CHINESE DIALECTS AND LANGUAGES
English article for more China is better described as a nation fragmented by a maze of dialects and languages than a country unified by a common tongue the way the United States is by English. In addition to the languages spoken by China’s 55 ethnic minorities, the Han Chinese, who make up 911 percent of the population of China, speak 1,500 dialects with the bulk of them spoken in the southern half of the country. There are over 500 dialects in Fujian Province alone.
The official language of China is standard Chinese or Mandarin (Putonghua, which means standard speech, based on the Beijing dialect). It is the world's most widely first spoken language and is the native language of the Han people. Other major dialects are Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghaiese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, and Hakka (Kejia). Mandarin, Shainghaiese, Cantonese and Sichuan are all regarded as dialects of Chinese although some linguists categorize them as distinct languages. Because of the many ethnic groups in China, numerous minority languages also are spoken. Many provinces have their own official languages such Mongolian in Inner Mongolia, Zhuang in Guanxi and Tibetan in Tibet.
“No one can clearly answer the question how many dialects there are in China,” Zhang Jongmin, a professor of Chinese linguistics at the University of Wisconsin, told the New York Times. “The degree of difference among dialects is much higher than the degree of difference among European languages.” In 2007, Beijing announced it would do a survey of China’s thousands of dialects, with the goal that better understanding them and help preserve them. They survey will also examine the effect of these dialects on Mandarin and take a close look at the Shanghai dialect, because it has become very popular with young people communicating online, with aim of standardizing and promoting it as a distinct language.
All of the Chinese dialects share a common written form that has evolved and been standardized during two millennia and serves as a unifying bond amongst the Han Chinese. The government has aggressively developed both shorthand Chinese and Pinyin (phonetic spelling) as ways to increase literacy and transliterate Chinese names. The Pinyin system was introduced in 1958 and was approved by the State Council in 1978 as the standard system for the romanization of Chinese personal and geographic names. In 2000 the Hanyu (Han language) Pinyin phonetic alphabet was written into law as the unified standard for spelling and phonetic notation of the national language.
Rodney Mantle wrote: Difficulties encountered by the BBC World Service when broadcasting in Chinese illustrate significant differences between Mandarin and Cantonese associated with writing as much as with speech: Uniquely among the vernacular services, the BBC Chinese Section has to cope with two languages in one. In principle written standard Chinese is one language. In practice (quite apart from pronunciation problems), the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin can mean that scripts translated by Mandarin speakers may be difficult for Cantonese speakers to read for the microphone without recourse to the English original; and scripts translated by Cantonese speakers often present even more difficulty for speakers of Mandarin [Source: Rodney Mantle , ‘Speaking with One Voice in Thirty-Seven Languages’, The Linguist, 29: 6, 1990; Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press 1998]
Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Language.org chineselanguage.org ; Learning Chinese Chinatown Connection ; Omniglot omniglot.com ; learnchinesepod.com ; Pleco Chinese dictionairies pleco.com ; Haiwang Yuan homepage people.wku.edu Romanisation ay Pinyin Info: pinyin.info Chinese Pod chinesepod.com; etymological dictionary zhongwen.com character etymologies hanziyuan.net ; Translation Service chinesetranslationpro.com ; Chinese Language sites: sites.uni.edu/becker ; Rosetta Stone series rosettastone.com ; Clavisinica clavisinica.com ; China Sprout chinasprout.com; Sound and Pronunciation of Chinese Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection
Dying Languages in China
According to the New York Times: “The publication Ethnologue identifies almost 300 living languages in China, half of them on the edge of the abyss as Mandarin, the nation’s official language, continues to subsume minority tongues. Among those under pressure, 20 have fewer than 1,000 speakers, according to the website The World of Chinese. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, January 11, 2016]
According to the United Nations, nearly 100 Chinese dialects, many of them spoken by China’s 55 recognized ethnic minorities, are in danger of dying out. Efforts are also underway in Shanghai, as well as in Jiangsu and five other provinces, to create databases as part of a project under the Ministry of Education to research dialects and cultural practices nationwide. [Source: Emily Feng, Sinosphere, New York Times, November 24, 2016]
Are Chinese Dialects Languages or Dialects?
