I am somewhat surprised to hear this as the CCP has spent so much time trying to minimize the official use of dialects in the past.  Although most educated people can speak Mandarin and most can understand it to some extent, many older people still are mono-dialectic and rural people tend to have a low level of education. 

While living in Shanghai, I often forgot that small children do not learn Mandarin until they go to school.  It was not unusual for children to come up to me and stare or try to speak, but it was almost always in Shanghainese (Shanghai hua), which I only knew a few words of.   This also made studying Mandarin in Shanghai difficult as I rarely heard it on the street, and most people who spoke it to me had Shanghai accents or mixed their dialect with Mandarin.

For those that do not know, the major Chinese dialects of Cantonese (Guangdong Hua), Shanghainese, Minan,  Hakka (Kejia hua), and Mandarin are about as far from each other linguistically as the Romance languages are from each other.  The rural is generally, the further from the Mandarin heartland (around Beijing) the more divergent the dialect.  This is not true in regions to the far West, that have been recently settled in mass by Han Chinese.  Dialects in China are a very strong part of the regional culture and identity and due to this there is a very strong resistance to using Mandarin in these regions when one does not have to.

Here is a much more detailed take on dialects in China.


China to survey dialects to better protect them
Tue Dec 18, 2007 9:46am IST
BEIJING (Reuters) – China will next year survey the thousands of dialects spoken in the country with an eye to protecting ones which are threatened with extinction, a state newspaper said on Tuesday.

The survey will also look at the influence of dialects on Mandarin, the official national language, and set up a database to record them, the China Daily said, quoting Li Yuming, deputy head of the state language affairs committee.

A focus will be the Shanghai dialect, “as it is one of the most popular”, the report said.

“As more and more young people in Shanghai use the dialect to communicate online, and as its vocabulary expands, it will be standardised and promoted as a distinct local language,” the newspaper added.

It did not say which dialects were on the verge of vanishing, but some languages spoken by small ethnic minorities such as the Hezhe and Oroqen are now spoken by very few people, the young having switched to Chinese.

Linguists say that many of what the Chinese government calls dialects — such as Shanghainese and Cantonese — are actually separate languages, with distinct words and grammar.

While they share a common writing system — although some dialect words cannot be written in standard Chinese — they are generally mutually incomprehensible.

The government estimates that only half the population can actually speak Mandarin, despite decades of intensive efforts to promote it as a form of social cohesion in the world’s most populous country.

It has previously taken a tough line on the public use of dialects, which has now been relaxed somewhat.

© Reuters 2006. All rights reserved