S. Robert Ramsey's THE LANGUAGES OF CHINA is a survey originally published by Princeton University Press in 1987. China is an immense country with a rich linguistic heritage, and it is a challenge to cover even the basics adequately in a mere 340 pages. Ramsey does an admirable job, and this student of historical linguistics was thrilled to see such attention paid to the diachrony of many languages mentioned within.
The "Chinese language", the set of mutually unintelligible dialects belonging to Han people and descended from a relatively recent common ancestor, is by far the most widely-spoken in China, and Ramsey dedicates the first half of the book to it. He begins with a presentation of the historical debate over Han linguistic unification, with the northern dialects winning out over southern dialects like those of Shanghai and Guangdong. Since Mandarin has, for better or worse, been taken as the standard, it is the phonology, morphology, and syntax of Mandarin that Ramsey describes as representative of the entire language. Ramsey clearly wrote for a non-specialist audience, as he tries to debunk older Western myths that Chinese is somehow a "primitive" language due to its lack of inflection. The grammar of Mandarin here is splendidly full for just a few pages, though the debate over the use of the particle "le" isn't mentioned.
Ramsey's coverage of Chinese isn't, however, purely synchronic, for he also devotes space to the earlier stages of the language. He begins with an explanation of the Qieyun rhyming dictionary, the document compiled by Lu Fayan that, in spite of its faults, is our only useful source for the pronunciation of Middle Chinese. Ramsey then gives a colourful presentation of the life and work of Berhard Karlgren, the Swedish scholar who, by applying the comparative method to modern Chinese dialects, worked towards a phonetic reality for the mere algebraic relationships of the Qieyun dictionary. But this is not mere blind adulation, Ramsey does acknowledge Karlgren's faults and lists the younger scholars who followed him and improved on his theories. Ramsey also briefly mentions Old Chinese, the reconstruction of which is quite uncertain, and talks about some of the important changes from Middle Chinese to modern Mandarin.
The second half of the book deals with the many non-Han languages of China. First is the "Altaic family" spoken in the north of China, the Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages that may or may not be a valid genetic grouping, but which have significant typological similarities. Here again Ramsey gives abundant space to diachronic issues, showing how various modern languages each differ from their common ancestor. Writing systems, too, are covered. The languages of the south come next, including the Tai, Tibeto-Burman, Miao-Yao, and Mon-Khmer families, as well as unclassified or isolated languages. The story of how these languages have fared under Han domination is a major theme of the book.
If you have little bit of Mandarin under your belt (and you don't need a lot) and are interested in the linguistic diversity of this part of the world, THE LANGUAGES OF CHINESE is worth seeking out. This is especially true for historical linguistics curious about China. I can only wonder why it hasn't been reissued.