Some think Chinese is best seen as a family of languages, with the major dialects better categorized as separate languages. The spoken varieties of Chinese are usually considered by native speakers to be variants of a single language. Due to their lack of mutual intelligibility and the fact they are just as diverse, if not more so, than the Romance languages of Europe, linguists often classify them as as separate languages in a language family. Chinese is the native language of the Han people as well as the Huis and Manchus. [Wikipedia]
The official view that these dialects are all variations of a common language is a view shaped more by politics than linguistics. In many ways they are grouped as same language as a way of uniting the Chinese and because they use the same written language. Many linguists regard Cantonese and Mandarin and some other dialects as being different enough from each other to be classified as separate languages.Stevan Harrell wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”:“For essentially political reasons, both the People's Republic of China on the mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan consider Chinese to be a single language consisting of a series of dialects (fangyan or "local Speeches")., but nearly all linguists agree that several of these are best classified as separate languages, since they are mutually unintelligible and differ greatly in phonology and vocabulary, though only slightly in syntax. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]
The majority of Chinese speakers, including most inhabitants of the Yellow River drainage and parts of the Yangtze drainage as well as southwestern China, speak one of the dialects collectively known as Mandarin. Other important Chinese languages include Wu in eastern China, Gan in most of Jiangxi Province, Xiang in most of Hunan Province, Yue or Cantonese in the far south and overseas, Min in Fujian and Taiwan as well as overseas, and Hakka or Kejia in a widely dispersed series of communities mainly in the south and overseas. Many of these groups are themselves highly differentiated into mutually unintelligible local dialects; the Min-speaking areas of Fujian, in particular, are known for valley-by-valley dialect differences. |~|
China, much like the African continent, had an enormous array of languages and dialects. On why the Chinese government insists on calling them dialects rather than languages, David Moser, the author of “A Billion Voices,” a book about the creation of modern Chinese, told the New York Times: “The Chinese situation is exactly the same as other places on earth — Africa, Europe, too. But Chinese wanted to unify the nation. It’s a matter of political realities. The Roman Empire broke up into different countries. Had China broken up, suppose Mao had not unified it, we would be looking at something like Europe — with a ‘Guangdonia’ and ‘Shandonia’ or ‘Sichuania’ [derived from Guangdong, Shandong and Sichuan Provinces] with their own language and dialects. The difference is that China considers this country a unified political and cultural entity, and therefore, ‘We’re going to call these things dialects.’ You can’t call them languages, because that would imply they are different regions.” Moser, who is the academic director at CET, a Chinese language program in Beijing, has a Ph.D. in psycholinguistics and Chinese, and has lived in China for more than 30 years. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Sinosphere, New York Times, May 27, 2016]
Han Linguistic Diversity
Han Chinese (who make up 91 percent of the population of China) are distinguished by the linguistic diversity. The spoken forms of their different dialects vary as widely as the languages of Europe. Han Chinese speak seven or eight mutually unintelligible dialects, each of which has many local subdialects. Even so all Han use a common written form of Chinese and share common social organization, values, and cultural characteristics that are recognized as Chinese. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “The Han Chinese are linguistically homogeneous in the north, where they speak Mandarin (the basis of the national language, known as putonghua, of China), while in the south Cantonese, Wu, Hakka, and many other dialects are spoken (some 108 dialects are spoken in Fujian province alone). Putonghua is spoken as a first or second language by roughly half of the population. The written language is universal; Chinese ideographs are common to all the dialects. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]
Dru C. Gladney wrote in the Wall Street Journal,The supposedly homogenous Han speak eight mutually unintelligible languages (Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Southern Min and Northern Min). Even these subgroups show marked linguistic and cultural diversity. In the Yue language family, for example, Cantonese speakers are barely intelligible to Taishan speakers, and the Southern Min dialects of Quanzhou, Changzhou and Xiamen are equally difficult to communicate across. The Chinese linguist Y. R. Chao has shown that the mutual unintelligibility of, say, Cantonese and Mandarin is as great as that of Dutch and English or French and Italian. Mandarin was imposed as the national language early in the 20th century and has become the lingua franca, but, like Swahili in Africa, it must often be learned in school and is rarely used in everyday life across much of China. [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009, Dru Gladney is president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College]
