Margaret Mian YAN

The Min dialect group is the most divergent and complicated of China’s seven major languages. At least six Min subdialect groups exist.

Min is a geographic short term for “Fujian Province” in China. It is named after the largest river “Min jiang” 闽江 in the province. Chinese dialectologists have used Min for decades as a linguistic term refering to the Min dialects. Among the seven major Chinese languages—Mandarin, Min, Wu, Yue, Gan, Hakka, and Xiang—the Min dialect group is the most divergent and complicated. Because Fujian is a mountainous province with few navigable rivers and little arable land, its topography has contributed both to the heterogeneity of the dialects and also to migration of people to other parts of China and overseas.

Before the 1960s, when dialect data were scant, the Min dialect group was roughly divided into two subgroups: Minnan (Southern Min) and Minbei (Northern Min). But studies done in the 1990s showed that at least six Min subdialect groups exist: Minbei (Northern Min), Minzhong (Central Min), Minnan (Southern Min), Mindong (Eastern Min), Puxian, and Shaoning. (See table 1.) Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible.

TABLE 1 Speakers of Min Subdialects

Minnan group 34.7 million
Mindong group 7.5 million
Puxian group 2.3 million
Minbei group 2.2 million
Shaojiang group 745,000
Minzhong group 683,000
Source: Zhang Zhensheng. (1989, 54–59).

Fuzhou Dialect

The Fuzhou dialect is a characteristic Mindong dialect whose speakers number more than 1 million and who are found not only in Fuzhou but also in Southeast Asian communities. The Fuzhou dialect, like other Chinese dialects, has differences in literary and colloquial readings for some lexical items but for fewer lexical items than is the case in Minnan (Southern Min).

Fuzhou has fourteen initial consonants (p, p’, m, t, t’, n, l, ts, ts’, s, k, k’, ng, x), seven vowels (i, u, y, a, ε, œ, o), seven tones, and just one paired-consonant ending: –ng/-q. The velar nasal ng may occur alone and forms a syllabic nasal.

The Fuzhou dialect has a unique sound sandhi (sandhi is a term used to describe changes in the sounds of adjacent words), a phenomenon that is rarely found in other Chinese dialects. In words consisting of two syllables, not only does the tone of the first syllable undergo tonal value change, but also the consonant initial of the second syllable undergoes an assimilation change according to the articulation of the coda (syllable ending) of the preceding syllable. For example, the word for “movie” is composed of two syllables: The first syllable, tieng 6, means “electric”; the second syllable, ing3, means “shadow.” Together the two syllables create the compound word tieng2nging3, whose first-syllable tone and second-syllable consonant initial have changed.

At times not only the consonants but also the main vowels of the second syllables undergo sound sandhi and become different vowels or diphthongs (gliding monosyllabic speech sounds that start at or near the articulatory position for one vowel and move to or toward the position of another).

Fuzhou also has some grammatical features that differ from Mandarin (China’s national language). For example, in Fuzhou, for animal terms with a gender modifier, the gender modifier follows the head noun. That is, “male dog” is pronounced k’eing6xyng3 (dog-male), whereas in Mandarin the gender modifier precedes the head noun: xiong2gou3 (male-dog). This feature is shared by other Min dialects and other southern Chinese dialect groups such as Yue and Hakka. Another example is the presence of a perfective aspect marker to indicate completed action. The phrase “I have seen” in Fuzhou is nguai3ou6k’ang2 (“I have seen”), whereas in Mandarin it is wo3kan4le (“I see [aspect]”), where [aspect] is a verbal category indicating that an action is viewed as completed or in progress.


Native speakers of Minnan dialects are found not only in Fujian Province but also in the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Guangdong, Hainan Island, and Sichuan, and as well in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Taiwan. Minnan speakers are also found overseas in the Chinese communities of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Singapore. Minnan dialects have more than 30 million speakers; Amoy, which is spoken by more than 510,000 people, is representative of the group.

Every Chinese dialect has the phenomenon of literary and colloquial readings of characters. The Amoy dialect is known for having the most characters with both readings. The literary form is used only in reading the written language and when using a person’s formal name, whereas the colloquial form is used in all other oral communications. The difference between the literary and the colloquial pronunciation is so great that they can be treated as two parallel phonological (relating to the science of speech sounds) systems. For example, in literary Amoy the word blood is pronounced hiat7, whereas in colloquial Amoy it is pronounced hui7.

Both literary Amoy and colloquial Amoy have six oral vowels (i, e, a, u, o, and ô), but colloquial Amoy has an additional five nasalized vowels (in, en, an, un, ôn). Literary Amoy has sixteen consonants (p, p’, b, m, t, t’, l, n, ts, ts’, s, k, k’, g, h, and ng); colloquial Amoy has one more consonant, the glottal stop, q, which occurs only in syllable final position. The stops p, t, k, and their counterpart nasals m, n, and ng can occur both in the syllable initial and final positions, whereas the other consonants can occur only in initial positions. The nasals m and ng can occur alone as syllabic syllables.

