I mentioned China’s ethnic and linguistic diversity in a comment on Multi-ethnic communities – history’s lessons on Jim Belshaw’s blog the other day. I referred to the list Wikipedia gives. There is a map there, which I reproduce below. Click to enlarge.
We often forget this complexity, not surprising in such a large area. We also forget that Cantonese, spoken, and Mandarin are mutually incomprehensible, as different as Spanish and English. The Chinese writing system allows, however, written communication between the two, pronounced differently in each case. Some of the other language groups are not Chinese at all.
Unity has always been important to Chinese governments, so while there is a degree of recognition of this diversity at an official level there is strong objection to nationalist aspirations or “separatism” by the minorities, some of which are very large. In Europe many of them would have become separate countries long ago. Traditionally, periods when China has divided into smaller entities are regarded as periods of weakness.