Hometown Speech and Ancestral Languages in China
In a review of the book “Language Diversity in the Sinophone World”, Ashley Liu wrote: “Speakers of ‘Mother Tongues’ in Multilingual China: Complex Linguistic Repertoires and Identity Construction,” by Sihua Liang, challenges the notion of “mother tongue” and demonstrates that in Guangzhou, ethnolinguistic identities and perceived ancestry often obfuscate what one considers to be one’s “mother tongue.” She argues that the “meaning of mother tongue is socially and historically constructed and highly context-dependent”. [Source: Ashley Liu, University of Maryland, MCLC Resource Center, March, 2021; Book:“Language Diversity in the Sinophone World: HistoricalTrajectories, Language Planning, and Multilingual Practices” edited by Henning Klöter and Mårten Söderblom Saarela (London: Routledge, 2020)]
As someone born and raised in Guangzhou, I can testify to the fact that the question of “mother tongue” confuses many people from Guangzhou. Even among those who speak Cantonese at home, it is very common to have an “ancestral” language—referred to in Cantonese as hoeng haa waa — from other parts of Guangdong province that differs significantly from and can even be mutually unintelligible with the Cantonese of Guangzhou and Hong Kong..
Taking my linguistic background as an example, the Cantonese side of my family’s hoeng haa waa is that of the Zengcheng region, which is only a few hours from Guangzhou; when they converse in the language of Zengcheng, which can probably be seen as a variety of Cantonese, I can barely understand it. For many local speakers, it might even be unclear if their presumed “mother tongue” refers to the Cantonese of Guangzhou or a hoeng haa waa from another region in Guangdong. To illustrate this issue, Liang offers the example of someone with a perceived ancestry in Chaozhou and the Teochew language culture; despite being a second-generation immigrant in Guangzhou who needs to put in conscious effort to maintain his ability to speak Teochew, he sees Teochew as key to identifying his ‘“hometown speech”’. In my experience, having another cultural-linguistic identity from a region within Guangdong is different from having one from somewhere outside Guangdong, as the former does not conflict with a Cantonese identity in the same way as the latter.
Different Dialects and Sub-Dialects in China
Chinese — if viewed as a single language — is made up of six major dialects, or eight “big” dialects, depending on who you talk to, and several "small" dialects. Among the major dialects are Mandarin, Shainghaiese (also known as Wu), Cantonese (Yue), Fuzhou (Minbei), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, Hakka and Sichuanese.The major dialects are further broken into several dozen subdialects. In China there are also 55 minorities. Most have their own languages. Some have more than one language. Some have their own written languages.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “Spoken Chinese falls into two major groups, separated roughly by a northeast-southwest line running from the mouth of the Yangtze River to the border of Vietnam. North and west of this line are the so-called Mandarin dialects, based on the Beijing dialect and known as putonghua ("common language"). The most important dialect south of the linguistic divide is that of Shanghai, the Wu dialect spoken in the Yangtze River Delta. Hakka and Hokkien are dialects of the southeastern coastal province. Cantonese, the Yue dialect spoken in southern China, is the language of the majority of Chinese emigrants. Others include the Minbei or Fuzhou dialect, the Xiang, and Gan dialects. Mandarin Chinese was adopted as the official language of China in 1955. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Canton, Guangdong province and southern Guangxi. It has nine tones , numerous colloquial expressions and has an earthy "din" sound that often sound like shouting to outsiders. Other important dialects (“languages”) include Wu spoken in Shanghai and eastern China; Gan spoken in Jiangxi Province; Xang used in most of Hunan Province; and Min used in Fujian and Taiwan. Wu and Mandarin have lexical similarity of only 31 percent, roughly the same as between English and French. The northeastern accent is often adopted by comedians. Thank you is pronounced “xie xie” in Beijing; “do jey” in Hong Kong and ‘sha zha” in Shanghai. “How much is it?” is “wa tsui gim” in Fujian but “duoshao qian” in Mandarin-speaking northern China. “Mr. Xi" is pronounced Mr. Shoe in the Mandarin north and Mr. Ko in Fujian.