The Amoy dialect has seven basic tones. In both literary Amoy and colloquial Amoy, whenever a compound word or a phrase consists of two or more syllables, the syllables preceding the last one must undergo tone sandhi except when the last syllable is an atonic word (or an enclitic, meaning associated with a preceding word). For example, the word for “soy sauce” is the combination of tau6, meaning “bean,” and iu2, meaning “oil.” The compound word is pronounced tau5 iu2.

Some of the grammatical features that set Fuzhou apart from Mandarin are also characteristic of Amoy. For example, like Fuzhou, Amoy’s gender markers for animals follow rather than precede the animal. Word order in some compound words is also reversed. For example, in Amoy “guest” is lang6 k’eq7 (people-guest), whereas in Mandarin “guest” is ke4 ren2 (guest-people). Amoy also uses a prefective marker to show completed action.


The Jian’ou dialect, with more than 437,000 native speakers, is a representative subdialect of the Minbei (Northern Min) dialect group. It is spoken by people in the northern part of Fujian Province. It contains fourteen initial consonants (p, p’, m, t, t’, n, l, ts, ts’, s, k, k’, x, ng), nine vowels (i, u, y, e, ε, œ, a, o, ô), six tones, and one consonant ending (-ng). Because of its adjacency to the Mindong dialect area, it shares some phonological features withFuzhou. For example, both have rounded front vowels (y, œ), more diphthong main vowels, and only one nasal ending (-ng).


Yong’an is a representative subdialect of the Minzhong (Central Min) dialect group, which is surrounded by Minbei dialect to its north, Minnan to its south, Mindong to its east, and Hakka to its west. It has both Min and Hakka dialect features. Native speakers of Yong’an number about 265,000. It has sixteen initial consonants (p, p’, m, t, t’, n/l, ts, ts’, s, tš, tš’, š, k, k’, x, ng), ten oral vowels (i, Ï, u, û, y, e, ø, a, o, â), four nasalized vowels (in, on, an, un), and six tones. It contains two consonant endings, bilabial nasal –m and velar nasal –ng. The bilabial nasal m may occur alone as a syllabic syllable.


The Puxian dialect (莆仙方言 Puxian fangyan) is spoken between Minnan and Mindong. Thus, it shares some linguistic features with Minnan and Mindong. Puxian is representative of this dialect group. Its native speakers number almost 1.5 million. It contains fourteen initial consonants (p, p’, m, t, t’, n, l, L [voiceless l], ts, ts’, k, k’, h, ng), eleven vowels (i, u, y, e, ε, ø, œ, a, o, ô, A), and six tones. It has two consonant endings, velar nasal –ng and glottal stop –q. The velar nasal may occur alone as a syllabic syllable. Puxian has sound sandhi similar to Mindong and a colloquial and literary system similar to that of the Minnan dialect.


Shaoning dialect 邵宁方言 (Shaoning fangyan) is spoken by people in the northwest part of Fujian Province. Shaowu is representative of this dialect group. Its native speakers number just more than 258,000. It is adjacent to Minbei to the east, Gan dialect (in Jiangxi Province) to the west, and Hakka dialect group to its south. Its status has been controversial for years, with some scholars claiming that Shaowu is a Min dialect, whereas others claim it is a Hakka dialect. Based on the historical sound changes and dialect specific lexicon, it currently is considered to be a hybrid dialect, a mixture of Hakka-Gan and Min. Shaowu has nineteen initial consonants (p, p’, m, f, v, t, t’, n, l, ts, ts’, s, tš, tš’, š, k, k’, x, ng), eight vowels (i, Ï, u, û, y, a, o, ë), and six tones. It has two consonant endings: an alveolar nasal –n and a velar nasal –ng. The velar nasal may occur alone as a syllabic syllable.

Further Reading

Norman, J. (1988). Chinese. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Pan Maoding, Li Rulong, Liang Yuzhang, Zhang Shengyu, & Chen Zhangtai. (1963). Fujian Hanyu fangyan fenqu lueshuo [A brief account of the geographical distribution of the Fujian dialects]. Zhongguo Yuwen, 6, 475–495.

Ramsey, S. R. (1987). The languages of China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ting Pang-hsin. (Ed.). (1999). Contemporary studies on the Min dialects. Journal of Chinese Linguistics Monograph Series, No. 14.

Wang, William S.-Y. (Ed.). (1991). Languages and dialects of China. Journal of Chinese Linguistics Monograph Series, No. 3.

Yan, Margaret Mian. (2006). Introduction to Chinese dialectology. Munich, Germany: Lincom Europa.

Yuan Jiahua, Xie Zili, Zheng Huaxiong, Xiang Xi, Xiong Zhenghui, He Gengfeng, et al. (1960). Hanyu fangyan gaiyao [An outline of the Chinese dialects]. Beijing: Wenzi Gaige Chubanshe. (2nd edition published in 2002, Beijing: Yuwen Chubanshe)

Zhan Bohui. (1991). Xiandai Hanyu fangyan [Modern Chinese dialects]. Taipei, Taiwan: Xinxueshi Wenjiao Chuban Zhongxin.

Zhang Zhensheng. (1989). Minyu de fenbu yu renkou [The distribution and population of Min dialects]. Fangyan, 1, 54–59.

Source: Yan, Margaret Mian (2009). Min. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1471–1473. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Min (Mǐn fāngyán 闽方言)|Mǐn fāngyán 闽方言 (Min)

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