Which at this point we should probably close)

Tibetan is very borderline. It technically isn't a Sinitic language. However it's recognized as a regional language in the PRC, to which Tibet formally belongs amidst long-standing controversies or many sorts. However if the logic is "spoken within borders of the PRC", then Mongolian and Uyghur should be allowed too. And then again, the PRC is surely not the only representative of the Chinese language(s), so what about minority and non-minority languages in other places where a Chinese language is widely spoken?

So here we start getting into boiling hot waters. I would have to think twice before pressing the close button on a question tagged [tibetan].

My personal opinion about Tibetan, and other languages that randomly pop up here and there, is that it should be off-topic, just to avoid the hassle.


Deemed off-topic after a brief discussion. The question that sparked the discussion was eventually closed.

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an interim answer:

supposed, a person goes to learn english in united kingdom, what can one infer?

english (the writing system) & “british accent” (spoken & listen) would be most likely.

now, if someone argued that wales & scotland are “indivisible parts” of the u.k.; that the welsh & scots languages should be included in the “english languages”. then, learning english is to learn these three all together; alors, isn’t it absurd?

back to the chinese language, claiming that tibetan, mongolian, uyghurs & other minorities are “chinese nation” (中華民族); then ignoring their own cultures, religions & languages, and classifying their languages into “chinese languages”. imo, it’s unethical.

out of respect for all minorities, one should treat the chinese language (the writing system) as han-chinese character (hanzi, kanji, 漢字) only.


another approach to the read and write aspects of chinese language.

if, we treat it as chinese languages, let's see how many writing systems we would have (pdfs from the unicode consortium):

han-chinese characters (hanzi, kanji, 漢字) [pdf omitted]

tibetan (藏文) https://unicode.org/charts/PDF/U0F00.pdf

mongolian (蒙文) https://unicode.org/charts/PDF/U1800.pdf

yi syllables (彝文字母)https://unicode.org/charts/PDF/UA000.pdf

yi radicals (彝文部首)https://unicode.org/charts/PDF/UA490.pdf

fraser lisu (老傈僳文) https://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/UA4D0.pdf

pollard script (柏格理苗文) https://unicode.org/charts/PDF/U16F00.pdf

nüshu (女書) https://unicode.org/charts/PDF/U1B170.pdf

naxi (納西) http://www.unicode.org/L2/L2018/18338r-lisu-letter-yha.pdf

phags-pa script (八思巴文) https://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/UA840.pdf

tangut (西夏文) https://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U17000.pdf

Khitan Small Script (契丹小字) https://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U18B00.pdf

i omitted the written languages of manchu, uyghur and several others (not yet found a pdf for demo)

click the pdf to have a look of the diversity amongst these “chinese languages

quoted from comment:

To include Tibetan and other minority languages under the umbrella term "Chinese languages" can be construed as simply an acknowledgement of the fact that China is home to non-Han peoples.

well, another analog:

if one is learning tibetan in lhasa. however, he/she says “i’m learning chinese in lhasa”, with the reasoning that tibetan language is part of chinese languages.

isn’t it odd, & deceiving?

all minorities languages should be treated respectfully, they’re independent entities.

if one is learning tibetan, say it clear and loud: “tibetan”.

i checked certain books about chinese language, all treated the writing system as han-chinese character (hanzi, kanji, 漢字) only. none of them would suggest minorities' languages as "chinese languages"

robert morrison (馬禮遜)'s "A dictionary of the Chinese language" volume 1, part 1; printed in 1815


wilhelm lobscheid (羅存德)'s "english and chinese dictionary : with the punti and mandarin pronunciation"; printed in 1866


the introduction section of these two books are, very interesting, imo :)

joseph need ham (李約瑟)'s "science and civilisation in china" volume vii, part i; printed in 1998

i downloaded a pdf of this book a few months ago, from the internet archive; unfortunately, it's gone :(

for the spoken & listen aspects of chinese languages, please wait :)

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  • 2
    I don't think I buy your ethical argument. To call a language a Chinese language does not inherently ignore their own cultures etc. China is home to a lot of ethnic minorities. De facto and de jure they are all part of a Chinese nation, and with a few notable exceptions, this isn't a source of controversy. To include Tibetan and other minority languages under the umbrella term "Chinese languages" can be construed as simply an acknowledgement of the fact that China is home to non-Han peoples. – Dark Malthorp Sep 17 at 15:00
  • @DarkMalthorp, i stated it as “imo”, in my opinion 😸 may i ask, what do you think of the analog “english, welsh & scots language”? – 水巷孑蠻 Sep 17 at 15:07
  • I think it's a good analogy, but there's no question "Chinese language" is a broader term than "English language" - if we're going to stretch the reasoning from my previous comment, "Chinese language" meaning language spoken natively in China would be more like "British language", which can clearly encompass English, Welsh, or Scots, as those are all endemic to Great Britain. – Dark Malthorp Sep 17 at 15:10
  • Also, here's a potentially relevant anecdote: During my time in Qinghai I interacted with several Tibetans and I noticed an interesting fact, that Hans habitually referred to Mandarin as 中文 "Chinese language" whereas Tibetans referred to it as 汉语 "Han language". In addition, the Tibetans I spoke with seemed perfectly comfortable calling themselves Chinese people. All anecdotal of course, I have no idea how representative that is of Tibetans generally in Qinghai or in Tibet for that matter. – Dark Malthorp Sep 17 at 15:18
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    kokonor, 😿 those were the days 🎶 🎵 by the bye, have you consider learning tibetan in boudhha, kathmandu (2nd largest diaspora); or dharamsala, india 😻 – 水巷孑蠻 Sep 17 at 15:24
  • Your update is very helpful! I'm inclined to agree, but there's a little more nuance, since writing systems for even the Sinitic languages (Chinese in the usual sense) isn't just limited to 汉字, we also deal with pinyin questions. I assume also 小儿经 questions would be allowed, though none have been asked as of now. – Dark Malthorp Sep 18 at 12:25

Tibetan is very borderline. It technically isn't a Sinitic language

i made it as an answer, cause it's too long as a comment.

first of all, the tibetan script has 30 "basic alphabet" since mid-7th century.


then, about the end of tang (唐) dynasty, there's a 30 basic alphabets system to pronounce all syllables, which is supported by two dunhuang manuscripts unearthed in early 20th century: "歸三十字母例" (in london) & "守溫韻學殘卷" (in paris).

such system was evolved into a 36 basic alphabets system in sung (宋) dynasty, that's the book "韻鏡"


in qing (清) dynasty, there're opinions that the chinese 30 basic alphabets is imitated / inspired from the tibetan language.

a short read is in "royal preface" of the book "欽定音韻述微", page 3-4:



a long read is in the book "欽定同文韻統" volume 6:


further, some even suggested that the monk "守温" made the 30 basic alphabets system according to tibetan in amdo accent.


though i do not understand tibetan language; from what i read, i believe the phonology of middle chinese was influenced by tibetan language.

so, for questions about tibetan, give it a wider margin :)

my two cents :)

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