Wu, which includes Shanghainese and several other sub-dialects from the Yangtze River delta region in East China, is the second main dialect group after Mandarin with about 100 million speakers. Third is Cantonese (Yue), native to China’s southeastern coastal areas around Guangdong (Canton). It is main dialect for some 80 million people in China and, due to the fact that many Overseas Chinese emigrated from this region is widely spoken among overseas Chinese. Next is the Xiang (Hunanese), dialect group of south-central China and mother dialect for some 65 million speakers. After that comes Min, the language and dialect group native to Fujian and Hainan and parts of Taiwan. There are 1,500 sub-languages and -dialects in this group, which , is the first language for around 60 million people. Next comes the Hakka (Kejia) dialects, the first language of about 50 million Chinese scattered across Guangxi and Fujian Provinces but also — due to historical emmigration patterns — is well represented in Taiwan, Hong Kong and in Yunnan and Sichuan. Hakka’ means ‘guest people’. The last major dialect in Gan, the first language of about 30 million Chinese in Jiangxi, Hubei and parts of Hunan. Mandarin, Wu and Gan are somewhat mutually intelligible with careful listening, but the other groups are not. [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
There are other dialects spoken by millions of people On the Wuhan dialect, a Xinhua reporter wrote: When I first step on the soil of Wuhan, the capital city of Central China's Hubei Province, a humid wind from the Yangtze River, noisy crowds and the Wuhan dialect immediately surround me. It seems impossible for visitors to understand Wuhan dialect, but I enjoy watching local people heaving the words in an up-and-down tone. Once I noticed a Wuhan local talking on the phone, his cadenced tone reminded me of Huangmei Opera, a local opera from Huangmei, Hubei Province. Learning local dialect is one of the joys of traveling, but, try as I might, I only learned a few words. Fortunately, Mandarin and English go along way in Wuhan's increasingly globalized streets.” [Source: Xinhua, May 13, 2009]
Within the dialects there are sub dialects and colloquialisms. Mo lei tau, for example, is a kind of Cantonese nonsense speak that relies heavily on improvised slang and outrageous puns. In tiny Datian country, a 2,000 square kilometer region in rural central Fujian, no fewer than five dialects are spoken along with Mandarin. Even in this small place people who speak different dialects are unable to communicate with each other except in very broken Mandarin. When asked if he could speak with people in the next village, one Datan resident told the New York Times, “I have no idea what they speak. Those people talk too fast.” Many renowned Chinese writers used different dialects in their works to add local flavor. For example, Jia Pingwa wrote his Qin Opera with a lot of obscure dialect and idioms of Shaanxi province, and nearly all of Beijing writer Wang Shuo's novels have strong marks of the Beijing dialect, which make the works vivid and amusing.
Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Guangzhou (Canton) , Guangdong province and southern Guangxi. The first language about 60 million people, it has numerous colloquial expressions and has an earthy "din" sound that often sound like shouting to outsiders. According to Time Out Hong Kong: In Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Guangdong, “Cantonese is generally celebrated as being a richer and more colloquially expressive spoken language than Putonghua (Mandarin). It has nine tones, as opposed to Putonghua’s four. Chinese is written in traditional characters in Hong Kong, but these have been simplified on the Mainland to make the language easier to read and write. The upshot of that is, sometimes, the historic or poetic meaning of the character is lost — the quintessential example being that to simplify the traditional character for ‘love’ you need to remove one major part, the character for heart. “Even a lot of the colloquial words we say every day go back to the Ming Dynasty,” explains Fiona Lee. “There are poems written with that character. I guess the idea that Cantonese is colloquial is so deeply rooted that people don’t realise it goes back 1,000 years.” [Source: Time Out Hong Kong, July 8, 2015]
“Ng Kap-chuen is a local illustrator who shot into the public consciousness last year with his intricate cartoon Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs, which depicts 81 proverbs used only in Cantonese. One of the famous proverbs he drew is ‘ghost hitting the back of your neck ’, which is equivalent to ‘spilling the beans’ or ‘letting the cat out of the bag’. The illustrations became widely popular and went viral on social media. “We have to make people proud of speaking Cantonese again,” Ng tells us of his inspiration.
In mainland China, Cantonese gained a coolness factor due to its association with Hong Kong’s entertainment industry. The city’s film and music production took off in the 1980s and 1990s, just as China was opening up to the world. Hong Kong stars likes Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui became household names, and families close to the Hong Kong border could watch dramas broadcast by TVB, the city’s major television network.
“Cantopop has had a significant influence in China and the rest of Asia ever since its birth in 1974. Non-Cantonese speaking Chinese enjoyed Cantopop regardless of whether or not they could understand the lyrics. They were interested in learning about Hong Kong’s music scene and becoming fans of the city’s artists. Even Faye Wong, one of China’s most treasured artists came from Beijing to Hong Kong to develop her career.
“Almost all Hong Kong movies made in the 1980s were done in Cantonese. The Cantonese movie brand was one of quality, and kung fu movies were popularised in both the East and West. There was a wave of film tourism, with visitors coming to Hong Kong to visit the locations of their favorite movies. According to a recent research project done by HotelClub, 172 Hong Kong movies were filmed in Cantonese in 1992. By 1997, as the handover approached, this number had dropped to under 100 for the first time in two decades.
Cameron L. White wrote in Quartz: Cantonese is called a “dialect,” implying that it somehow a subset of Mandarin. The difference between the two is vast, a fact that’s impressed on me twice a week at my Cantonese night class for Mandarin speakers. My classmates come from all walks of life, and include a doctor, a nun, and an expectant mother. Despite being “native Chinese speakers,” they struggle just as much as I do. Cantonese has different grammar, and a unique peppering of English loan words. 1) Bus is “basi” in Cantonese and “gonggong qiche” in Mandarin; 2) Counter is “kaangta” in Cantonese and “guitai” in Mandarin; 3) Tip is “tipsi” in Cantonese and “xiaofei” in Mandarin. 4) Boss is “bosi” in Cantonese and “laoban” in Mandarin. [Source: Cameron L. White, Quartz, June 26, 2017]
Ah To, a graphic designer and part-time cartoonist concerned about the survival of Cantonese, published a comic called ” The Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs” contains illustrations of 81 Cantonese proverbs. It is inspired the 1559 painting “Netherlandish Proverbs” by Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel. [Source: Cantonese Resources, writecantonese8.wordpress.com February 25, 2014
Some of the 81 Cantonese Proverbs are
1) “To pick up a dead chicken” — Take advantage of a situation
2 "Hang up a sheep’s head and sell dog meat — Try to palm off something.
3) "A big stone crushes a crab” — An unequal contest
4) “Spilled a basket of crabs” — Messy; troublesome
5) ”To boil telephone congee” — Talk for hours on the phone.
6) ”Winter melon and tofu” — Emergency or crisis
7) ”A pot hanged upside down, implying that there is no rice left” — Poor, penniless
8) ”An umbrella with broken handle” — Refuse to admit one is in the wrong
9) “To catch crabs on a hill” — Next to impossible
10) “A ghost covers one’s eyes” — Fail to see something
11) “Loose string monkey” — A very naughty child
12) “A monkey got a tangerine” — Someone discoveres treasure after looking very hard.
13) “A ghost eats mud” — Slur one’s words
14) “To watch a horse fight from the top of a fort” — Observing from the sidelines
15) “An elephant flies across the river” — Break a rule
16) “To pull up the planks after crossing the bridge” — Betray one’s friends once one is safe
17) “When there are no shoes, grab the clogs and run” – To withdraw hurriedly from an awkward situation
18) “Got hold of the deer but can’t get the horn” — Unable to make best use of an opportunity.
19) “To eat slippers rice” — a man who is supported by a woman, i.e. he can keep his slippers on, because he doesn’t have to work; a man who sponges off a woman
20) Eat from a bowl and then turn it over” — Betray a friend.
21) “To throw a flying sword” — Spit
22) “Hitting everyone on a boat with a punt pole” — blame a whole group for one person’s mistake.
23) The black dog gets the food, the white dog gets the punishment” — One person benefits from their wrongdoing, while another person gets the blame.
24) “Water enters a pig basket” — Different ways of making money
25) “To masquerade as a ghost and as a horse” — Play a role to deceive somebody
26) “If you have money, you can make a ghost push a millstone” — Anything is possible iwith money;
27)“To trick a ghost into eating tofu” — Lure someone into a trap
28) “To throw a paper airplane” — Break a promise
29) “A big tree has some dead branches” — There are good and bad people in every group
30) “Even the Buddha gets inflamed” — You’ve reached the limit
31) ”Such a big frog hopping around the street” — Too good to be true
32) “To ride an ox looking for a horse” — Working one job but looking out for a better one
33) “One chicken dies, one chicken crows” — When one person leaves a business or an occupation, another will take it up.
34) “A mouse pulls a turtle” — At one’s wits’ end
35) “A doorless chicken coop” — A place where you can come and go as you wish.
36) “The chickens are fighting inside the coop” — Dissent within an organization, factional fighting
37) “Draw an ear on the wall” — Ignored advice
38) “To scrape the door nails” — Arrange a meeting and have the other person not show up
39) “Water off a duck’s back” — Forget a lesson learned
40) “A damp firecracker” — Useless
Shanghainese was once the dialect for the entire Yangtze region. Despite the fact it still has around 14 million speakers, the Chinese government has actively been discouraging its use in schools since 1992. A 2012 survey by Shanghai’s Academy of Social Sciences found four in 10 school students in the city couldn’t speak Shanghainese at all. [Source: Time Out Hong Kong, July 8, 2015]
Daniel Ren wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Shanghai dialect, which differs from Putonghua in its tones and vocabulary, was once essential to learn for an outsider hoping to live in the city. Non-locals living in Shanghai tried to grasp the dialect because the natives would look down on them if they spoke Putonghua [Mandarin] in shops, restaurants and offices. The local dialect also used to be a symbol of Shanghai chauvinism and was partly to blame for the city's fraught relationship with other parts of the country. In other mainland cities, people would be upset if two Shanghai people spoke the dialect in public. [Source: Daniel Ren, South China Morning Post, February 9, 2013 /*/]
“For a long time, Shanghai people referred to those from other parts of the mainland as "country folk", reflecting the sense of superiority among Shanghainese who lived in the mainland's most affluent city. Unlike people in Guangdong, who insist on Cantonese's superiority because it has a richer linguistic history than Putonghua, educators in Shanghai suggest that outsiders learn Shanghainese because a command of the local dialect will make them more confident residents of the city. /*/
Decline and Comeback of Shanghainese
Daniel Ren wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Pessimistic linguists and cultural experts have warned that Shanghainese, a dialect that few people from other parts of the country understand, is showing signs of dying out as Putonghua and English gain ground amid an influx of mainland and global talent...The Shanghainese-speaking population has been decreasing since 1985, when a new law was introduced requiring local schools to adhere strictly to teaching in Putonghua as part of a policy of promoting linguistic unity. [Source: Daniel Ren, South China Morning Post, February 9, 2013 /*/]
“The role of the Shanghai dialect was further dented in the 1990s when the city stepped up its efforts to become a world-class metropolis. Shanghai people attributed the declining popularity of the local dialect to the booming economy, with thousands of other mainlanders and expats moving to the city. A study by Shanghai's Academy of Social Sciences found that only 60 percent of pupils in local primary and junior middle schools were able to speak the local dialect. Only a few were fluent and anecdotal evidence showed that some children of native parents were not able to speak a single word of Shanghainese. As the local dialect fades away, worries about the threat its decline poses to Shanghai's unique culture are mounting among locals.
In Shanghai, some schools teach in Shanghainese rather than Mandarin. Daniel Ren wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Even as Shanghai strives to be a more international city, locals insist that its unique dialect must be saved to preserve its cultural identity. Their increasing awareness of the need to protect their dialect has been reflected in the success of Shanghai comedian Zhou Libo, whose Shanghai-dialect talk shows over the past four years have struck a chord with millions of locals. [Source: Daniel Ren, South China Morning Post, February 9, 2013 /*/]
“Revered and reviled, Shanghai dialect is making a comeback among youth City's educated youths are rediscovering the linguistic heritage of their haughty local tongue In 2011, a group of young people, mostly university students, launched a campaign to promote the local dialect. The group, called Hu Cares, gathers at the People's Square every week, calling on people to preserve the Shanghai dialect. The word Hu is the short form of Shanghai in Chinese. Their efforts attracted the attention of local education authorities, who introduced the dialect in music and art lessons in the September semester and provided students with new textbooks featuring poems and folk songs in Shanghainese. As Shanghai tries to preserve its cultural identity, it must strike a balance between local pride and its international ambitions. /*/
Emily Feng wrote in the New York Times’s Sinosphere: To the untutored ear, the Beijing dialect can sound like someone talking with a mouthful of marbles, inspiring numerous parodies and viral videos. Its colorful vocabulary and distinctive pronunciation have inspired traditional performance arts such as cross-talk, a form of comic dialogue, and “kuaibanr,’’ storytelling accompanied by bamboo clappers. [Source: Emily Feng, Sinosphere, New York Times, November 24, 2016]
“The dialect’s most marked characteristic is its habit of adding an “r” to the end of syllables. This, coupled with the frequent “swallowing” of consonants, can give the Beijing vernacular a punchy, jocular feel. For example, “buzhidao,’’ standard Chinese for ‘‘I don’t know,’’ becomes “burdao’’ in the Beijing dialect. “Laoshi,’’ or “teacher,” can come out sounding “laoer.”
“In the 1930s, China’s Republican government began defining and promoting a common language for the country, referred to in English as Mandarin, that drew heavily, but far from completely, on the Beijing dialect. The Communist government’s introduction of an official Romanization system in the 1950s reinforced standardized pronunciation for Chinese characters. These measures enhanced communication among Chinese from different regions, but also diminished the relevance of dialects.
“The dialect is a testament to the city’s tumultuous history of invasion and foreign rule. The Mongol Empire ruled China in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Manchus, an ethnic group from northeast Asia, ruled from the mid-17th century into the 20th. As a result, the Beijing dialect contains words derived from both Mongolian and Manchurian. The intervening Ming dynasty, which maintained its first capital in Nanjing for several decades before moving to Beijing, introduced southern speech elements.
“The dialect varied within the city itself. The historically wealthier neighborhoods north of the Forbidden City spoke with an accent considered more refined than that found in the poorer neighborhoods to the south, home to craftsmen and performers.
Beijing Dialect in Danger of Disappearing
Emily Feng wrote in Sinosphere: “The Beijing dialect is disappearing, a victim of language standardization in schools and offices, urban redevelopment, and migration. In 2013, officials and academics in the Chinese capital began a project to record the dialect’s remaining speakers before it fades away completely. ““You almost never hear the old Beijing dialect on the city streets nowadays,” said Gao Guosen, 68, who has been identified by the city government as a “pure” speaker. “I don’t even speak it anymore with my family members or childhood friends.” A 2010 study by Beijing Union University found that 49 percent of local Beijing residents born after 1980 would rather speak Mandarin than the Beijing dialect, while 85 percent of migrants to Beijing preferred that their children learn Mandarin. [Source: Emily Feng, Sinosphere, New York Times, November 24, 2016]
“The remaking of the city has also played a role in diluting the language. Into the mid-20th century, much of Beijing’s population lived clustered in the hutongs, or alleyways, that crisscrossed the neighborhoods surrounding the Forbidden City. Today, only a small fraction of an estimated 3,700 hutongs remain, their residents often scattered to apartment complexes on the city’s outskirts. The city has also become a magnet for migrants from other parts of China. According to China’s last national census, an average of about 450,000 people moved to Beijing each year between 2000 and 2010, making about one-third of Beijing’s residents nonlocals.
The potential loss of the Beijing dialect is especially alarming because of the cultural heft it carries. “As China’s ancient and modern capital, Beijing and thus its linguistic culture as well are representative of our entire nation’s civilization,” said Zhang Shifang, a professor at the Beijing Language and Culture University who oversaw the effort to record native speakers. “For Beijing people themselves, the Beijing dialect is an important symbol of identity.” The Beijing city government has explored the idea of developing teaching materials in the Beijing dialect. However, these proposals have been criticized by those who fear such lessons would diminish the effectiveness of Mandarin-language education.
Annoying Fake Accents in China
As is true most everywhere different langauges and dialects are spoken with different accents. In television dramas actors often face the dilemma of how to deal with local accents that are different from their own, with those attempting foreign regional accents often yielding results th can be difficult to stomach. Film and TV critic Meng Jing wrote in the Xinmin Weekly: “Leaders are prohibited from speaking in local dialects in our dramas about them, and this is a wise decision. Listening to a forced accent from the mouth of someone who physically resembles a leader but has an entirely different birthplace and voice — and these special actors are not particularly gifted at impersonation “is a painful thing. Even capable actors like those named above shouldn’t force it if they aren’t good at it. When dialect is done well, it can add a lot of flavor to a show, but if it’s done poorly, you’re simply misleading yourself and everyone else. The pace of film and television production is so fast these days that actors have no time to experience life. Dub it, or don’t talk at all, so as to avoid an embarrassing situation.” [Source: Meng Jing, Xinmin Weekly, Danwei.org, July 8, 2010]
Meng said that faked accents from Henan are among the most unbearable to listen to. “Not long ago, I watched the film One Foot Off the Ground , in which Xu Fan played an actress in a Henan Opera troupe. If you were a local, her accent was enough to make your skin crawl, and to tell you the truth, even a virtuoso like Song Dandan had sub-par Henanese. Northern dialects have always been much easier to mimic than southern ones....The TV version of Cell Phone is now airing, and agonizing, fake Henanese has returned. Wang Zhiwen may have realized that certain things can’t be forced, so he doesn’t speak a word of it, but even so, without everyone is using the accent, when some people speak it and others don’t, then northern and southern accents are all jumbled up in a mess. Wang Zhiwen’s grandmother speaks with the flavor of northeastern noodles. His aunt Lu Guihua sounds like she grew up in an army compound in Beijing. “Black Brick” as played by Fan Ming primarily speaks in Shandong dialect but once in a while imitates Henanese markers like zhong and za. Where Lu Zhixin comes from, not even people from Henan can guess. Lu Guihua’s daughter is even scarier with her lisping, which seems to be forcing the audience to concede: “I’m speaking Henanese! Aren’t I” Aren’t I?”
It’s not that there’s no one at all. In the crowd of extras that flash by, I could even hear people from Xuchang or Zhengzhou. Dialect is a subtle thing. An outsider, regardless of how long you’ve stayed in a place, won’t find the imitators so jarring, but a native, even one like me who doesn’t really use the local language anymore, has incredibly sensitive ears due to the environment in which you grew up, so that not-right feeling is like a splinter that’s constantly nagging at you.
I’ve heard it said that if a Chinese child is sent overseas before high school, he’ll be able to speak a foreign language like a local, like an ABC [American-born Chinese]. For an adult, unless you have an exceptional gift, you won’t be able to reproduce a local accent even if you live out of the country for decades. Women are innately better at languages than men, so you see rural women speaking quite standard Mandarin once they’ve left the countryside for a while, but the same is incredibly difficult for men. I once read a report that said that when the actor Wang Luoyong appears in Broadway musicals, the audience isn’t really able to detect an accent. If that’s the truth, then it is exceedingly uncommon.
For instance, Dashan [a popular Canadian actor] is much more skilled at Chinese than many Chinese people, but you can still tell that he’s not Chinese. And it’s absolutely not because he has the accent of a particular province; it’s just that there’s something about his pronunciation that doesn’t seem right. Zhang Guoli speaks excellent Sichuanese, but I’ve heard people from Sichuan say that he’s still incorrect in some places.
Image Sources: Maps, Dartmouth College; Language charts, Wikipedia
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2021